Thursday 11 February 2021

James Joyce, the dancing years

Apart from being the greatest prose writer in world literature, a cinema pioneer, and a bronze medal winning tenor singer, James Joyce was also a dancer.

Dance for Joyce was an accompaniment to drinking.   Helen Joyce, his daughter-in-law, said of him, 'Liquor went to his feet, not to his head.'

Finnegans Wake mentions Joyce's drunken dancing, in this lively description of Shem the Penman reeling home after a bender, a prancing prince of fandangos:

'reeling more to the right than he lurched to the a prance of findingos, with a shillto shallto slipny stripny, in he skittled.' 186.25-187.01

I've collected descriptions of Joyce dancing over two decades, from the first to the second world wars. He surely danced long before this,  but I can only find tantalising clues about these earlier dances e.g.

'Joyce brought his Roman visit to an orgiastic close. One night he got drunk with two mailmen and went with them to dance on the Pincio'. Ellmann, p.241


The first good description comes from Frank Budgen, Joyce's regular drinking partner in Zurich during World War One:

'On festive occasions and with a suitable stimulus, beribboned and wearing a straw picture hat (Autolycus turned pedant and keeping school, Malvolio snapping up unconsidered trifles) Joyce would execute a fantastic dance. It was not a terpsichorean effort of the statuesque Isadora Duncan variety, but a thing of whirling arms, high-kicking legs, grotesque capers and coy grimaces that suggested somehow the ritual antics of a comic religion.
   'You look like David,' I said, 'leaping and dancing before the ark'.....'

Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses, OUP, 1972, p194-5

What could Joyce's 'coy grimaces' have looked like?

'August Suter made six figures in stone for the Amsthauser in Zurich. I stood for one of them, and even in the frozen stone the likeness persists. It always amused Joyce vastly to see this over-lifesize stone effigy resembling me gazing sternly down upon the free burgesses of Switzerland's commercial capital; and whenever a few of us on the way to the Usteristasse passed under that gaze at a late hour, he would execute his comic ritual dance in honour of the stone guest, to whom would be poured out suitable libations.' 

Budgen, ibid

A dance beneath Budgen's statue

August Suter's brother Paul, interviewed by Ellmann, is another source for Joyce's Zurich dancing days:

'When the mood came over him, he might suddenly interrupt a Saturday afternoon walk in the fashionable Bahnhofstrasse by flinging his loose limbs about in a kind of spider dance, the effect accentuated by his tight trouser-legs and wide cloak, diminutive hat, and thin cane....
   (Joyce's) favourite statue in Zurich was one for which Budgen had served as a model.... and often late at night he would say to a group that included Budgen, 'Let's go and see Budgen,' and would conduct them to the statue....Sometimes he would honour this idol with his spider dance.
   An especially gay party took place within an office of the hated consulate. The restaurants having closed, Budgen invited Joyce and Suter to come to the rooms of the commercial department, where they sat round on the carpet....At the party's height Budgen stood on top of the money-safe and performed an Indian belly-dance, while Joyce performed his spider-dance on the carpet below. None of them remembered how or when they got home.'

August Suter wrote a memoir of Joyce, which includes a description of a drinking session at the consulate:

'We made our way to the British consulate and into Budge's office where we drank the wine we had brought with us. Paul Suter was not equal to the strain and was sick on the carpet.. Budgen enlisted all our help to clean the carpet by means of hot water.....Afterwards Budgen carried Joyce, a bit under the influence, home on his back, as he had done before.'

August Suter, 'Some Reminiscences of James Joyce,' Portraits of the Artist in Exile, p.63 

I wonder if this was the same party.


After the Joyces moved to Paris in 1920, Budgen was replaced as Joyce's main drinking and dancing partner by Robert McAlmon.  In her diary, Helen Nutting described them both dancing at Joyce's birthday party at 2 Square Robiac in 1928:

'Antheil was asked to play old English music, and Joyce and McAlmon danced quietly in the back parlor, improvising rhythmic movements, McAlmon on negro themes and Joyce Greek so that Adrienne exclaimed, 'Mais regardez done ce Joyce; il est tout a fait Grecque. C'est le satyre sur un vase Grecque!' ('But look at Joyce; he's totally Greek.  It's a satyr on a Greek vase!') and it was so, skipping, delicate, with a clean line.'

