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Don't You Like to Dance, Jo?

Dancing in "Little Women" is a window into what kind of girl gets to be free. On Jo's romp in film, from George Cukor to Greta Gerwig.
Moeko Fujii
Little Women
Illustration by Alessandra Genualdo
Let’s talk about dances of friendship, not of courtship. Of the dance that is not a prelude or background to something else, that’s beat-deaf and brassy, unnecessary and rude. The dance that takes center stage without a stage, that is more whoop and prance than swan. Let’s talk of romps, because that is what these dances are. Let’s talk of girls romping. That wildness for women has rules.
If you read or see Little Women, you encounter the romp. In Greta Gerwig’s treatment, Jo March bumps into a dark-haired rich boy, Laurie, in a side room at a party. He asks her to dance, and she laughs and takes him in as a confidant: she’s scorched the back of her dress by the fire. She’s been told to keep still so that no one will see her. He nods. 
“I have an idea of how we can manage,” he says. 
Outside and alone on a porch, Jo takes Laurie’s hand. They hold forth, first sashaying along brightly lit windows. We see them become conspirators in the dark, dancing seriously when they can be seen in front of a window and, once stepping out of view, thrashing their limbs, rollicking. They stamp, they jiggle, they fling their fists. Jo beckons to Laurie, who peeks to check whether anyone’s watching, then breaks out into an ecstatic grin—he realizes he doesn’t care. He throws himself into a series of spins, landing in her arms. 
This romp is not described in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. We get the before—“Don’t you like to dance, Miss Jo?”—and the after, newly-minted pals sitting on the stairs, talking over each other as they catch their breath. It was a grand polka, we’re told, and Laurie is a good dancer, while Jo is full of swing. That’s it, and generations of readers are left to look up from the page, close their eyes, construct a busy ballroom, and a vacant hallway. To choreograph the two, a gentle, lonely boy and a coltish girl. When I was young, I imagined them snorting with laughter as they jumped around each other, ever-ramping a parody of grandness—higher! higher! I wondered what that meant, sharing a freedom of not being seen. 
In non-romps, the invitation to the dance is far more important than the dance itself. There’s a grand economic consequence to that gloved, outstretched hand: you are Chosen. Mr. Darcy asks Lizzie to dance and she gets flustered, recognizing the opening move of matrimonial chess. Anna Karenina takes Count Vronsky’s arm for a mazurka, and a snubbed Kitty clocks that Anna and Vronsky are going to have an affair: “She saw they felt themselves alone in this crowded ballroom.” In books, the dance flits in the space between sentences, undetermined, unfixed: we’re rarely walked through the steps of a quadrille. We aren’t guided to cherish the particulars of a body, to think about whether a girl showed something of herself in how she raised an elbow, how she smiled when she spun. Who cares how she danced? A waltz is a waltz is a waltz is a waltz.
I knew Little Women not only as Little Women, but also as “Tales of Young Grass.” My grandmother sent me tapes from Tokyo, VHS recordings of the Little Women/"Young Grass" animated series, and film adaptations of the March sisters played by Japanese actresses. When I was young, I had a hard time watching the adaptations, though I couldn't stop looking at them. Perhaps the sight of Japanese actresses putting on big brown wigs and Marlene Dietrich makeup—pretending to be white girls—hit too close to home. There they were, right on screen: girls like me and my sister, fantasizing about trying on a white girlhood. Even at age nine, I sensed a highfaluting artificiality to their gestures, a blind, groping imitation that felt terribly naive. They seemed to hold a warning: if I, too, tried on that fantasy, it wouldn’t quite fit right. My grandmother and my mother had grown up on the island with “Tales of Young Grass,” so they couldn't quite understand my difficulty. Their idea of white girls was lovely and uncomplicated, the tear-jerking stuff of Anne of Green Gables and Laura Ingalls Wilder, the kind that got into scrapes in puff-sleeves, and were, at heart, jolly and well-meaning. Why wouldn't you want to move like them? To my grandmother, the white girls I knew—who played softball, twined their slick blonde ponytails, and skipped on, largely unaware of my existence—were fictional. Watching Little Women was simultaneously an act of communion—it never failed to ignite yearning in the women in my family—and an exercise in parsing these multiple fictions. One summer, I asked my grandmother whether a Japanese girl’s narrative could ever be thought of as "universal" as Alcott’s. What the chances were of, say, the Makioka sisters, instead of the March sisters, appearing in a conversation between a white woman in New Jersey and her granddaughter. She laughed, shook her head, and asked if I wanted another persimmon. 
