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Danse Russe

Do you dance differently when you're alone versus when you're around other people? While some people dance to look cool or fit in, many dance as a freeing form of self-expression. In the poem "Danse Russe" (1916) by William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), the poet imagines what would happen if he danced wildly and nakedly in front of a mirror while his family was sleeping. Williams explores pertinent themes of loneliness, freedom, joy, and self-expression, all within the confines of 19 brief poetic lines.

"Danse Russe": Poem Overview

Before delving into the analysis, take a look at the overview details of the poem:

"Danse Russe" Poem Overview
Poet: William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)
Year Published:1916
Type of Poem:Free verse poem
Literary Devices:Allusion, irony, imagery, enjambment, rhyme, word choice/connotation, contrast, rhetorical question, euphemism
Themes:Loneliness, freedom, joy, and self-expression
Meaning:The poem conveys the meaning that joy is found in random expressions of uninhibited liveliness and in unlikely circumstancesincluding being alone and pondering hypothetical situations. William Carlos Williams suggests that self-expression and the freedom of the human imagination are extremely powerful and important.

"Danse Russe": Context and Poem Meaning

"Danse Russe" is a short poem by the Imagist poet William Carlos Williams.

Imagism is an early 20th-century literary movement focused on sharp, precise imagery rather than the frequently sentimental, flowing, discursive nature of Romantic and Victorian poetry. Significant poets and writers of the Imagist Movement include Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle, Amy Lowell, Ford Madox Ford, and William Carlos Williams.

Williams wrote the poem after watching a series of performances by a touring ballet company called the Ballet Russe in New York. The title "Danse Russe" is French for "Russian Dance," which is one of the character dances in the famous ballet The Nutcracker (1892) by the Russian classical composer Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).

Danse Russe, Solider Ballet Girl Nutcracker, StudySmarterFig. 1 - "Danse Russe" is a dance from The Nutcracker, a festive ballet performed at Christmastime.

In the poem "Danse Russe," the poet imagines himself dancing freely in front of the mirror while his family is asleep. The poem conveys the meaning that joy is found in random expressions of uninhibited liveliness and in unlikely circumstancesincluding being alone and pondering hypothetical situations. William Carlos Williams suggests that self-expression and the freedom of the human imagination are extremely powerful and important.

"Danse Russe": Full Poem

Below is the full poem "Danse Russe" by William Carlos Williams. Keep in mind, the speaker in the poem is the poet:

Note: "Kathleen" is the family's nanny (2).

If I when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists (5)
above shining trees,—
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head (10)
and singing softly to myself:
"I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!"
If I admire my arms, my face, (15)
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,—
Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?"

"Danse Russe": Summary

The entire poem is posed as a hypothetical situation beginning with the word "If" (1). The poet describes a typical morning when his wife, baby, and the nanny are all asleep. He describes the early misty morning as the bright sun rising over the trees.

The poet ponders what would happen if he were to go to his "north room" and dance "grotesquely" and nakedly, swinging his shirt above his head while they were asleep (7, 8). He imagines himself singing about the freedoms of loneliness while admiring his body "against the yellow drawn shades" (17).

The poem ends with the speaker asking, "Who shall say I am not / the happy genius of my household?" if he were to carry out this fantasy (18-19).

Danse Russe, Question Mark, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The poem presents a hypothetical situation and ends with a rhetorical question.

"Danse Russe": Analysis of Form

"Danse Russe" is a short, 19-line free verse poem broken into two stanzas.

Free verse is a form of poetry that does not adhere to any specific rhyme scheme or meter.

The poet uses free verse to mimic the speaker's desires, ideas, and imagined feelings of freedom while dancing around naked, unencumbered by judgment and self-consciousness while everyone in the house is asleep. The first stanza makes up the majority of the poem, linking several hypotheticals that mimic the flowing, worrisome, yet creative nature of human thought. The poem's second stanza is a mere two lines, drawing attention to and creating a sense of resolution through a rhetorical question.

"Danse Russe": Literary Devices

Although it is a short poem, "Danse Russe" uses numerous literary devices, including allusion, irony, imagery, enjambment, rhyme, word choice/connotation, contrast, rhetorical question, and euphemism.

Allusion and Irony

The poem's title is an allusion to "Danse Russe"—a dance number and song from the famous Christmas ballet, The Nutcracker.