Quoted by Ellmann, James Joyce, p599

As with his writing, Joyce liked to include comic parody in his dances. In dancing like a Greek satyr, Joyce was parodying the style of Raymond Duncan, who was Lucia Joyce's dance teacher. 

'This tendency to invent dance figures he must have passed on to his daughter Lucia, who made the most promising beginnings in the art of dancing.'

Frank Budgen, ibid.

Joyce and Lucia must have talked about dancing a lot, judging by this letter he wrote to her in 1931

'I send you the programme of the Indian dancer Uday Shankar. If he ever performs at Geneva don't miss going there. He leaves the best of the Russians far behind. I have never seen anything like it. He moves on the stage floor like a semi-divine being. Altogether, believe me, there are still some beautiful things in this poor old world.'

Joyce to Lucia, 15 June 1931, Letters I, 341

You can see Uday Shankar (Ravi's older brother)  dancing on YouTube.

Joyce's young friend Arthur Power has more information about Joyce's low opinion of the Russian ballet. They went to see a 1920 performance of Massine's revival of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring:

'The Russian ballet was all the rage, and I remember one of the early performances of 'Sacre du Printemps' during which an uproar broke out in the audience....When I asked Joyce how he liked the ballet he shrugged his shoulders and told me he did not much care for it.  He went once but never again. He thought the merit of the ballet exaggerated, an opinion so strange, and to me incomprehensible, that I doubted if I had heard him correctly.'

Conversations with James Joyce, Lilliput 1999, p119
Joyce is also known to have gone to the avante-garde Swedish Ballet, choreographed by Jean Borlin. In her autobiography, Laughing Torso (1931), Nina Hamnett describes meeting him in the bar during an interval and introducing him to Rudolph Valentino.

'They were the last people in the world who I should think would have met in the ordinary way and they were both speechless.'
They should have communicated through dance. Imagine Joyce and Valentino doing a tango....


Herbert Gorman, Joyce's official biographer, gives us another dance from Paris in the early 1920s:

'With closer friends he let himself go and one of them has a memory of Joyce in a voluminous cloak skimming like a bat out of hell in a fantastic dance over one of the ancient bridges that crossed the Seine while the midnight stars shone down on Paris.'  

James Joyce, 1941, p280-281


In his very funny autobiography Robert McAlmon describes a late 1920s St Patrick's Night party at the Trianon, Joyce's favourite restaurant.

'Joyce sang songs...and I broke loose with my 'Chinese Opera'. Joyce wanted me to sing it, and I did. It is the corncrake and the calliope wail of a Chinese virgin in a snowstorm, not understanding where she got her newborn babe, and the neighbour's son claims it is not his inasmuch as he never saw her before. This is a performance that has had me thrown out of several bars and most respectable households and the police of various stations know it well.
   Later, when we left, Joyce wanted to climb up the lamppost. He fancied himself various kinds of dancers, tap, Russian, and belly. Nora was there however, and protest as Mr Joyce might, she got him into a taxi, and, despite his bitter wailings and protestations, drove him home.'

Being Geniuses Together, Doubleday and Co, 1968, p345-6


Nora's disapproval of her husband's dancing is also recorded by Stuart Gilbert in his diary:

'January 2, 1930
On New Years Eve at 10:00 a party at J.J.'s. Present: Pat and Mary Colum, Mr and Mrs Huddleston....At 2.30, Joyce very gay and dancing a jig to 'Auld Lang Syne'; Mrs Joyce, indignant, compels all to leave. She thinks 'he is making a fool of himself' – but I disagree; he is a nimble dancer. If Joyce had not been a writer he'd have been a meistersinger; if not a singer, a ballerino.'