I wanted to distract myself in little specifics, like Jo’s writing cap or the clothespin on Amy’s nose, but my grandmother’s tapes forced me to square my identification with the Marches with the questions of reality, with bodies and their particularities. I rewound and rewound those VHS tapes, both American and Japanese: what kinds of movement feel real on screen? What went into that? I raised my arms, tilted my head, imitated the movements of one March girl, then another. Seeing these adaptations side by side made me realize that watching white girls play white girls was, in some senses, easier, but actually required a different kind of squaring. I became hyper-attuned to when actresses in Little Women transformed into bodies of longing—when their frames embraced something irregular to become someone or something else, through costume or unexpected movement. And so I loved the romp between Jo and Laurie. When I watched it in any version, I cried. I breathed in a simple understanding of the scene: that a girl, any girl, could be unruly, improper, unpinnable. That a woman could both relish her body and escape it, be seen and unseen. That this brief, errant wildness was important. 
In every adaptation until Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Jo romped, while Meg and every other woman danced. “I don’t care much for company dancing,” Jo says. Every March girl cared so much about how their bodies would be seen, how others would assess how they behaved. When romping, Jo forgot to care. The March matriarch, Marmee, would famously comment that nothing provokes more speculation than a woman enjoying herself. But no one but Jo really seemed to have fun in public. Meg and Amy March—the social ones—were rarely, if ever, shot dancing. When they were, their motions were depicted as brittle foils to Jo’s. Meg looked proper and pretty, beaming that generic, forgettable smile of a background dancer. Her prim curtsies anticipated the future—marriage, the waltz of society—while the romp was rooted in the now, the implacable bundle of energy that was a teenage self. Jo’s romp was play, at times escape. On film, it was depicted as delicious, contraband. You couldn’t remember how Meg danced, but you remembered how Jo romped. 
This scene in Little Women started, on film, not as a romp but as an actual genteel dance, thanks to the glory that is Katherine Hepburn, that rare breed of human who imbues gesture with the force of a thousand raves. In George Cukor’s 1933 film, Hepburn moves so incredibly rompishly in her everyday—swinging from banisters and trees, harrumphing and growling at her sisters, climbing down sides of houses—that when it’s actually time to dance, it looks like restraint. We’re astonished to see her accept Laurie’s invitation, to witness Hepburn taken up so dutifully in his arms, the grace and docility of her curtsying pose. Hepburn looks up to the sound of clapping, and the two realize that they’d been watched the whole time, by Beth and Amy sitting in the balcony. It’s less a dance unseen and more a dance to be seen: look, George Cukor seems to wink to his Depression-era audiences, given a man and some partnered dancing, even Hepburn can be leashed. 
Tomboy Jo and Laurie romp, ladylike Meg and Amy dance. How terribly neatly this distinction we’ve made so far—between romp and dance, between joyous movement and the restricted—falls down upon gender lines. This is still the case with Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 Little Women. In the space of two minutes, Winona Ryder and Christian Bale transforms from awkward loners meeting each other to bopping from room to room, rattling tea-cups and chandeliers. But like in the book and in the Cukor, this joy in motion is directly linked to Jo’s rebellion of the girlish, her embrace of the masculine. Winona cries, “Oh I’m sorry, Meg always makes me take the gentleman’s part at home, it’s a shame you don’t know the lady’s part —" as she whoops past the camera. Jo longs to be a boy, to dance "boyishly," so the catharsis we feel in seeing Jo romp comes with a price: the other girls’ motion is depicted as flat. Even Kirsten Dunst’s tripping too-much-ness as young Amy disappears mid-film, replaced by adult Amy, Samantha Mathis and her rigid, Wedgewood beauty. The transition always felt calcifying. The transformation of girl to woman in Little Women, Armstrong seemed to warn, would always be one from movement to marble. 
In the Gerwig, the sense we’ve always gotten of Jo’s frustration in and enjoyment of her body—her own physicality—is, in the Little Women of the twenty-first century, also distributed to the other little women. Greta Gerwig’s girls are constantly dancing. In one of the opening scenes, we see Saoirse Ronan as Jo in New York at a German beerhall, grasping hands and jigging with strangers, which triggers the first of several flashbacks. It rewinds seven years to her sisters preparing for a dance party in Concord, Massachusetts. The film’s structure relies on an associative logic of bodily memory instead of a progressively linear one: a nap brings us back to another nap, a dance brings us forward to another dance. Gerwig asks new questions about a woman’s movement on screen: What are the many ways that girls romp? Must a dance always look like Jo’s to be transformative?
