This time last week Husband and I were at a wedding of dear friends in the UK. Though, instead of focussing fully on the exchange of vows or immersing ourselves in chit-chat with other guests, we found ourselves running through some “moves” in our minds. Even as we ate our delicious dinner, repeats and rhythms danced through and dominated our brains. Let me explain: this is an email we received from the groom ahead of the big day:
“CONFIDENTIAL! Seriously. Not a peep to ANYONE. Not even a hint of a surprise please! We want this to be completely unexpected and unanticipated! We would love you to help us in a bit of fun… We’d like you guys to join us in our first dance! We are going to be dancing a slow dance (for the first bit) and then it will turn into… JAI HO! And we would love you to join us for the Jai Ho for a bit of a laugh.”
Now. Jai Ho is a mystery to me until I click on the video link he’d sent, to then see a slim dance instructor snaking her way through the choreographed dance sequence that appears at the end of the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire. Yes, that one. Dudes, this dance is no side-step and click situation. Oh no. It’s fast, furious and required much of our flight over to flog the snake-hipped sequences into our less-than-limber minds and bodies.
In the end, it was a blast and sent the evening into overdrive. In fact all our jigging and jerking has reminded me of this energetic Dancing Couple (1663) by Jan Steen. Hailing from Leiden (where I too was born), Steen (1625/26 – 1679) is one of Holland’s most popular painters (along with Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer). So much so in fact that his name “Steen” has become part of Dutch proverbial language: “a Jan Steen household” refers to a rowdy, chaotic home. He was an inventive, versatile and prolific artist (in all, about 800 paintings are attributed to him) and painted a wide range of subjects, including portraits and historical and mythological works. He’s best known though for the kind of comic scene of contemporary life we are looking at today.
Here we have a couple celebrating a festive occasion, which might be a village kermis (fair) judging by the tents we can see in the background. As they both boogie, musicians play, people eat, drink and smoke. Grown-ups flirt and children are seen playing with toys. Not surprisingly perhaps, Steen himself wanted to be part of all the fun and paints himself into the picture (he’s the man sat at the table to the left, stroking the chin of the woman at the end).
Yet. Despite all the light-heartedness and let-looseness of this scene, there’s a tense undertow to it all. This sort of Steen scene is famed for containing a moral message, brought up in a series of emblematic references. So here, the cut flowers and broken eggshells on the floor, as well as the young boy blowing bubbles on the right have symbolic meanings of waste and transience attached to them. Pleasures on this earth are short-lived Steen seems to say, and he adds the church tower, perhaps as a suggested route to more rooted contentment. Life lessons aside, it’s impossible not to warm to the artist’s ebullient cast of a-tinge-crazed characters. And anyway, everyone knows a bit of dancing never hurt anyone.