An allusion is an unexplained reference to something from an outside context.

The Russian composer Tschaikovsky wrote the score for the ballet, and "Dance Russe" is a highly iconic, upbeat composition. The choreography features a jovial, playful dance with many quick spins, leg flinging, and split jumps. The poet alludes to this dance in the poem's title to suggest the joyful, silly, and uninhibited manner in which the speaker imagines dancing in front of the mirror. It reflects his desire for pure, unselfconscious joy and self-expression.

"Danse Russe" is also known as "Trepak," which is the name for fast-paced traditional Ukranian folk dancing in which men fling their legs up in the air.

This presentation of uninhibited joyfulness also creates a sense of irony in the poem because the poem is entirely presented in a hypothetical scenario told carefully and cautiously.

Irony is a disparity between reality and expectations that creates a humorous or shocking effect.

The speaker is quite aware of the contexts and constraints this dance would need to take place. The speaker is in his own home, yet he only feels free to dance while everyone is asleep and wonders what they would think of him. The question "Who shall say I am not / the happy genius of my household?" is ironic, as people would likely think he was crazy.

Imagery, Enjambment, and Rhyme

The poem uses natural imagery, enjambment, and rhyme to present the poet's rising hopes and excitement through striking visuals and flowing sounds.

Imagery is the use of descriptive language that appeals to the senses.

Enjambment is when one line of poetry flows into the next without pause or punctuation.

The following example presents the natural imagery that sets the scene of the nature that lies outside the speaker's house. Lines that feature enjambment are marked with an asterisk* and the end rhymes are bolded:

"and the sun is a flame-white disc *

in silken mists *

above shining trees,—" (4-6)

These three lines are the only natural imagery in the poem and present a striking, salient picture. The white, flaming sun represents the speaker's passion and enthusiasm as he awakes. The "silken mists" suggest that he wakes from a soft haze—a fiery ambition arises from the morning mental fog (4). The sun rising above trees creates a heavenly, victorious image that embodies the poet's welling joy and enthusiasm for the day.

Danse Russe, White Sun Rising, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The poet depicts a blazing, powerful white sun rising.

The speaker's enthusiasm is also conveyed by the poet's enjambment and rhyme in these lines, which appear to speed up the reading. It is as if the speaker gets carried away by the striking beauty of nature, which resonates with the feelings he holds inside. The reader can feel this awe and excitement through the flow of the language, which is quite distinctive from the rest of the poem.

The dash after the word "trees,—" also implies a drifting off or the speaker getting carried away by the beauty of the landscape (6).

Word Choice/Connotation and Contrast

The poet describes himself dancing naked using the adverb "grotesquely" (8). This word choice has a surprisingly severe and negative connotation that gives the reader insight into the speaker's self-critical nature and fear of judgment from others.

A connotation is the feeling or idea a word evokes in addition to its literal meaning.

While the word "grotesquely" may be used in a humorous way that suggests an outlandish way of dancing that others would disapprove of, the word choice also indicates that the speaker is trying to find freedom in coming to terms with his own body and image. He wants to dance naked, admiring his body even if others do not approve of the dance and the appearance, finding it ugly or even repulsive.

The rapid movement and reveling in this dance as the speaker sings, "I am lonely, lonely. / I was born to be lonely, / I am best so!" (12-14) creates a contrast from the stillness and quietness of the sleeping household depicted at the beginning of the poem.

Contrast is the emphasis on differences or opposites.

The poet creates a contrast between stillness and movement, silence and singing, to suggest the speaker's feelings of constriction vs. freedom. While the outset of the poem depicts an ideal suburban dream of a comfortable house with a wife, baby, and a nanny, the poet suggests he cannot fully be himself in this context. He prefers to be alone where he can express himself joyously without judgment or conformity to social expectations.

Danse Russe, Woman Sleeping, StudySmarterFig. 4 - The speaker's wife, child, and nanny are sleeping and the house is quiet as he dances wildly and sings to himself.

Rhetorical Question and Euphemism

As discussed before, the poem ends with the ironic rhetorical question: "Who shall say I am not / the happy genius of my household?" (18-19). Williams uses the term "happy genius" as a euphemism, as people would likely say he was mad or crazy after seeing him dance naked, singing about his loneliness.

A rhetorical question is asked for dramatic effect rather than an actual answer.

