A Little Legend of the Dance

by Gottfried Keller

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The story opens with a quotation from the Old Testament that associates dance with happiness: “O virgin of Israel, thou shalt . . . go forth in the dances of them that make merry. . . . Then shall the virgin rejoice in the dance.” (Jer. 31:4,13).

The legend itself takes place after the Christianization of Europe. The young girl Musa is a born dancer who dances on all occasions, with others and by herself. One day, as she is dancing alone in the sanctuary, a man wearing a royal purple gown and a gold crown appears and dances with her to music provided by small cherubs. He is David, the messenger of the Virgin.

Because more dancers are wanted in Heaven, David has come to ask Musa to spend eternity in a never-ending, joyous dance. The dancing in Heaven, he assures her, is vastly superior to that on Earth. One condition imposed on the invitation gives Musa pause: She must renounce the dance and all worldly pleasures for the rest of her time on Earth. Only when David begins playing an exceptionally sweet dance does Musa acquiesce, recognizing that her earthly body is too cumbersome for such a melody.

Musa then has her ankles chained and wastes away in a hermit’s cell, living as a penitent and a recluse. Many come for advice and prayers, and a touch from Musa makes awkward girls graceful. After three years, Musa clothes herself as a bride and dies. Although it is an autumn day, her death is accompanied by sweet music, green leaves, and flowers, and the chain binding her ankles snaps with a silvery sound. Throngs of the faithful who have come to watch see her lifted up by a glorious king into Heaven, where she is lost in the ranks of thousands of shining dancers.

As always on high holidays in Heaven, the nine Muses from Hades are invited to help in the ceremonies. Musa and Saint Cecilia sit with the nine Muses; Musa sits next to Terpsichore, the Greek goddess of the dance. Our Lady herself whispers that she will not be content until the Muses are brought to Paradise forever.

In seeking to ingratiate themselves, the Muses inadvertently make themselves unwelcome in Heaven. They have prepared a song of praise, grouping themselves into two quartets, with Urania as the leading voice for both. Their misfortune is that the song they have rehearsed in the Lower World sounds very different when performed in Heaven, where it seems uncouth, almost defiant, and causes all in Heaven to burst into a torrent of tears of homesickness for Earth.

Finally, the Most High silences the Muses with a peal of thunder, and they have not been invited again to enter the sacred portals.

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