Jo’s protagonist-status always lay in her capacity as someone in-between, a girl restlessly oscillating between visibility and invisibility. A middle child, she both sees and rejects the worlds offered to her: becoming a lady molded and judged by society (Amy), or staying at home (Beth). Jo thrives in spaces in between public and private: her romp is either filmed in a vacant hallway with wide open doorways, or on a porch dotted with bright windows. In other words, she’s shot as a character who lets loose in spaces where she thinks she can’t be seen but, given a person passing by—or given the vantage point of an audience—can always be seen. Even her absence has theatricality: Jo disappears--every film adaptation has a frantic "Where's Jo?!" moment—only for her to reappear, with shorn hair and waving the right amount of cash for a rail ticket. We viewers are allowed to see her lose control—romp, rage, sob—and find control, without being made to feel like we're prying. Jo's movements are imbued with a thrall as she crosses boundaries between the girlish and the boyish, bad behavior and good, places of exposure and that of hiding.
Gerwig puts pressure on whether it’s only Jo who flashes with hidden wildness, and excavates subtler boundaries crossed by the other March sisters. At a friend’s debutante ball, Meg allows herself to be gussied up into a pink cake of a dress. Laurie confronts her for her frivolity—“What will Jo say”—and when he comes back to apologize, she tells Laurie: “Let me have my fun tonight. I’ll be desperately good for the rest of my life.” Other adaptations immediately cut to another scene after that, but Gerwig lingers on Meg. Emma Watson grabs Timothée Chalamet’s hands, and they start to dance. After countless Megs that never relinquished propriety, this Meg lets herself go—really enjoys herself—if only a minute. She trips and totters in her excitement, curls slightly loose, and she spins and spins. She’s stealing this moment for herself, we see it in the way she grabs hold of her skirt, how she lifts her chin, tilts her head back, and squeezes her eyes. She’s on display, but also not: she doesn’t feel like she’s being seen, because she’s too focused on enjoying the spinning. With each whirl, Meg—the pretty one—is allowed to feel and forget her prettiness. To be a girl romping. One more whirl, we think. Let her have just one more.
And must all girls romp? Gerwig and Florence Pugh rehabilitate Amy, who in the novel is the only March sister that truly loved to dance: “she felt that her foot was on her native heath in a ball-room, and enjoyed the delightful sense of power which comes when young girls first discover the new and lovely kingdom they are born to rule.” We can almost hear the stretch of lithe limbs, the snap of fans, the inhale of giddy excitement: we'd all conveniently forgotten that Amy, like and unlike Jo, is a girl with her own first discoveries. In the Alcott, Amy flourishes in a big dance scene in Europe. This is cut from all previous films in favor of a Jo-centered narrative: none of the Amys dance. But Amy is the ultimate Gerwig protagonist, the blonde teen with outsized notions of herself, fighting for control at the brink of girlhood. So Florence Pugh as Amy dances in black silk with her suitor, a cool-eyed grand marshal for her own ambitions. If Jo is chaotic blur, and Meg spins herself giddy, then Amy’s dance—for this is no romp—is brilliantly mercenary. With each turn she exudes queenly assurance, her arms cutting through the air: this is her world to conquer. The warmth of a woman’s confidence—once cast as brattiness, or as airs—is no longer edited out, or rendered cold and marble. A girl dancing and changing into a woman, Gerwig seems to tell us, is never dull. 
So: why doesn’t Beth dance or romp? She is the sole March sister who can’t and won’t. Beth’s body works against her; Gerwig shows us how fever convulses her entire frame—her arm sticks out in a strange angle—to the point that she needs to be held down. Her movements are not her own. Beth makes us ask the more philosophical questions of modern dance: what makes the rhythms of our motions our own, and is this solely determined in the eye of the beholder? The brevity of her life and her chosen quiet, juxtaposed with her sisters’ more familiar—but equally ephemeral—dance-rhythms, ask us to look anew at the girl who preferred to make music, instead of dance to it. We see the small, feverish figure making her way across a lawn to thank a friend, a hand sifting sand on a beach. We look more carefully at minor movements.
After an entire film of Jo running—in New York, through woods, towards a train station—Gerwig ends on a shot of Jo standing still, holding her book to her chest. Her artistic triumph is woven with a sense of loss: we realize that, with her girlhood bound and printed, she will never move the way she did again. That romps were the purview not of men, but of youth. Jo, the girl who “liked to fly about and cut capers,” our romping Jo, chooses not to do so, at the moment that most calls for it. We see her catch herself, flung and motionless. 


Greta GerwigGeorge CukorGillian ArmstrongLong ReadsIllustrations
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