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Featured Poem: Spanish Dancer by Rainer Maria Rilke

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 12th July 2010

As I can be described as something of a ‘girly girl’, it’s fair to say that I am partial to a little bit of glitz and glamour every now and then. A couple of weeks back I got a rather large dose of both of those things as I went to see some of the professionals from Strictly Come Dancing perform live. The show was full of sequins, sparkle and, needless to say, spectacular dancing. It’s perhaps not a show you’d expect a 24 year old to be into – I’m happy to report that I wasn’t the youngest in attendance by 10 years at least – but I am a big fan. I think it appeals to the part of me that has always fancied myself as a bit of a twinkle toes (in my rather far-fetched fantasies at least), the even-smaller version of me that used to frequently dance around her bedroom (actually, that still happens rather a lot), who would spend hours upon hours composing and practising routines and only when I was confident that it was just right, would gather up my portable cassette player and family around to show off my finely honed choreography (I seem to recall being rather proud of a simple but well executed dance to Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, although it’s unfortunate that that particular musical 'masterpiece' should feature so prominently in my childhood memory).

Aside from putting the biggest of smiles on my face and equipping me with yet more to fuel my imaginative visions – in my head at least if not quite so in reality, I fit perfectly amongst a troupe of polished ballroom dancers straight from a Hollywood musical or a fast-moving, frantic Fifties style jive – coming away from the show left me with an even deeper appreciation of the art as a whole and especially the professional dancers. I’ve always been fascinated by how intricate, as well as how incredible each individual dance is and how effortless those who dance for a living make it appear, but to witness the performances up close makes it altogether more astounding. Seeing each step, the progression sometimes too fast for it to be completely processed, it’s like listening to another language; one which you can’t comprehend but it’s instinctively known that each syllable of each word is expressing something inherently beautiful. Soon enough you’re hypnotised and yearning to speak those words yourself.

Given this analogy, dancing can be aligned with poetry quite logically. Both condense beauty, energy and often a great deal of emotion into short bursts of brilliance. John Dryden said that “Dancing is the poetry of the foot” and I’m inclined to heartily agree. To keep with the foreign language analogy previously stated (though it can seem like it a lot of the time, I don’t just randomly cobble these posts together), I’ve selected a poem about a flamenco dancer (Spanish) by Rainer Maria Rilke (German) – extremely multi-cultural indeed. Several translations of this poem can be found – personally I find this one to be the most rapid and energetic, much like the dance it is attempting to mirror – and it may be said that a lot of the poetic rhythm of the original in Rilke’s native German is lost via translation. But the heart of the poem is not lost, neither is its fantastic imagery which is something Rilke does particularly well – as with The Panther, the subject of the poem and the surroundings are described in such evocative and fine detail that you feel you are there watching the dancer perform her flamenco, relishing the passion and feeling the intense heat of the sulphur flame as it transforms with each whirl and step into an inferno. It conveys the dance perfectly and makes what already is ‘poetry in motion’ even more so.

Spanish Dancer

As in the hand a sulphur match, first white,
stretches flicking tongues on every side
before it bursts in flame--: so in the circle
of close watchers, hot, bright, and eager
her round dance begins to flicker and fan out.

And all at once it is entirely flame.

With a glance she sets her hair ablaze
and whirls suddenly with daring art
her whole dress into this fiery rapture,
out of which, like startled snakes,
her bare arms stretch, alive and clacking.

And then: as if the fire grew tight to her,
she gathers it all up and casts it off
disdainfully, with imperious demeanour
and looks: It lies there raging on the ground
and keeps on flaming and does not give up--.
But triumphant, self-assured, and with a
sweet greeting smile she lifts her face
and stamps it out with little furious feet.

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

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