A euphemism is a milder expression or phrase used in place of words that would seem offensive or harsh.

Another layer to this ending rhetorical question is that if the speaker is all alone, there is no one there to tell him otherwise. It is only himself there, and he classifies himself as a "happy genius" because he comes up with the idea of dancing freely and joyfully (19). While the phrase "happy genius" initially comes across as something positive, the poet uses these words instead of the harsh words he knows people would say upon seeing him. He prefers to stay in his bubble of appreciating his own joy rather than letting what others think of him encumber his wild, childish nature.

"Danse Russe": Themes

The poem focuses on loneliness, freedom, joy, and self-expression.

Loneliness and Freedom

William Carlos Williams presents a sense of loneliness the speaker feels even amidst his family, as he feels he can only truly express himself while they are asleep. When the speaker cries, "I am lonely, lonely. / I was born to be lonely, / I am best so!," he does so strangely with a sense of triumph and joyousness (12-14). While loneliness is typically seen as bad, the speaker embraces it—likely because he feels freer alone and accepts that he will never be fully understood by others.

Danse Russe, Silhouette Man Sun, StudySmarterFig. 5 - The speaker of the poem finds freedom in solitude.

Williams speaks of loneliness less as the sadness of feeling isolated but rather as the freedom one is granted in being alone. The speaker can dance however he wants, sing whatever he wants, and be completely naked when alone. This nakedness also represents his freedom, as he can admire his body without shame, judgment, and constriction. The ending rhetorical question reinforces the freedom in loneliness, suggesting that no one can call him crazy or say nothing of him if he simply dances alone, where no one sees or knows.

Joy and Self-Expression

William Carlos Williams' poem emphasizes the joy that comes from self-expression. Even in an imagined, hypothetical situation, the idea of being free to act and dance in a wild, uninhibited manner brings the speaker great joy. He dreams of these moments where he can express his rawest self in his nakedness and imperfection, experiencing joy in embracing them. The poet suggests that self-expression and imagination are crucial to happiness. They provide a sense of release in an otherwise constrained and mundane world.

"Danse Russe" - Key takeaways

  • "Danse Russe" (1916) is a poem by the Imagist poet, William Carlos Williams.
  • The title "Danse Russe" translates to "Russian Dance." It is an allusion to a song from The Nutcracker ballet by Tchaikovsky.
  • "Danse Russe" is a 19-line poem written in free verse.
  • "Danse Russe" features numerous literary devices, including allusion, irony, imagery, enjambment, rhyme, word choice/connotation, contrast, rhetorical question, and euphemism.
  • "Danse Russe" explores the themes of loneliness, freedom, joy, and self-expression.

Frequently Asked Questions about Danse Russe

"Danse Russe" is French for "Russian Dance." 

The most salient image in "Danse Russe" is the sun depicted as "a flame-white disc / in sliken mists / above shining trees." This is the only natural imagery found in the poem. 

William Carlos Williams wrote "Danse Russe" in the early 1900s after watching a series of performances by a touring ballet company called the Ballet Russe in New York.

The themes of "Danse Russe" are loneliness, freedom, joy, and self-expression.

A summary of the poem "Danse Russe" is the speaker considers what would happen if he danced in front of a mirror nakedly and widely while his family was sleeping. 

Final Danse Russe Quiz

Question

Who wrote the poem "Danse Russe"?

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Answer

William Carlos Williams

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Question

What does "Danse Russe" mean?

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Answer

Russian Dance

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Question

The title "Danse Russe" is an allusion to a dance from which ballet?

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Answer

The Nutcracker

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Question

True or False: The entire poem is presented as a hypothetical situation of "ifs."

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Answer

True

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Question

The poem is written in free verse. What is free verse?

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Answer

A form of poetry that does not adhere to any particular rhyme scheme or meter.

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Question

What imagery does the poet focus on?

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Answer

The sun rising over the trees

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Question

Who is "Kathleen" in the poem?

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Answer

The nanny

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Question

True or False: The poem ends with a rhetorical question.

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Answer

True

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Question

Name at least two themes explored in the poem.

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Answer

Loneliness, freedom, joy, self-expression

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Question

True or False: The poet dances in front of the mirror with his wife.

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Answer

False

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Question

True or False: The speaker is deeply saddened by his loneliness.

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Answer

False

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