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Dancing Girls and Other Stories by Margaret…

Dancing Girls and Other Stories (1977)

by Margaret Atwood

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
I have thoroughly enjoyed short story collections by Margaret Atwood before – many years ago reading Bluebeard’s Egg – very pre-blog and more recently Stone Mattress and Wilderness Tips. Several of these stories really do stand out and are every bit as excellent as I have come to expect – however some of the others didn’t work quite as well for me. Overall, I liked the collection but didn’t love it.

The men and women in these stories are frequently unable to communicate with one another – they are often separate themselves either physically or mentally. These stories explore the complicated relationships between men and women.

In the opening story; The man from Mars an awkward, slightly overweight student finds herself pursued by a foreign student from an unnamed Eastern country. Christine – living in the shadow of her more glamorous mother and sisters, is unused to such attention. So, when a short, bespectacled oriental looking man begins to follow her around after having once stopped her to ask directions she really doesn’t know what to think. The student is horribly persistent, but also rather pathetic. His attentions are perplexing, and irritating, but he doesn’t seem dangerous. Nevertheless, eventually the police are involved. It is a wonderful story to kick off the collection, there is a deliciously wry humour in the description of Christine’s faithful pursuer – and of a strained little tea party, Christine’s clueless mother insists she has for a man who might turn out to be boyfriend material.

“As the weekdays passed and he showed no signs of letting up, she began to jog-trot between classes, finally to run. He was tireless, and had an amazing wind for one who smoked so heavily: he would speed along behind her, keeping the distance between them the same, as though he were a pull-toy attached to her by a string. She was aware of the ridiculous spectacle they must make, galloping across campus, something out of a cartoon short, a lumbering elephant stampeded by a smiling, emaciated mouse, both of them locked in the classic pattern of comic pursuit and flight.”
(The man from Mars)

Betty – one of those two stories added to this collection in place of others – is the second story in the collection. The story narrator looks back to a time when she was growing up – remembering the neighbours Betty and her husband Fred who she met when her family rented a small cottage for the summer between house moves. Betty hadn’t interested her young neighbour when she was a child – instead it was Fred who absorbed all her interest and fantasies.

“It seemed as if we had lived in the cottage for a long time, though it was only one summer. By August I could hardly remember the apartment in Ottawa and the man who used to beat his wife. That had happened in a remote life, and, despite the sunshine, the water and the open space, a happier one. Before our frequent moves and the insecurities of new schools had forced my sister to value me.”

Now, as an adult looking back on that time, she realises she can no longer remember Fred’s face – though she remembers Betty with great clarity. She remembers how Betty changed after Fred betrayed her – how over the years Betty kept in touch, and the family watched as she re-invented herself yet remained much more of a mystery than Fred ever was.

That foreign ‘otherness’ that is explored in the opening story is present again in the title story Dancing Girls. Set in a boarding house, where Ann and her landlady – wonder about the new man – who has what the landlady calls a native costume in which she politely asks him to appear from time to time. We witness the clash of cultures again, although I felt the story petered out a bit at the end.

Other stories which grabbed me were: When it happens; in which we see a woman who remembers well living through the Second World War is preparing for what she thinks is the end of the world – or some kind of cataclysmic event that will bring almost everything to an end. The Resplendent Quetzal is another superb story – in which the broken relationship of a married couple on a bird watching holiday is beautifully explored. In Hair Jewellery we meet a woman who loves someone who never really returns her feelings. She has romanticised their future break up – which when it comes is nothing like her fantasy – eventually she finds she can never quite leave him behind.

I enjoy Margaret Atwood’s writing – and there is certainly a lot to enjoy in this collection, those stories which I was less keen on stop short of actually being disappointing – they just didn’t grab me. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | May 28, 2018 |
Quite a good collection of 1970s Atwood. A couple of excellent stories and the rest are, for the most part, refreshingly free from Atwood's militant feminism. Overall good read.

