Dancing with Death

The image of a beautiful woman dancing suggestively with a skeleton or ‘death’ (like the above of me by Lozzy Bones!) is as familiar a picture as the slightly more erotic ‘Death and the Maiden’. Both are extensions of the Medieval ‘Danse Macabre’ or ‘Dance of Death’: the tableau of skeletons frolicking with paupers, princes and popes which was painted to remind us that we all must die and are all equal in death.

Danse Macabre
Danse Macabre

And these aren’t the only dancing and death connections: long before Michael Jackson wowed the world with his choreographed zombies in Thriller, there were phrases such as “dancing with death” and “dancing on the grave”. A 15th century plague which caused victims in mainland Europe to dance themselves to death in a frenzy was known as St Vitus’ Dance, and even Hans Christian Andersen, writer of (not so) twee fairy tales had the protagonist of The Red Shoes, Karen, killed by a woodcutter who chopped off her dancing feet with an axe.

Here are several ways you can explore the theme of dancing and death in London:

Enon Chapel

Having been featured in a recent book ‘Dirty Old London’ by local writer Lee Jackson, Enon Chapel is becoming better known. This unassuming small chapel was used, as was the custom of the time, as a space for interment of the dead as well as worship. (Long before the magnificent seven cemeteries, like Highgate and Norwood, were built on the outskirts of London in the late 1800s , the dead were laid to rest within the walls and concrete floors of churches and buried on top of one another in tiny churchyards.) Enon Chapel differed because the minister, Mr W. Howse, was unscrupulous and took this practice to the extreme: he charged less than the surrounding churches for this ‘service’ giving him a monopoly over the parish, and then simply crammed people beneath its wooden floor, into the walls, and even into kitchen cabinets. Sunday school children learned their Bible among swarms of coffin flies and people left the services, sick. I wrote the complete story for Caitlin Doughty here. The interesting part of Enon Chapel’s refurbishment story is that it became a venue for Tea Dances which capitalised on the chapel’s gruesome history rather than hiding it. Newspaper adverts read: Enon Chapel – Dancing on the Dead – Admission Threepence! No lady or gentleman admitted unless wearing shoes and stockings!

The chapel eventually became ‘Clare Market Chapel’ but no longer stands. You can still visit the site at St Clements Lane in The Strand, where the London School of Economics was eventually erected  –  the excavations for which, in 1967, produced large quantities of human bone.

Enon Chapel - Cemetery and Dancing Saloon (Wellcome Images)
Enon Chapel – Cemetery and Dancing Saloon (Wellcome Images)

Dancing Zombies

Michael Jackson’s 13 minute Thriller video was released in 1983 and has since been described as the most influential music video of all time. It’s said to be ‘culturally, historically and aesthetically significant” which I can certainly appreciate it for now. At the time though, I was a toddler, and I just remember it scaring the crap out of me.

The thing about being ‘scare-oused’ is that it’s an enjoyable feeling and most of us seek to recreate it when we watch horror movies and play survival games on our consoles. You can re-create the original thriller ‘dancing zombie extravaganza’ and feel as though you’re watching the video for the first ever time by going to see Thriller Live! in London’s west end. Now in its 6th year it includes the infamous Thriller routine.

However if you really want to immerse yourself in the mob then join a Thriller flashmob via a site like flashmob.co.uk. They organised a Thriller one on Brick Lane in 2014 and may well be due another soon.


Joseph Grimaldi’s Grave Memorial

Joseph Grimaldi (d.1837) was an incredibly popular Regency entertainer. His re-imagining of the medieval ‘fool’ character led him to become the first ever white faced clown, and originator of the ‘fine art’ of the pantomime (so he’s still helping to keep d-list celebs employed). He’s highly respected in the arts and showbiz field and it is he who is honoured annually in a Clown’s International memorial service every February at Holy Trinity Church in Dalston. (It’s been held there every year since 1959 and the congregation dress in full clown costume). Grimaldi even has a park dedicated to him in Islington, where he died. Within the park is a memorial to him, designed by Henry Krokatsis and installed in 2010. It consists of two bronze coffins embedded into the ground and separated into sections which each play a different note. The idea is that you literally ‘dance on his grave’ and play an accompanying tune! It’s what he would have wanted….

Grimaldi and his unusual grave
Grimaldi and his unusual grave

Hear/Attend the ‘Danse Macabre’

One of the most well known pieces of classical music (perhaps because it was used as the theme for Jonathan Creek) is the Danse Macabre by Camille Saint Saens. Part of his Carnival of the Animals (and arguably the most famous part) this piece is played the world over around Halloween. In May this year it will be performed by Yevgeny Sudbin as part of a concert at The South Bank. I’m thrilled to recommend this as I heard Yevgeny play this piece at Westminster Cathedral a year or so ago, and it was a real treat. If you want more than just the sounds of the ‘dance’ then why not attend the Last Tuesday Society’s Danse Macabre multi-sensory Halloween Ball? They have had one every year and Last Tuesday’s founder, Viktor Wynd, assures me they will be holding one again this year.



(Originally written for Londonist)

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