Study Guide

The Dance Analysis

  • Sound Check

    Sure, "The Dance" doesn't have any kind of regular rhyme scheme, but that doesn't mean that Williams doesn't make great use of sounds in this poem. Did you happen to catch how many B words there are in this short little poem? We're not just talking about "Brueghel" here, either. Here's a hint: tons. "Blare," "bagpipes," "bugle," "bellies," "balance," "butts"—the list goes on. The effect of all this alliteration is a continuous bouncing feeling that helps you bound through the lines along with the dancers.

    Williams also plays around with rhyme throughout. Mostly, he goes crazy with words that rhyme with "round." Early in the poem he tips us off that this sound might just reoccur by repeating it several times: "the dancers go round, they go round and/ around" (2-3).

    Not long after he reuses "round" again, but this time plays on a different meaning of the word by saying that the "bellies" of the dancers are as "(round as the thick-/ sided glasses whose wash they impound)" (5-6). We're guessing you also noticed that he rhymed "round" with "impound" there as well. Later in the poem, WCW hits us up again by describing the "Fair Grounds" where the kermess is taking place, and saying that the dancers' "shanks must be sound."

    So, yeah, there's no doubt that Williams had a lot of fun coming up with things that either rhymed or near-rhymed with "round." But what do you think might be the point of that? Is it just random poetic thing to do, or is it somehow tied into the meaning of the piece? To us at least, the repetition of this sound adds to the circular, swirling motion of the poem. We talk about how the poet achieves this rhythmically in "Form and Meter," but it seems that he achieves this sonically as well.

    The fact that this rhyme comes back again and again—particular as an internal rhyme and not an end rhyme—gives us a sense of the whirling of the dancers and is aided by the fact that it's all rhyming with the word "round." That this is an internal rhyme adds to the inner-twisting motion of the poem as a whole. It's constantly turning in on itself to echo. We think it's also really effective that the rhymes don't come back into any kind of rigid scheme. Yeah, they create a sense of circular motion, but not all circles are perfect, especially not ones created at raucous festivals like the one seen in "The Kermess."

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title of the poem isn't exactly cryptic. This poem describes a painting that shows a bunch of peasants dancing, so it's called—wait for it—"The Dance." Well, maybe it's not quite that simple. What's interesting to us about the title is that it highlights the sense of motion that the speaker feels from the painting. Though the figures of the canvas are forever frozen, the speaker is responding to the feel of movement expertly captured by the painter, Brueghel. This sense of movement is also embedded in the swirling rhythms and sounds of the poem, itself, making the choice of the title pretty spot-on.

    The title is doubly appropriate when you consider that Williams, in his poem, is in a sense pairing up with the painting. Any writing about the visual arts is known ekphrasis. It's a specialized form in which the writer is trying to capture in language what the artist has done with line and color in a visual way. Williams here is really engaged in a kind of dance with Brueghel, trying to wrest the artist's effects out of the painting, then twirl and render it in a poem.

    (Side note: Brueghel is actually known for having been obsessed with capturing movement in his paintings. We're guessing he'd be pleased that Williams responded to that very thing in his work.)

  • Setting

    The first line of the poem kinda places us in an art museum. When we read, "In Brueghel's great picture, The Kermess," we imagine the speaker standing with his arms crossed, staring intently at the painting in a sterile, reserved environment (1). Very quickly, though, the wild world of the painting, itself, surrounds the speaker. The silent halls of the museum are filled with "the squeal and the blare and the/ tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles" (3-4).

    Suddenly, the other silent patrons of the art museum transform into the round-bellied, butt-swinging peasants of the rowdy festival. Our speaker is swept up entirely, and before you know it, the ordered halls of the museum disappear entirely, and our speaker is "Kicking and rolling/ about the Fair Grounds" with the best of them (8-9).

    Like every dream, though, this one has to come to an end. The last line of the poem reminds us again that our speaker is staring at a painting, so we see the wild world of "The Kermess" dissolve around him, leaving him standing once more in quiet halls of the museum. We have a feeling, though, that this trip to the museum was well worth the price of admission. The way that the setting draws the speaker in, and us along with him, speaks to the power that the painting has over its viewers. It pulls us in, sets us spinning, then spits us out again, happy and exhausted.