1. The War in the Bathroom - Fantastic start to this collection! A woman moves to a new boarding house and the old man who coughs up a lung every morning in the bathroom next to her room annoys her. This is the premise but not what the story is about. The book is written from a very strange point of view which had me weirded out at first, then I made a guess, then another and I'm pretty sure whose pov we are getting. A nice sudden twist ending left me shaking my head in sinister delight. (4/5)

2. The Man from Mars - I vaguely have an idea as to what the title refers to in this story. It's a fairly sedate story; character centred. A university girl who is very tall and large has always been thought of as one of the boys and never had any attention from a man nor has she really wanted it. But then one day she meets a stranger "from another culture" who starts to follow her leading up to the point that he is stalking her, always there in the background and visible. This suddenly makes her interesting to her friends and the men start asking her out. The ending is interesting and I really enjoyed this quiet story. (4/5)

3. Polarities - A quiet man of solitude meets an efficient, organized woman at the university where they both work. At first, their relationship is friendly but brisk. Then Louise starts showing up at his place and talking about the current between the poles and completing the circle. She ends up in a mental institution. An engrossing read all about character with a confusing end. I liked it but didn't really understand it (3/5)

4. Under Glass - Atwood's usual feminist drivel. A woman moaning on about how badly done to she is by a man. (0/5)

5. The Grave of the Famous Poet - A couple goes to a small town where a famous author lived and was buried. They don't really have a lot of interests in common and by the end of the story, they know their relationship is over. Readable but not exciting. (3/5)

6. Rape Fantasies - At first, I didn't even want to read this one with a title like that. I remember back in the early 80s when this was a thing It was in all the magazines and talk shows, like Donahue. I even read a book full of rape fantasies when I was way too young to be reading such stuff. Anyway, this is indeed about the same thing. Women in an office lunchroom start talking about it and then the narrator goes off and tells us her rape fantasies which are more like "rapist" fantasies. She always manages to stop the man by connecting with him. The story is surprisingly humorous but it definitely makes a statement. Well-written in a conversational tone, I actually really enjoyed it. (4/5)

7. Hair Jewellery - A slow meandering story of a woman who reminisces about an old boyfriend, never a lover, who has haunted her rather mildly her whole life. She never really wanted him and she tells the story of their dating. But not even meeting him many years later at a conference, where they are both disappointed in what the other has become, removes him from the dusty shelf of her memory. Very readable but boring. (3/5)

8. When It Happens - A mature woman whose kids have flown the nest starts worrying about "it" which we can guess is the end of the world as we know it. Her husband notices a slight change in her behaviour and she imagines how it would happen. The line blurs between what is her imagination and what is real in this story. That makes it a bit disconcerting which actually is a great feeling to go along with this plot. My favourite so far. (5/5)

9. A Travel Piece - An interesting tale. A woman who wrights for the travel section of newspapers and occasional magazines is on her flight home. We listen to her thoughts as she thinks about how she must always be pleasant and look for the positive things on each of her travels This has made her feel like she isn't living a "real" life and has started to wish she did Then she is thrown into a real-life situation when her plane crashes into the middle of the ocean. Mostly a character piece and I really enjoyed it. (4/5)

10. The Resplendent Quetzal - An interesting piece about a husband and wife who have grown apart and lost communication.She daydreams that he has died somehow while he daydreams killing her. Switching back and forth from her to his point of view It is from the husband we first find out about the child. This now gives us a better insight into the characters. Good! (4/5)

11. Training - Beautiful! This is the best story in the collection. Concerns the inner turmoil of a young man being forced to go into the "family business", medicine. His grandfather and father were doctors/surgeons and both his older brothers are in med school. He is supposed to start pre-med this fall. But he can't stand it, the blood, the flesh, the cutting, the disease. This summer he has been sent off to be a counsellor at a camp for "crippled" children. Here he becomes attached to a non-communicative 9-year-old with cerebral palsy. His greatest terror is that one day he will go screaming mad. (5/5)

