Dance is poetry with arms and legs.

(Charles Baudelaire)

On stage or in a barn, in pairs, in line, in a circle, or alone – people dance. The movement of the human body following a certain sequence, a specific rhythm, is a code. The dance communicates values of aesthetics and symbolism to an audience that shares the code system.

Whether on impulse or following weeks of rehearsal, dance is liberating, joyful, sad. It accompanies us over the landmarks of our existence: life and love affirming, dance at weddings and other happy celebrations, but the reminder of our mortal status is also a dance, the Dance Macabre.

Translating the expression of sounds and movement onto a silent, static canvas is a challenge that artists have embraced throughout history.

Line and colour create movement in one of the most famous dance paintings, Matisse’s La danse (1909). Each of the five naked figures in this large (260x392 cm) painting is in a different pose, yet their togetherness is evident in the way they hold hands and abandon themselves to the rhythm within. The bodies are outlined by thick red lines and the background is reduced to plain blue and green. Like in primitive paintings, what matters is the feeling, the motion.

Solo, duo

When the dancer is alone, practising, the artist can concentrate on the proportions of the body, the relationship between arms, legs, and torso, the balance, the motion, the fabric wrapping the limbs, the time it takes to make a full turn. Creating poetry with arms and legs, making it look easy, is both gracious and terrible, as Baudelaire put it. There is grace and there is stamina in the impossible poses of the dancer. The perfection of their dance requires blood and sweat and endurance. At the finale, the dancer herself (usually female in paintings) pirouettes and folds inside her solitude. From Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1880), holding a confident pose and looking up towards her dancing future, the effervescence of Jane Avril in Toulouse Lautrec’ posters, to the kneeling Burmese Dancer (1909) by Sir Gerald Kelly, the life of performance dancer can be a lonely one.

But when a couple dances, they create magic. The synergy of a tango, a pas de deux, a walz is often palpable.

In Renoir’s Dance in the City (1883) the pale pink girl in the virginal ball gown is so lost in the movement and the embrace of her partner, whose face we don’t see, she is prevented from collapsing by the man’s firm hold of her waist. Like in the other two paintings of the same year, Country Dance and Dance at Bougival, the couple is captured in mid-swirl, the girl turning so that we can admire her aristocratic profile and delicate nape. The son of a tailor, Renoir remained interested in fashion, careful in the depiction of textile and the way it wraps around the body. In contrast to the aristocratic profile and dress of the city couple, the dancers in the other painting are engaged with each other and seem to enjoy dancing outdoor on a sunny day.

Even more fun appears to be had by the dancing couples painted by Fernando Botero: his dancers are inflated with the joy of movement and abandon. The man is always wearing a smart dark suit, and Botero chooses to show us the woman’s back, her floating dress and flowing hair following the intention of the dance.

At the party

From early Renaissance (Botticelli’s Primavera) to Corot, nymphs danced in woods and near lakes, the natural environment serving as background, framework and stage to their frolics. There was grace and beauty to be found in the pagan debauchery of the bacchanals, portrayed with impeccable technique and vibrant colours in Nicolas Poussin’s paintings. In his 1634 allegory A Dance to the Music of Time, the four classic beauties, wrapped in bright orange and crisp blue, dance in a circle holding hands, while Old Father Time plays the lyre. Round and round they go, like the four seasons, like the cycle of life.

O Love’s but a dance
Where time plays the fiddle.

(Austin Dobson)

As dance is often a group activity, many paintings with dance as a subject depict synchronised movement, laughter and dynamic social intercourse.

Like the landscape in earlier paintings, a crowd of revellers is the background for a couple dancing, and some look ready to join them. In The Wedding Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1566) most of the 125 wedding guests have already joined the chaotic scene at the front of the picture. They seem to ignore the disapproval of the church and the civil authorities, who considered dance as rude and evil, and revel in the liberating movement. The dancing couple in Jan Steen’s painting of the same title (1663) transferred their enthusiasm to the chatting, clapping, drinking crowd. The arrangement of dancers, watchers, landscape offers the painter challenges of composition and perspective.

Dancing figures give rhythm to a painting, and the artist uses it as a time frame. Edvard Munch’s canvas The Dance of Life (1899) is a stage on which several scenes are played: on the left a young girl in a white dress is waiting for a dance partner; several men are competing for her as a prize, as seen on the background. At the centre in the foreground, she is a mature, sensual woman (wearing a red dress) dancing with her partner, who seems ensnarled by her dress, her gaze (Munch himself?). The right side of the painting shows the woman as old and sad (wearing a black dress).

Paula Rego defies chronology. In her 1988 painting The Dance, a young woman, an older one and a girl are dancing in a circle, holding hands; a couple dance close together; a pregnant woman dances with her partner. A woman stands at the left of the composition, watching over the dancers. She is standing alone, but she is larger and stronger than the other participants in that scene. The moonlight and the fortress on top of a cliff in the distance create a dream-like atmosphere. It may be the dream of the woman standing on the left, she may be all the women on the canvas, dancing together, at different stages of her life.

Know the steps, follow the music: life is a dance.