  • Speaker

    The speaker of "The Dance" definitely doesn't spend a lot of time talking about himself. He's way too obsessed with this painting by Brueghel to bother telling us who he is, or what he's doing staring at this sixteenth-century Flemish masterpiece. Of course, the fact that he's so obsessed with this picture does tell us a lot about the guy. For one, he's got to be pretty into art—Brueghel in particular—-to bother talking about a painting in the first place. After all, he kicks the poem off by saying, "In Brueghel's great picture, The Kermess" (1). Right from the top, you can tell this guy is enthusiastic about this painting, and he's not afraid to tell us about it.

    We also get the sense that the speaker is a dude who's into the common man. Sure, he might be hanging out at an art museum, but the picture that catches his eye is one of a bunch of peasants having a raucous party. This isn't some elegant portrait of some noble pageant, y'all; it's of some work-a-day folks throwin' down. Throughout the poem, the speaker uses language to capture the idea that event is rough around the edges. We hear about "the squeal and the blare" of the music, and how the dancers are "swinging their butts" and "tipping their [round] bellies" all over the place (3-9). It seems like with this poem, the speaker is celebrating the rough and tumble world of the peasant festival just as much as he's celebrating the refined piece of art that he so admires.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    You might think that a poem written in praise of a sixteenth-century Flemish painting would be a major mountain to climb. That's definitely not the case with "The Dance," however. Williams' simple, approachable language makes it accessible to all.

  • Calling Card

    Imagistic, Specific, To the Point

    William Carlos Williams kicked off his poetic career as part of the Imagist movement, a school of poetry headed up by his buddy Ezra Pound. This movement's main goal was to paint precise images without using a bunch of fancy shmancy words that just get in the way of what a poem is trying to describe. The Imagists wanted to keep it simple, but keep it real. Though "The Dance" was written much later in Williams' career, you can still totally see the influence of this philosophy. Check out the opening lines of the poem:

    In Brueghel's great picture, The Kermess,
    the dancers go round, they go round and

    There's just no pretense here at all. The reader doesn't have to decode any dense poetic constructs; instead, the language is totally straightforward. The speaker is talking about a painting that shows dancers dancing around, and that's exactly what he says.

    Of course, the poem wasn't also loaded with well-crafted, specific images then it probably wouldn't be sitting here talking about it today. When the speaker tells describes the dancers "tipping their bellies" and "their hips and their bellies off balance" we get a real sense of not only what they look like, but of the motion swirling motion of their dance (5-7). And this is all achieved—in typical WCW fashion—without a whole lot of fancy shmancy words or poetic hooplah.

  • Form and Meter

    Amphibrachic, Dactylic, and Drunk

    A lot of the "The Dance" struts its stuff in a meter called amphibrachic trimeter. Seriously, we didn't make this up. Yeah, it kinda sounds like the name of some newly discovered dinosaur, and it makes our spell check go red-squiggle crazy, but it's a real thing. Luckily, though it has a fancy sounding name, this meter actually isn't all that complicated.

    Amphibrachic basically means you've got a poem divided up into three-syllable feet (or beats), with the middle syllable of each foot being stressed and the ones on either side being unstressed. An amphibrach sound like daDUMda. If you want to hear one in real life, say the word "forever" out loud. You should hear forever—daDUMda.

    As for "trimeter," that just means that each line is divided up into three ("tri-" means three) of these amphibrachic feet. Got it? We can sense some puzzled looks out there. Don't worry, here's an example from the poem. Read it out loud, accenting the syllables in bold, and you'll get the picture pretty quickly:

    In Brueghel's great picture, The Kermess,
    the dancers /go round, they /go round and

    So, there you go. Each line is divided neatly into three feet, with each foot having three syllables. Having the middle accent of each foot accented gives the entire poem a bouncy feel that helps to get across the feel of the peasant's dance. In fact, this meter is a bit like a waltz, only with the emphasis on the middle of the three beats instead of the first of the three beats. Here we get daDUMda; in a waltz (like this one) it's DUMdada.

