The Symbolism of Ballroom Dancing

May 4, 2019 by Essay Writer

In the play “Master Harold… And the Boys,” ballroom dancing extends far beyond jazz music, swishing skirts and sashaying couples. It takes on a universality of meaning as a symbol of a “world without collisions,” an inherent desire, a dream, an inspiration, which – even if it is not fully understood – must surely be shared by all men. In the historical context of the play, a “world without collisions” implicitly refers to a South Africa without any traces of friction between the different races. It raises questions as to whether or not this is a mere fantasy. Hally’s relationship with Sam and Willie reflects humanity’s potential to dispel racial boundaries, and this encourages the audience. Simultaneously, however, the play casts a shadow on our hopes as a rift is created between them, and we are left to wonder if it can be healed. True to this ambiguity, Hally “oscillate[s] between hope and despair for this world.” Hally’s cause for despair is his unsatisfactory father who is a self-centred, drunken cripple of a man. Although he is not directly present in any scene, his presence permeates through the play in the form of Hally’s bitterness and hostility. Hally’s initial skepticism of the kite, for instance, gives the reader considerable insight into his past: ‘…I thought, “Like everything else in my life, here comes another fiasco.”‘ This comment demonstrates the way in which Hally’s self-esteem has been damaged over the years through his father’s trials and tribulations which he has shouldered as his own from a tender age. Despite Hally’s disappointments, there is clearly hope in his life; this lies in his relationship with Sam, a relationship which, unknowing to him, has sustained and nurtured him from a tender age, alleviating a great deal of the pain caused by his father. His hope seems especially to bubble to the surface during his “man of magnitude” discussion with Sam. There is an abundance of evidence in this dialogue that Hally too has ambitions for the world, for he assures Sam, “But things will change, you wait and see. One day somebody is going to get up and give history a kick up the backside and get it going again.” Yet such moments of optimism are fleeting – they are always intruded upon, interrupted by Hally’s mother’s phone calls, which serve as a reminder of the adversity in his life with his father.In the opening of the play, as Hally comes in from school to find Willie and Sam practicing their quickstep, he applauds and declares “Bravo! No question about it. First place goes to Mr Sam Semela.” This displays his friendly interest in the lives of the boys and his mild, indulgent approval of their ballroom dancing. In addition, the sense of indulgence creates an impression that he greatly enjoys playing up to the role of the indulgent white master. It is after Hally’s first phone conversation with his mother that the audience can discern that his mood and views are subtly changing. However, he recovers enough from his disappointment to eventually, if grudgingly, take a deeper interest in the whole notion of ballroom dancing. Hally, with his intellectual airs and graces, his intriguing combination of precociousness and naiveté, initially dismisses the activity as being “simple – like in simple-minded, meaning mentally retarded. You can’t exactly say it challenges the intellect.” Nevertheless, Sam is “adamant” in his considerable wisdom that ballroom dancing has its merits because it is “beautiful” and “make[s] people happy.” Hally concedes, partly due to Sam’s persistence, and partly due to the fact that he wants to “teach the old bugger [his English teacher] a lesson”. He upgrades the dancing competition from a “simple” entertainment to a “cultural event,” even if he does ponder whether he is “stretching poetic license a little too far.” Clearly, his curiosity has been sparked, yet perhaps there are other factors which contribute to his appreciation. Hally decides to write about the dance competition for his school essay on an event of cultural or historical significance. This is provocative to his white English teacher who “doesn’t like natives.” Presumably, Old Doc Bromely would view it as highly improper to consider any event of the black community worthwhile. Hally attempts to elevate the importance of the contest so that his teacher cannot refute the fact that, technically speaking, “in strict anthropological terms the culture of a primitive black society includes its dancing and singing.” Yet the use of the word “primitive” is less than flattering, and Hally’s thesis that “war-dance has been replaced by the waltz” carries connotations that the backward tradition of “war-dance” has been replaced by a more civilized, if intellectually dry, activity. For a coloured South African audience, Hally’s statements, although well-meaning, seem too academic, aloof, and of course, uncomplimentary. Just as Hally “oscillate[s] between hope and despair for this world,” the audience continually alternates between encouragement from his honest, liberal views and disappointment in his air of white superiority, which is ingrained in him and perhaps only half-realised. Even as Hally writes the report, we see that he has a tendency to grasp any possible negative side of a situation quite quickly, for he immediately asks about the “penalties” for “doing something wrong” while Sam informs him of points scored for positives such