Reflections on James Joyce: Stuart Gilbert's Paris Journal, University of Texas Press, 1993, pp16-17


Ole Vinding, who met the Joyces in Copenhagen in 1936, has a similar story:

'We sat down for a glass of buttermilk at ''Josty'', and Joyce wanted to tell about the hell he always raised at parties. He said that he had invented his own dance and Mrs. Joyce remarked drily: 'If you can call flinging your legs over your neck and kicking the furniture to pieces 'to dance'!'
  'Well Nora, I do dance! I know the rules of dancing and request that the floor be cleared – that's the least I can do. I once went to a New Year's party with some friends and won first prize for my costume of a beggar, a real clochard. I dressed up in a diplomat's coat that was old and way too short; underneath I wore a blue shirt and, naturally, I wore yellow gloves. In this getup I was introduced to a very solemn young man. He greeted me somewhat ceremoniously but I was in the middle of a dance, so I cut a little caper and answered hastily, 'Enchant√©', whereupon I forgot my new acquaintance, whose name I didn't even catch. That was Armand Petitjean*, my energetic commentator! He was the oldest at the party, age-old. The hostess wasn't particularly happy with my behaviour and the next day called on the old-young man to hear what impression I had made on him. He answered laconically: 'Yes, as usual, Mr Joyce had more interest in the expression than in the impression!'
  He laughed, enjoying the memories of those times when he let himself go.'

'James Joyce in Copenhagen', Portraits of the Artist in Exile, p150-1

*Armand Petitjean wrote a study of Finnegans Wake while he was still a teenager. Joyce described it as 'amazing' but it remains unpublished. His relationship with Joyce featured in an exhibition in Luxembourg in 2022.


In the 1930s, Joyce was often in Zurich, visiting his eye surgeon. His closest friend here was the art critic Dr Carola Giedion-Welcker. She describes a Zurich evening in the Doldertal with Joyce and Professor Bernhard Fehr.
'The discussion turned to light kinds of music, while Professor Fehr began playing dance tunes. After executing an original waltz step – more with himself than with me,  Joyce then took the stage as solo dancer, belaboring the inside of his stiff straw hat with wild jumps and kicks so that in the end, after these rhythmical and astonishingly acrobatic exercises, he was left with only a straw wreath in his hand, which he triumphantly held aloft and then as a finale placed on his head.
  The grotesque flexibility of his long legs, which seemed to fill the room, and the bizarre grace with which he executed all movements of this strange dance, made him appear part juggling clown and part mystical reincarnation of Our Lady's Tumbler, who would like to have continued the performance endlessly, urged on by the constantly changing musical variations of the tireless piano player.'

Carola Giedion-Welcker, 'Meetings with Joyce', Portraits of the Artist in Exile p 273-4



Even when Joyce was not dancing, he could remind others of a dancer in the grace of his movements. Here's Jacques Mercanton describing a visit to Joyce on Good Friday in 1938:

'I found him installed in his bedroom, half-reclining in a chaise longue, Stuart Gilbert seated near him at a table.  They were going over a passage that was 'still not obscure enough,' as Joyce said....His face looked very soft that day, with an almost feminine softness, a bit red under the grey hair. He joked, slid over the bed with the suppleness and agility of a dancer, asked me to serve the tea...'

'The Hours of James Joyce', Portraits of the Artist in Exile, p.214


In the summer of 1938,  Eugene Jolas correctly guessed the title of Finnegans Wake, winning Joyce's offered prize of 1,000 francs. Joyce turned white, but then expressed his emotions with a dance.

'One morning I knew it was Finnegans Wake, although it was only an intuition. That evening I suddenly threw all the words into the air. Joyce blanched. Slowly he set down the wineglass he held. 'Ah, Jolas, you've taken something out of me,' he said, almost sadly. When we parted that night, he embraced me, danced a few of his intricate steps, and asked: 'How would you like to have the money?''
Eugene Jolas, 'My Friend James Joyce',  in Givens (ed) James Joyce: Two Decades of Criticism, Vanguard, 1948.


Joyce had a tradition of dancing on his birthday, 2 February. On 28 January 1939, he wrote to Viscount Carlow:

'I am still very exhausted but I shall try to be better by Thursday though I am afraid the traditional pas seul with high kicking effects associated with that birthday feast will be beyond my power this year of grace.'