    Of course, these peasants aren't exactly trained dancers, and they've been drinking a ton of beer, so chances are their dance isn't quite as smooth as the rhythm of the opening two lines might imply. So, it makes total sense when Williams changes up the meter in the next two lines. Read them out loud, and you'll see what we mean.

    Around, the squeal and the blare and the (3)

    Hear how, after that first amphibrach, he starts putting the accent on the first syllable of the three instead of the middle one? This meter actually has a name too: dactylic. Despite popular belief, the name of this meter has nothing to do with pterodactyls (okay, nobody believes that). It actually comes from the Greek word for finger, and refers to the fact that each finger has three sections with the closest to the knuckle being the longest. (Just look at your fingers right now, and you'll see what we mean.) So, dactylic meter accents the first syllable, as opposed to the next two in each foot. In line three, this jarring shift in meter makes the words "squeal" and "blare" really pop, highlighting the abrasive sounds these onomatopoeic words are trying to get across.

    Throughout the rest of the poem, Williams dips in and out of variations of these two meters. By weaving these two together and riffing on them as he goes along, WCW manages to capture the off-kilter nature of the dance (and the dancers) in the very rhythm of the poem. These dancers are a little drunk as they whirl around, so the meter is too. Go through and track the accents yourself, and see if you can figure out all the nifty tricks that meter master, WCW, is pulling off. Like the dancers, we bet it will make your head spin.

  • Motion

    You could argue that one of this poem's greatest strengths is the way it captures the motion of the dancers. No joke—when you're reading this poem it really makes you feel like you're watching these peasants really throw down. It might even make you feel like you're dancing with them. But how does the poet achieve this miraculous feat? Basically, he does it by having tons of fun putting just the right imagery in just the right places. Check it out...

    • Lines 2-3: Williams kicks the poem off by telling us that "dancers go round, they go round/ and around," so already we've got a picture in our heads of these swirling dancers. This opening image works great to establish the whirling sense of motion that can be felt in both the rhythm and the rhyme of the entire poem. (Check out "Form and Meter" and "Sound Check" for more on that good stuff.)
    • Lines 5-6: The poet pulls a nifty trick when he describes the dancers as "tipping their bellies (round as the thick-/ sided glasses whose wash they impound)." It seems like the whole point of these two lines is to compare the big, round bellies of the dancers to the big, round glasses they're drinking beer out of. Not only does he use a good old-fashioned simile (with the comparison using "as"), he also sneakily merges the two by saying that dancers are "tipping their bellies." You know, so it's like their tipping their big round stomachs up and down in the same way that they're tipping their glasses of beer into their mouths. Fun all around. 
    • Lines 7-8: Williams hits us up with another great image when he describes "their hips and their bellies off balance/ to turn them." For one, it reminds us that the dancers are turning, bringing back the sense of circular motion from earlier lines. The idea of their lower bodies being a little out of sync as they turn also gives a clear idea of just wobbly this dance is. This line also has the wobbly syntax to match, ending with "them," which refers to the dancers mentioned 6 lines earlier. Hey, after all the beer these folks have tipped into their bellies, it's not much of a surprise that everything is a bit out of control. 
    • Line 9: Just like the backup dancers of innumerable rap videos, the peasants in this painting aren't afraid of "swinging their butts." (Maybe they should call up Kanye.) Zeroing in on this particular part of the body doing its thing gives us a sense of just how into this dance these dancers are. Once the butt starts shaking, you know it's a party. 
    • Line 11: When we hear the word "prance" it kind of makes us think of these Olympic dancing horses, but we're weird so whatever. When we're told that the dancers "prance as they dance" in this poem, it makes us think of how proud these dancers are. It's an interesting contrast to a lot of the other language in the poem, which gives a much more gritty sense of the dancers' movement. Here, we're reminded that these people are proud of their dancing skills. They may not be the richest people in the world, but their lives are still ones of dignity.
    • Steaminess Rating


      Okay, it is a wild party, but we hate to disappoint you. There's no sex in this poem whatsoever. Everyone is invited—BYOB (bring your own bagpipes).

    • Allusions

      Art References:

      • "The Kermess" by Brueghel the Elder