as style and rhythm. Hally’s question amuses Sam, but his reply is strikingly profound: “…that dance floor is like…like being in a dream about a world in which accidents don’t happen.” This is a key point in the play; Hally is now truly moved by the idea of ballroom dancing, for he exclaims in a tone which seems devoid of anything but pure admiration, “Jesus, Sam! That’s beautiful!”Previously, when the dubious Hally disagreed with Sam’s opinion that dancing was an art, he provided a definition of art as “the giving of meaning to matter,” or “the giving of form to the formless,” he defined it as something which “goes beyond that [beauty].” After Sam’s impassioned speech we realize that ballroom dancing is in reality an art. Those formless dreams of mankind which we find so difficult to make tangible, so difficult to capture in words finally take shape; they take the form of the enchanting figures on the dance floor. Ballroom dancing is the embodiment of the dream of a “world without with collisions.” It is the very language of this deep-rooted dream, a dream decorated with music and “fancy lights” and “ladies in beautiful evening dresses.” But is this elaborate vision enough to overcome the horrific real-life images of black slavery and jail torture and “strokes with a light cane” which Sam previously describes to Hally? One wonders whether or not Sam’s fanciful ideas are a reflex mechanism to deny the hopelessness of the situation, or genuine inspiration to somehow heal the wounds of apartheid, or, possibly, an indefinite merging of the two motives. Whatever the answer, Sam’s vision of ballroom dancing is definitely more than ornate; it transports us out of the microcosm of St. George’s Park Tea Room and takes us around the world as he explains, “America bumps into Russia, England is bumping into India, rich man bumps into poor man. These are big collisions, Hally. They make for a lot of bruises.” Our awareness of the world suddenly increases exponentially as we realize the turmoil that constantly surrounds us. Returning to the play, set in South Africa, there is also discernible turmoil in the apartheid atmosphere; however, the play portrays this in a subtle manner. Hally and Sam’s enthusiastic talk of Mahatma Gandhi and General Smuts “trying to teach people to get the steps right” reflects South Africa’s need to take the right step to abolish racial segregation. It is notable that Gandhi and General Smuts both possess much stoicism and hence partake in passive resistance, as opposed to radically aggressive plans for immediate social change. This closely echoes Sam’s attitude. It would be highly interesting to hear the individual views of a black audience – would they largely be in support of Sam or General Smuts’ passive resistance, or would they favour a more vigorous approach?Digging even deeper, Sam’s “world without collisions” may have a personal meaning for all of us. His words seep into our spirits as he asks, “Are we never going to get it right?… Learn to dance life like champions instead of always being just a bunch of beginners at it?” For Hally, in particular, caught in “deep and sincere admiration of the man,” Sam provides inspiration and a “little surge of hope.” The adversity in Hally’s life has led him to believe to a certain extent, as he mentions earlier, “It’s a bloody awful world when you come to think of it. People can be real bastards.” He is, on the whole, somewhat doubtful about revolution and fanciful dreams. Sam presents Hally with the encouragement that “it [change] starts with that [dreams]. Without the dream we won’t know what we’re going for.” He believes that dreams must come before change, in order to fuel change. Hally is heartened and we sense his growing hope: “You’re right. We mustn’t despair. Maybe there’s hope for mankind after all.” For a South African audience, this may be taken as inspiration to persevere in the challenge of destroying apartheid. For his part, Hally brightens up enough to go so far as to support the boys in their pursuit of dancing and dreams as he adds, “Keep it up, Willie.” Unfortunately, this promising moment is another short-lived one for Hally as he receives the second phone call from his mother. His disappointment explains his oscillations “between hope and despair.” “Just when you’re enjoying yourself, someone or something will come along and wreck everything,” he says. His optimism transforms into complete negativity as he crudely reduces the vision of a “world with collisions” to “just so much bullshit.” He then proceeds to create his own bitter interpretation of ballroom dancing where “the cripples are also out there tripping up everybody and trying to get into the act,” and the competition is renamed as the “All-Comers-How-to-Make-a-Fuckup-of-Life Championships.” Finally, the prize at the end of the competition is a “beautiful big chamber-pot with roses on the side, and it’s going to be full to the brim with piss.” As well as symbolically serving to introduce doubts for a “world without collisions,” the reference to cripples and chamber-pots is an obvious slander to Hally’s father. Alongside passing on chamber-pots filled with bodily wastes to his son, as Hally is more often than not put to the task of cleaning up the mess, Hally’s father passes on his mental contamination — his racism, such as his crude “nigger’s arse” joke. The harshness of Hally’s words powerfully jolt the audience into wondering if Sam’s dream is merely