The Dance Tree: When History Is Not the Past
Literature as a Reflective Tool
[Dear readers: This issue contains discussions of miscarriage, racism, homophobia, and white supremacy.]
Though the history we learn growing up may be dictated by so-called winners, that does not mean alternative histories do not exist. In Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Dance Tree (HarperVia, 2023), Hargrave builds a fictional story around a historical event not commonly taught in school courses. In 1518 Strasbourg, a group of up to four hundred people, mainly women, danced for two months in a frenzied state. Known as the “dancing plague,” the event has been recorded as an act of religious mania, poisoning, or a response to societal standards at the time. Using this historical setting, Hargrave not only reflects on how any action going beyond white, patriarchal control has been erased or vilified in our textbooks, but also showcases modern day inequities that are far too similar to those found in the 16th century.
Lisbet, The Dance Tree’s main character, lives outside Strasbourg with her husband and mother-in-law. Having suffered from multiple miscarriages, Lisbet longs to be a mother, finding solace in keeping for their farm’s bees. After her husband’s sister returns from a seven-year stay at a convent and her husband leaves on travel, and as the dancing in the city intensifies and Turkish musicians join to quell the chaos, Lisbet finds herself growing close with others society has deemed as outcasts. And though the thematic messaging of the story may feel like a stretch at times in its attempt to align varying forms of discrimination and persecution, and some characters feel defined solely to advance the protagonist’s evolution, the messaging is clearly connected to the same inequities society is steeped in today. “Lisbet feels she could stay forever here, breathing with these women, held in the moment where she understands nothing and everything that is between them” (Hargrave, 146). Lisbet’s connection with her sister-in-law and best friend is strong, despite not fully being able to grasp their romantic relationship. And though she possesses internalized homophobia and racism—largely against the Turkish musicians staying at her house—thanks to the church’s messaging, she begins to understand that the justification behind such discrimination is baseless.
“It’s easy to draw lines from then to now in attitudes to the LGBT+ community, to immigrants, to class. We have come so far, and not nearly far enough. The power structures we operate under are no longer titled ‘God’ but they are still very much in existence. The world-at-large remains too often a hostile place for people who live, look, or love a different way,” Hargrave writes in the Author’s Note (241). Although as a society we’ve made progress throughout the decades, our underlying roots in white supremacist beliefs and values—ones that dictate sexuality, gender norms and identity, racial divides and status, capitalistic reliance, religious standards, and more—hold strong. (Expectations and cultural “norms” were all set by white colonists and imperialists at the sake of others’ cultures and histories. In doing so, white settlers upheld their own identities and beliefs as above all others’, standards that still manifest in everything from police brutality to housing inequities today.)
Looking back at history, especially through an often-erased lens, not only reframes what we’ve learned in our school lessons, but also demonstrates the many ways in which society today is too similar to the world of centuries earlier. The Dance Tree does just this—highlights how those who don’t conform to societal expectations, particularly those set by white, straight, cis men, are largely treated the same today as they were in the 1500s…and for many of the same reasons. While there is no excuse for the lack of evolution in over 500 years, the novel showcases the persistence, the found joy, the progress, and the strength of those fighting for change.
A fight rooted in past and present
In The Dance Tree, the past does not feel so far away because of the discrimination its main characters face. And while staring into such a mirror feels demoralizing—500+ years later and we’re still fighting against the same issues?—it’s also oddly encouraging. As @HarryAndHisBooks says in his review: “The Dance Tree also touches on race, religion and sexuality, and honestly if a novel set 500 years ago can manage to be intersectional, the rest of you have no excuse.”
Many organizations fighting today for equity were founded by those we consider historical leaders. However, while they may no longer be with us, the causes they were fighting for are definitely not of the past. Here are a few to learn more about:
Association for the Study of African American Life and History: “Established on September 9, 1915 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, we are the Founders of Black History Month and carry forth the work of our founder, the Father of Black History…ASALH’s mission is to create and disseminate knowledge about Black History, to be, in short, the nexus between the Ivory Tower and the global public.”
Strategic Transgender Alliance for Radical Reform: “Originally formed by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera in 1969 after the Stone Wall Riots, STAR(R) was one of the first Trans led organizations to help New York City’s Trans, Gender Non Conforming, and Sex Worker folx…Today, Strategic Transgender Alliance for Radical Reform extends Sylvia and Marsha’s legacy by building lasting and productive bonds between other existing organizations, action groups, political and non-political lobbying entities, public corporations, sovereign governments and individuals involved in the global human rights movement.”
The King Center: “Established in 1968 by Mrs. Coretta Scott King, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change…[is] squarely-focused on serving as both a local and global resource, dedicated to educating the world on the life, legacy and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., inspiring new generations to carry forward his unfinished work, [and] strengthen[ing] causes and empower[ing] change-makers who are continuing his efforts today.”
Are there any organizations you’d add to this list?
“Lisbet feels she could stay forever here, breathing with these women, held in the moment where she understands nothing and everything that is between them.”
— The Dance Tree, p146
Others’ thoughts on The Dance Tree
“This story is about not just these specific characters but all outcasts in this very rigid, patriarchal theocracy struggling under the weight of this lack of freedom and self expression.” —@BooksInHerHands
“Lisbet's story - facing pregnancy after numerous miscarriages - was beautifully handled, making me realise how rare it is to see the loss of pregnancy depicted at all, never mind this thoughtfully, in media.” —@HarryAndHisBooks
If you liked The Dance Tree, read…
The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames
Like a Bird by Fariha Róisín
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