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“And Then We Danced: A Voyage into the Groove”

  • By Henry Alford
  • c. 2018, Simon & Schuster
  • $26, $35.00 Canada; 229 pages

You can’t stop your feet. They need to move, to tap-tap-tap, to side step, and do-si-do. The music’s on and you got to move. You can’t help it, your toes got to go and in “And Then We Danced” by Henry Alford, you take the lead.

Think of all the times you danced in your life. Your first was likely some bouncy-toddler thing you did, and the adults around you laughed. Later, you endured embarrassing and awkward boy-girl classes, or school events until you became cool (even if only in your mind) and snuck into clubs. You’ve danced at weddings, for fun, for joy; and Alford has danced for work. He’s a journalist who immerses himself in his subject to write about it but, in the case of dance, he’s been immersed his whole life.

Dance, he says, is a “universal language.” If you suddenly found yourself in Siberia and you began dancing, nobody would mistake what you were doing. It’s an art, yes – but it’s so much more.

Dance, he says, is a way of “social entrée.” Cotillions and debutante balls are good examples, dancing in a club falls into this category, and if you ever took classes from an Arthur Murray studio, you get the picture.

Politics can step onto the dance floor, Alford says. Think about your favorite candidate on the campaign trail, dancing with potential constituents. Or think of the cakewalk, a dance that was “originally devised as a way for slaves to mock their masters … ”

Teenagers know that dance can be a form of rebellion; icons such as Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham knew that, too. Dance can be a form of emotional release, happy, sad, or angry, and it can involve one’s entire body, almost without thought. Any good church choir can tell you that dance is spiritual. With the right group, it can bring on feelings of nostalgia. And dance, if you need it, can be healing.

There’re a few pleasant little surprises to this book about moving your body: it’s also author Henry Alford’s memoir, and it’s a series of mini-biographies of dancers you may know and admire. And it’s delightful.

Part of the reason is that Alford uses his youth as example here: he was a gawky kid who tried very hard to ignore his gayness, an attempt that made junior high boy-girl dances understandably more awkward. His tales are mostly universal (who didn’t hate forced dance class?) and they’ll make you laugh, while anecdotes of researching to write this book – Alford dives into dance, remember – are woven between the life stories of Murray, Duncan, Graham, Savion Glover, Toni Bentley, and other dancers, as well as lighter-side dance history through the ages.

Yes, there are “aww, naw” moments along here with the Nae Nae, but the joy in this book supersedes any sadness. All in all, it’s a quick stepper, and for a hoofer, ballet lover, line dancer, or anyone who shimmies and bops, “And Then We Danced” will have you on your feet.

“The Royal Art of Poison”

  • By Eleanor Herman
  • c. 2018, St. Martin’s Press
  • $27.99, $36.50 Canada; 286 pages

It must’ve been the salad. You had three helpings of Aunt Rudy’s famous family reunion contribution and it sure tasted good. Until later that night and then … not so good for the rest of the weekend and into Monday. It must’ve been the salad because, as in “The Royal Art of Poison” by Eleanor Herman, you spent awhile on the throne.

Young Gabrielle d’Estrées wasn’t quite so lucky, though. She was the mistress of King Henri IV of France, but her love of the King and his people made him want to marry her after she helped him attain shaky calm between Catholics and Protestants in 1598. Alas, 36 hours before the nuptials, Gabrielle suffered a “dreadful” death. Rumors flew that an enemy poisoned her – but was it true? Good question.

Throughout history, especially in Medieval and Renaissance times, royalty and royalty-to-be often had abundant reason to be fearful of poison in their food and drink. Jealousy was common. Enemies could be anywhere and, to avoid big problems, most monarchs employed a taster or, in the case of Louis XIV, 324 of them.

That didn’t help much, says Herman, because nasty substances weren’t just used to steal a crown. Lead was found in cosmetics then; sulfur was used to powder wigs; and mercury and arsenic, along with human remains, were prescribed as medicine. Urine was used by the clothing industry. Bloodletting was employed to reset “humors.” Rooster dung was given to induce vomiting (duh!), and even the air that the average person breathed could be poisonous.

Long live the King.

While today’s knowledge can correct historical inaccuracies, and determine that a real culprit was illness or disease, early physicians surely tried to determine what happened when monarch or mistress mysteriously perished. Postmortems were sometimes done out of curiosity but more often were performed to settle any debate as to a cause of death and, though rudimentary (by our standards), an autopsy saved kingdoms and lineages. They also saved lives: many a cook breathed easier when poison-as-murder was disproven, and many physicians were surely equally relieved.

So, you think, with all those names and dates, that history can be stuffy?  Not so much when murder is afoot and “The Royal Art of Poison” is in your hands.

But this book isn’t all about murder – or history, for that matter. Author Eleanor Herman spends a good amount of time telling about Royal as well as everyday lives and how people lived in the 14th-through-18th-centuries. She then explains how we know what we know now, and why the heyday of poison, if you will, ended.

Or did it? Current events tell us otherwise, and Herman writes about a modern-day leader who’s reached back into history to employ tasters in his kitchen.

Be aware that this book is filled with blood and guts and other unsavory things, so it’s not for the squeamish. Curious folks will love it, though, and European history lovers won’t want to pass on “The Royal Art of Poison.”

The salad, though. That’s another matter.

More: The Bookworm: A chiller and a thriller

More: The Bookworm: Lost arts of wasting time and making things

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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