‘‘Classic Ballroom Dances’’ consists of four four-line unrhymed stanzas. The poem has no strict metrical form. It consists of a single incomplete sentence, using semicolons to link together a series of images that, together, form a gloss (an interlinear explanation, or a description inside the poem’s lines) on the poem’s title. The title itself is important, for it announces the subject matter of the poem and suggests that the people referred to in the body of the poem are engaged in daily activities that can be compared to dancing. The dances, though, are of a specific type: They are ballroom dances that are said to be classic. Ballroom dancing, as opposed to more free-form rock and roll dancing, implies the notion of fixed, predictable steps, suggesting that the people in the poem take part in activities that are likewise fixed and predictable. Further, the dances are classic, suggesting that they have been performed over a long period of time and, as classics, they will likely continue to be performed in the future.
The poem itself begins with a glancing reference to age. The opening reference is to grandmothers who engage in a startling activity: They are said to be wringing chickens’ necks. The reader pictures an elderly woman, perhaps one living on a farm, who goes out to the chicken coop to kill a chicken that will be cooked for dinner. One imagines the grandmother chasing the chicken around to catch it, as though the two were engaged in a dance. The next image, still in the first stanza, is again to elderly women, in this case, nuns, who are said to pulling the ears of schoolboys. The reader is invited to imagine a parochial school conducted by aging nuns who routinely use physical punishment as a way of disciplining unruly students, especially boys. Again, the nun and the schoolboy can be thought of as taking part in a kind of dance as the nun jerks him about in order to get him to do something.
In the first stanza, the emphasis in on the person, who is then said to be doing something. In the second stanza, the grammatical structure shifts from the person to the activity itself. The first activity, the intricate steps of a pickpocket, explicitly suggests dancing; people who dance are said to execute the steps of the dance. Again, this ‘‘dancer,’’ like the two dancers in the first stanza, has a partner, in this case the crowd of curious onlookers who are so busy gawking at an accident that the pickpocket can easily move about and steal their belongings without their noticing.
The second image of the second stanza again throws the focus onto the activity rather than the person. In this case the activity is the shuffle of an evangelist, the word shuffle suggesting the kind of dance a couple does to slow music. The person’s shuffle is said to be slow, echoing the images of aging from the first stanza. The evangelist is wearing a sandwich board, a ‘‘classic’’ form of advertising regularly used in former generations. The reader is invited to imagine such a person and the message on his sandwich board. Stereotypically, such evangelists would use their sandwich boards to urge people to repent their sins or to otherwise turn to God; alternatively, evangelical preachers would often travel from town to town conducting tent revivals on the town’s outskirts, so the reader might imagine the sandwich board advertising such an event. In either case, the reference to the evangelist provides a linkage with the first stanza and its reference to nuns.
The third stanza continues the pattern of stanza 2 by placing emphasis on the activity rather than the person. The first image of the stanza is that of the hesitation of a customer looking through the window grille of a pawnshop. The word peeking suggests a furtive action, as though the customer does not want anyone to notice him looking into the window; the word reinforces the customer’s hesitation. The reference to pawnshops carries a number of possible implications. Pawnshops are usually associated with poverty, with being down on one’s luck. People pawn goods because they have no other source of money, and people buy goods at a pawnshop generally because they believe they can get them cheaper than they could at other stores. Stolen goods are often pawned for money. Pawnshops carry an implication of seediness, of squalidness. Ultimately, the image of a hesitant customer peeking into a pawnshop window early in the morning conveys a feeling of sadness and loneliness.
The stanza continues with the image of a child walking to school. The child is said to weave, again placing emphasis on the nature of the child’s movement. The child weaves because his or her eyes are closed, perhaps because of reluctance to go to school, perhaps because of fear, or perhaps because the child’s surroundings are ugly. Alternatively, perhaps the child is simply playing a game by trying to determine whether it is possible to get to school with eyes closed.
The final stanza makes the poem’s first explicit reference to dancing. It begins with reference to a pair of old lovers who are dancing, cheeks touching, at a union hall. The age of the lovers provides a link to the aged grandmothers and nuns of the first stanza, and perhaps to the evangelist of stanza 2. The two lovers appear to be engaged in a ‘‘classic ballroom dance.’’ Because they are described as ancient, the reader can envision their dance as a shuffle, like that of the evangelist, or as a weave, like that of the child walking to school.
The image of the union hall suggests any one of a thousand such places across the country: nondescript buildings that are used for labor union meetings but are also rented out for dances and other events. One such event might be a charity raffle. But the raffle is not seen in the poem as a source of joy and accomplishment. Rather, it takes place on Monday nights, in the rain. The reader is invited to imagine a dreary weeknight, perhaps in a small town, where people assemble, hoping to win something in the raffle. The event does not take place on the weekend, when people typically engage in fun social activities; rather, on Monday nights the raffle becomes almost an obligation, particularly because of the rain.
Further, these rainy Monday nights all come in a November that is said to be eternal. The implications of November, particularly in the northern stretches of the United States, are of chill, gloom, and dreariness. November lacks the colorful foliage of autumn, and it lacks the charm of winter and the upcoming holiday season. November for many people is a kind of dead month that falls between Halloween and Thanksgiving. It is a month to be endured, to be gotten through. In this poem, however, November is said to be eternal. It never ends, suggesting that the people in the poem are caught in a routine dance that likewise will never end. Thus, the poem trails off on a sad note, leaving readers with an image of people caught in an endless routine—a dance of activity, none of it exciting, inspiring, or joyous. The poem says nothing about the history of these people, their futures, or their motivations. It simply captures them in a moment in time doing a characteristic activity.
Michael O’Neal, Critical Essay on ‘‘Classic Ballroom Dances,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010