Grandmothers who wring the necks
Of chickens; old nuns
With names like Theresa,
Marianne, Who pull schoolboys by the ear;
The intricate steps of pickpockets
Working the crowd of the curious
At the scene of an accident;
the slow shuffle Of the evangelist with a sandwich board;
The hesitation of the early-morning customer
Peeking through the window grille
Of a pawnshop; the weave of a little kid
Who is walking to school with eyes closed;
And the ancient lovers, cheek to cheek,
On the dance floor of the Union Hall,
Where they also hold charity raffles
On rainy Monday nights of an eternal November.
Unlike many poems, ‘‘Classic Ballroom Dances’’ would make little sense without its title. The title announces the subject matter of the poem, although the poem itself only once uses the word dance. The title evokes a number of responses. The word classic suggests something traditional, perhaps even old-fashioned, but it also carries numerous other implications: timelessness, agelessness, stylishness, and elegance, something that will abide and last. This sense of something traditional and enduring from the past is reinforced by the mention not just of dances but of ballroom dances. The reference is to one of the formal, structured dances that were popular in past generations, such as the fox-trot, the jitterbug, the waltz, the polka, and various Latin and South American dances such as the cha-cha and the tango. These dances always involve a partner, and the two partners, who generally maintain physical contact, have to move in synchronization, using precise steps.
The title’s reference to dances can be interpreted literally, but the word dance can have broader connotations. For instance, a person can dance around a topic, meaning to evade it. The word can suggest the social relations between people, who perform a dance as they interact with one another. The word suggests movement in time and space. It suggests a rhythm and structure not just on the dance floor but in life. It also suggests that people can engage in stereotypical, predictable movements as they pursue their daily activities.
‘‘Classic Ballroom Dances’’ consists of four four-line stanzas. It also comprises a single ‘‘sentence,’’ although the sentence is not grammatically complete. The poem is a series of images, each image anchored by a noun modified by various words and phrases. Linking the lines of the first stanza are references to elderly women. Grandmothers are said to wring chickens’ necks, perhaps a glancing reference to folk dances such as the chicken dance, a popular rhythm-and-blues dance in the 1950s, or perhaps to a folk dance by the same name in German-speaking countries. Elderly nuns, with stereotypical, old-fashioned names, are then said to yank the ears of schoolboys, the type of discipline that nuns in a former age routinely inflicted on unruly boys. The two images suggest a perverse form of dancing: the grandmother is partnered with a chicken as she kills it, presumably to make a meal of it, and the nun is partnered with a schoolboy.
The second stanza contains images that seem more explicitly related to dancing. Pickpockets are said to engage in intricate steps. They move stealthily about a crowd of people who have gathered to gawk at the scene of an accident; the implication is that the attention of the people in the crowd is so riveted on the accident that the pickpocket can easily steal their belongings. The next image employs the word shuffle to describe the movement of a preacher who is wearing a sandwich board. This type of advertising tool was commonly used in the past and is still used on occasion today. It consists of two boards hooked together by straps. A person inserts his or her head up through the straps, between the boards, so that one board hangs in front and one hangs in back. In this way a sandwich is formed. The boards, then, would be painted with a message. In the case of an evangelist, the message would presumably be of religious beliefs (for example, ‘‘Repent’’ or ‘‘The End Is Near’’), or perhaps an advertisement for an upcoming revival meeting, an evangelistic gathering intended to promote enthusiasm for faith in a crowd. The evangelist’s shuffle is said to be slow, providing an implicit link with the elderly women of the first stanza, who likewise could be presumed to move slowly. Further linkage is provided by the religious references—the nun in stanza 1 and the evangelist in stanza 2.
Like the first two stanzas, stanza 3 also contains two images. The first invites the reader to imagine a person walking about in the early morning and pausing to look through the barred windows of a pawnshop. The person is described as hesitant, perhaps suggesting that he or she is embarrassed to look at the goods for sale in a pawnshop, which sometimes carries implications of seediness; by reputation, only poor, disreputable people frequent pawnshops. Or perhaps the person is hesitant because he or she longs to own some of the goods for sale but cannot afford them—or perhaps is thinking about raising some money by selling something at the pawnshop. The stanza’s second image is a child walking to school with his eyes closed. Again, there are linkages. Reference is made to the child’s eyes, just as the customer outside the pawnshop is said to peek inside; further, reference to the child walking to school echoes the earlier reference to the schoolboy whose ear was being pulled by the nun. The child is weaving rather than moving in a straight line, making the nature of the child’s movement consistent with the hesitation of the pawnshop customer.
The fourth stanza makes explicit reference to dancing. Again, as in the previous stanzas, two images are created. The first is of old lovers who dance closely, their cheeks pressed together, on the floor of a union hall. Again there is a reference to advancing age, echoing the images of grandmothers and elderly nuns in stanza 1 and the slow-moving evangelist in stanza 2, and contrasting with the schoolchildren in stanzas 1 and 3. It is unclear—and unimportant—what union hall Simic is referring to. The location is probably generic, referring to any meeting hall used by a local labor union but also used for dances and other events. It is possible that Simic had in mind more specifically a famous nightspot in Brooklyn, New York, call the Union Hall, where bands play and people dance. This type of venue would also be a place where raffles for charity would be held. These raffles are imagined to take place on a rainy weeknight, on Mondays, presumably when people have little else to do after the weekend. They are also imagined to take place during the month of November, but a November that never ends. November, particularly in the northern parts of the United States (Simic wrote the poem while teaching in New Hampshire), is often regarded as the gloomiest, most depressing month of the year. The crisp sunshine and colorful foliage of autumn has ended, trees are barren, the snowfall of winter and the winter holiday season have not started, and the weather is often cloudy, chilly, and rainy
(extracted from) Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010