(Thanks to Patrick Hawe for sharing this quotation on Twitter)

In fact, he did manage to dance after all. Herbert Gorman, Joyce's official biographer, ends his book with an account of the 1939 party, which also celebrated the arrival of the first copy of Finnegans Wake:

'Presently Joyce himself is singing, his fine tenor clouded, perhaps, by the years, but his artistry and his obvious enjoyment making up for the inevitable inroads of time. He sings the old songs that he loves and is not allowed to rest until he has rendered 'Molly Bloom'. That accomplished to the hilarious satisfaction of all, Joyce must have another glass of wine. He evidences some restlessness and his friends know what is imminent. It is the time for dancing. 
    No one who has not seen Joyce dance can have any idea from a brief description what his terpsichorean talents are like. To enlivening music he breaks into a high fantastic dance all by himself, a dance that is full of quaint antics, high kicks, and astonishing figures. He dances with all his body, head, hands and feet and the evolutions through which he goes, eccentric but never losing the beat of the music, are calculated to arouse suspicion in the beholder that he has no bones at all. Others join in the dances and he weaves wild and original patterns with them. When the music stops he sinks contentedly into a chair. The festival has been a success. 
    It is after midnight when the moment for parting (delayed as long as possible) comes. Joyce stands by his door bidding good night to his guests, and as they depart down the stairs and into the night they glance back and see standing above them the tall lean figure of a great gentleman and a great writer.'

Herbert Gorman, James Joyce, 1941


Maria Jolas told Richard Ellmann about the last time she saw Joyce dance.  It was Christmas 1939, and he was a sick man, in pain from his stomach ulcer. 

'Christmas dinner began sadly enough; Joyce scarcely ate anything, only drank white wine, bending before his glass as if overwhelmed....At the evening's end he had a sudden explosion of gaiety, and began to dance on the narrow stairs to the tune of an old waltz. He approached Maria Jolas and said, 'Come on, let's dance a little.' There was so little room, and his sight was so bad, that she hesitated. 'Come on then,' he said, putting his arm around her, 'you know very well that it's the last Christmas.' After the dance he had to be quieted down to permit the guests to leave.'

Ellmann, p 729

Isn't it a shame that, with all the statues there are of Joyce, not one shows him dancing?

Joyce dancing, by the British painter, poet and publisher, Desmond Harmsworth


  1. Stephen thrusts the ashplant on him and slowly holds out his hands, his head going back till both hands are a span from his breast, down turned in planes intersecting, the fingers about to part, the left being higher.

    1. 'The pianola, with changing lights, plays in waltz time the prelude to My Girl's a Yorkshire Girl. Stephen throws his ashplant on the table and seizes Zoe around the waist. Florry and Bella push the table towards the fireplace. Stephen, aiming Zoe with exaggerated grace, begins to waltz her around the room.'

    2. this is what i was really looking for, in stephen hero:
      — There should be an art of gesture, said Stephen one night to Cranly.
      — Yes?
      — Of course I don't mean art of gesture in the sense that the elocution professor understands the word. For him a gesture is an emphasis. I mean a rhythm. You know the song "Come unto these yellow sands?"
      — No.
      — This is it, said the youth making a graceful anapaestic gesture with each arm. That's the rhythm, do you see?
      — Yes.
      — I would like to go out into Grafton St some day and make gestures in the middle of the street.

    3. Mary Colum writes that Joyce believed that language had its origin in gesture: 'In the beginning was the rhythmic gesture,'' Joyce often said. See Lorraine Weir's The Choreography of Gesture: Marcel Jousse and "Finnegans Wake"

    4. 'In the beginning was the gest he jousstly says' 468.05 'his joussture' 535.03 Both referring to Marcel Jousse, the Jesuit anthropologist who argued that language originated in gesture.

  2. Ellmann tells one Dublin dance story: 'When he danced with Mary Sheehy, he held her so limply and loosely that she could scarcely follow him. Once, perceiving her difficulty, Joyce said, 'Hold my thumb.' Thinking he had said 'tongue,' she protested, 'Oh, how can I do that?' Joyce replied, 'My thumb!' 'Oh,' she said, 'I thought you said your tongue.''

  3. Lucia Joyce was a professional dancer. She must have got it from her father.