By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

“When I’m dancing, I am free” – The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

In 1518, there was a dance plague in Strasbourg. Nobody knows why it started, but according to The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, it was mostly women. They must have had something to say.

What do you do when all is lost? When you feel like the world will come to an end sooner rather than later? When you feel like all hope has abandoned you? Usually, we try to escape. Some people turn to alcohol or drugs, others bury their heads in the sand or their faces in books. I recently read Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s novel The Dance Tree, a novel set during a dance mania in the Middle Ages. I kept asking myself why people would dance for days on end. Want to know whether I discovered their hidden motives? Read on!

The Dance Tree is about Lisbet, a pregnant woman who lives in Strasbourg in 1518. Traumatised by her countless miscarriages, she is determined keep this child alive. But she’s quite preoccupied, with it being the hottest summer in history, Theresa, her sister-in-law, returning from doing penance for a crime nobody will discuss, her husband leaving in order to keep their beekeeping business safe, a handsome musician staying in her home, and a horde of women dancing for days on end in the town square in Strasbourg. She needs to choose what’s most important to her.

The Dance Tree reads like a historical novel which addresses contemporary issues: miscarriages, misogyny, homophobia, racism, and abuse of power. In the author’s note, Millwood Grave states that she wanted to offer her characters “a place to be safe and themselves”. I’ve read other novels which look at historical events through a modern lens before, and usually I didn’t really like them. This time, however, due to the author’s extensive research, it all felt quite realistic and natural. In fact, I could spend this entire blog post about this topic. I won’t, though. Because to me, this book isn’t about historical events: it’s about women dancing. And about bees.

According to historical facts, the first person who started dancing was a woman named Frau Troffea. The first chapter of The Dance Tree describes her as a lonely woman whose husband no longer cares whether she lives or dies, and whose children have all died long ago. She is the one who starts dancing, and soon more follow. While history doesn’t name anyone else by name, the chapters dedicated to these dancers are my favourite parts of the book. There’s the woman who turned to prostitution because she couldn’t buy any food. There’s the girl who was beaten by her husband countless times. There’s the woman who can’t cope with her father dying. And then there’s Lisbet’s sister-in-law Theresa, who was sent away to do penance for being a lesbian. Millwood Hargrave gives these anonymous women a name and a story. Even if she made them up, it’s good to be reminded of the fact that the dancers were real persons desperate to get away from their daily struggles, instead of just a nameless horde of madwomen.

Would there have been a mania if it hadn’t been for Frau Troffea? I don’t know. Some reviewers of The Dance Tree wrote that they didn’t like the novel because no reasons for the dancing plague were given. I don’t care. I think those dancing women were like the bees Lisbet is so fond of; they follow their queen blindly, and they communicate by dancing. If you look at it like this, then the dance mania, which frustrates the all-male authorities terribly, could be a way for women to stand up for themselves. What if the dancing is a way of communication? What if their dancing is a subtle way to be free, if only for a moment?

I must be honest here: I only started reading this book because of Florence + The Machine’s new album Dance Fever, which alludes to people dancing to imaginary music, in much the same way as the women in Strasbourg did all these years ago. Her book club recommended this book, and I decided to give it a go, too. Florence herself is famous for dancing barefoot in her glorious gowns, and there’s something about her music that makes me want to surrender to her music, too. Whenever I’m alone, I play her music loudly, and I close my eyes and move my feet, I jump and I run, I spread my arms wide, I swirl and I dive and I don’t care who’s watching. My struggles no longer matter. I’m free. And Florence is the Queen Bee, singing and swirling, inspiring her fans to be dressed in the same way and to let go of themselves. And to dance.

Dancing is a form of escape. Some women danced themselves to death, back in 1518. It made me think about myself and the world we live in. Would I have been dancing too, had I lived five hundred years ago? Could life be so bad that dancing for days would be the only way out? Was Strasbourg really that much worse than our own society? Do we still dance our troubles away? Shouldn’t we all listen to Florence’s lyrics carefully, and feel liberated through dance? Could dancing without words, without violence, bring about world peace?

I don’t think we need a reason to break out in dance. We don’t need to feel worthless or abandoned or lonely, or poverty-stricken or struck by loss, in order to lose ourselves to the music. Just dance, if you feel like it.

Will you join me?

What did you think of The Dance Tree? What do you feel like when you’re dancing? What’s your favourite song to dance to? Please let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book-related posts! 

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