wishful thinking. Will the mentally “cripple[d]” apartheid supporters invade our idealistic dance floor and ultimately prove our efforts to be futile? Is there really a light at the end of the tunnel or does it all lead to nothing but a chamber-pot “full of piss” for black South Africans? The audience is presented with a real mental conflict here. Furthermore, Sam, a coloured man, has taken the liberal white view – it is one of European romanticism – while Hally, a young white boy, has conversely adopted the cynical outlook which one would expect from an oppressed black slave with a depressing past history.For Sam and Willie, ballroom dancing is a symbol of their brotherhood as well as a kind of Utopia – particularly for the coloured race. Conventionally, ballroom dancing is a white man’s pastime and therefore shows that black culture in South Africa is in some ways very dominated by that of the whites. However, this need not necessarily be interpreted as unfavourable; perhaps there is an indication here that in time both races can come to not only tolerate – as in the manner of Hally – but actually appreciate the other’s presence and traditions. After a bewildered Hally departs, Willie gestures for Sam to dance and says “Let’s dream.” He is offering comfort and friendship to Sam, and another chance to try for a world without collisions. For black men such as themselves, a “world without collisions” is also important as it refers to a world in which they do not face any hostility from white men. Specific to the play, Hally in essence disapproves of apartheid arrangements, and we see this in his admiration of men such as Winston Churchill. Regrettably, he is unable to fully break free from the typical white colonial attitudes of the time. He stumbles and gives in, pouring out all the bitterness that has accumulated in him onto Sam. He succeeds only in marring his relationship with the older man, thereby hurting himself in effect. Hally has disappointed the audience’s expectations. The former white would-be revolutionary has sunk to becoming a confused, empty shell of a creature, damaging his relationship with his black allies, and indeed, his only allies. We now wonder if Hally’s cynicism has ultimately proved more appropriate than Sam’s vision. However, all is not lost. Willie’s metamorphosis at the end of the play comes both as a pleasant surprise and a renewal of hope. We are initially introduced to him as he is struggling to perfect his quickstep, and Sam’s criticisms are that he is “too stiff,” and that he needs to realise that the “ballroom must look happy…not like hard work.” This is parallel to the philosophy that the peace and harmony of a “world without collisions” should come naturally without being forced, just as Hally’s friendship with the boys comes naturally – regardless of the final outcome. Another point for Sam’s criticism is Willie’s physical abuse of Hilda, which is perhaps the result of an internalised aggression of apartheid. It is a possibility that the members of the poverty-stricken, exploited black classes of society subconsciously release their miseries by taking them out on each other, rather than on the white population. Whatever the cause of his violent behaviour, Willie is resolute in his intentions as he tells Sam, “tonight I find Hilda and say sorry. And I promise I won’t beat her anymore.” This potential for reconciliation between Willie and Hilda echoes the potential for reconciliation between the black and white races of South Africa. In addition, Willie has absorbed Sam’s wisdom of allowing the romance of ballroom dancing to shine through, as demonstrated by his simple, touching words: “Let’s dream.” The impulsive gesture of sacrificing his bus money for a jukebox tune shows his genuine willingness to keep the dream alive. Willie’s initial appearance in the play was as a clumsily aggressive, inarticulate man but by the end he becomes much gentler, and gains greater eloquence. On a similar note, Hally also undergoes a transformation – although his change is unfavourable in its nature – from a bright, if naïve, young boy to a wretched disappointment. Thus, there has been a major turnaround with both characters.”Master Harold… And the Boys” opens and closes on oscillations “between hope and despair.” Hally’s fall is a reason for despair, considering his earlier glimpses of potential and his (momentary) enthusiasm for a “world without collisions”. Yet although Sam’s vision of ballroom dancing has been wasted on its intended subject, Willie on the other hand has benefited greatly from it. Finally, we are left with a poignant image of Willie and Sam swaying together in unity, and in the pursuit of their dreams, as the “machine comes to life in the grey twilight, blushing its way through a spectrum of soft, romantic colours.” As Sarah Vaughan’s voice sings “Better go to sleep now/Little man you’ve had a busy day,” one is put in mind of a lullaby, for the lyrics sympathise and soothe. “Little man” is a likely reference to Sam, who has indeed had a long day, emerging with both victory and defeat. The music – the sounds of dancing and the sounds of the dreams of a “world without collisions” – plays and the light from the machine softens the dull grey of the evening into colours of beauty. The picture is one of gentleness and tranquillity as the play closes and we leave the realm of St. George’s Park Tea Room.

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