“The Dance” reveals several of Williams’s preoccupations as a poet, preoccupations that mark him as a modernist. First, he said, a poem demands careful attention to the object itself without consideration of the object’s meaning. “No ideas but in things,” he declares. “The Dance” concentrates on a single moment in time. Yet because it focuses so closely on the details of that moment, the dance acts as a synecdoche for the cultural life that the poem depicts. Beginning as an Imagist, although he later disassociated himself from the movement over its insistence on free verse and called himself an Objectivist, Williams remained true to the Imagist principle of depicting the “thing” or the object itself through vivid images without reference to what the image may symbolize.
Another of Williams’s modernist concerns was to find or invent a new language for poetry that would render a new way of seeing. He found part of the answer to this problem in the colloquial speech patterns of the ordinary American. Ironically, the language of “The Dance,” by being based on the speech of twentieth century working people, captures the spirit of sixteenth century Dutch peasants.
Third, Williams believed that to be universal, an experience must be lived fully within the local. In “The Dance,” peasants celebrate a holiday that is entirely local. The peasants’ life is by necessity confined to the local, but they live in it fully and with great verve; they work hard and they play hard—they dance.
Throughout Williams’s lifelong career as a doctor in his native New Jersey, he was necessarily tied to the chthonic: He dealt in birth and death, delivered babies, and treated people’s sometimes embarrassing ailments. He perceived that the instinctual life, which urban conditions have almost bred and educated out of men and women in the twenty-first century, is a necessity for meaningful existence. That instinctual life is less confined in the conditions of simple people like the ones in Bruegel’s painting than in those of twentieth century urban society. Rural people—peasants—see life as a constantly revolving wheel, manifest in the recurring holy days, and this cycle of life is especially expressed in dance.
Williams was fascinated by the dance in all its forms; in fact, he wrote two different poems entitled “The Dance” (although the second one is not so well known as the earlier poem), and he wrote of dancing in several poems. He liked to dance himself, although he acknowledged that his own efforts lacked finesse; in fact, he chuckled at his own satyr-like style. Williams saw the dance as an ancient, life-renewing ritual. Through dance, he believed, men and women reenact enduring myth. Dance celebrates a moment when linear time crosses vertical time—when the temporal crosses the universal. The spirit celebrated in “The Dance” is innate in humankind, and for twenty-first century men and women, its life and vigor and earthiness, chastened by the form and structure of art, provide a much-needed antidote to the disease which ails them.