12. Lives of the Poets - Semi-autobiographical I'm sure.A woman gets a nose bleed a few hours before she's to give another reading from her poetry book.She reminisces on her life up to this point, her husband a painter, their marriage, living off government art grants, not being able to produce more work fast enough to make a living and one can't help but feel that the constant mention of blood symbolises the menstrual blood. Good writing. (4/5)

13. Dancing Girls - We finally come to the titular story. It's very good though not the best in the collection. A woman from Toronto is going to university in the US and lives in a boarding house. She has the only room with a kitchenette and shares a bath with the room next door. All tenants are students, mostly foreign. Now a new man comes to be her neighbour and she listens to his antics from the landlady. He does nothing, never leaves his room except to smoke and stare at the front doorway and is always borrowing the vacuum. He is no bother until the night he has a loud banging party with dancing girls. (4/5)

14. Giving Birth - Readable but I didn't really get the imagery. Simply a story about a woman giving birth. Certainly not a positive point of view but not necessarily negative either, more depressing with strange images. (3/5) ( )
  ElizaJane | Jan 3, 2018 |
A collection of short stories about women. Some of them are troubled by mental illness. I was most moved by one called Polarities, about a man who forms a relationship with a woman with bipolar disorder, and the craziness which ensues. ( )
  questbird | Nov 4, 2017 |
Atwood's first short story collection is made up of 14 stories that show an experimental period in her development as a writer. The Cambridge Introduction to Margaret Atwood notes that these stories "are characterized by a sense of miscommunication, or by the sense of an event happening slightly offstage. The heart of several of these stories is an inexplicable departure, a failure to connect events and disappearances, or a lock of communication about the importance of events."

I very much enjoyed the stories "Rape Fantasies" and "A Travel Piece," which seemed livelier than the others. "The War in the Bathroom," "The Grave of the Famous Poet, and "The Resplendent Quetzal" also had interesting things to say. The rest of the collection I did not care for at all. "The Man from Mars" is popular with many readers, but I was frustrated with how incredibly dated it was, and "Hair Jewellery" was such a word salad that I couldn't finish it. I'm afraid too many of these stories were overly-vague and lacking in context, which in turn made them pointless and dull.

Note that my 1998 edition has two different stories than the original Dancing Girls. Gone are "Betty" and "Sin Eaters," and they've been replaced by "Rape Fantasies" and "The War in the Bathroom."

Recommended for: Atwood completists. ( )
  Nickelini | May 24, 2016 |
Dancing Girls is a collection of short stories by renowned writer Margaret Atwood, who I have wanted to read for quite some time. Although I'm more interested in her novels, I have read a couple of her short stories in anthologies and really enjoyed them, so I was looking forward to this Virago. However, It started out a bit slow for me, as my interest in the first two or three stories was only moderately engaged. I wondered if this wasn't the Atwood book to start with, but then the stories started to gather power, and I was very invested by the end.

These stories are of the slice-of-life variety, with a focus on relationships and the mental landscape, especially when it comes to people who are marginalized. Several of the stories revolve around insanity or disability. One story, "Training", is narrated by a man volunteering at a summer camp for children with disabilities. He develops a close relationship with a young epileptic girl who must remain strapped in her wheelchair, nothing perverse although others are suspicious, but he can't relate to the teenage boys who mock him and other "normos" for just not getting them. Another story shows an efficient young woman's descent into madness, seen through the eyes of the man who didn't love her until she lost her edge, her sanity. He realizes that he only wants women who are sloppy, messed up, and weaker than him. Other stories approach the marginalized by looking at people that are on the outskirts of society. In"Dancing Girls", a college student, Ann, shares an apartment with several people from other countries, as her landlady seems to only invite ethnic people to rent the room next to hers. Ann herself is from another country, but somehow it seems fake to her to be from Canada when others are from China, India, or Africa. Her newest roommate is a tall and silent African boy, who her landlady tries to exploit by asking him to wear his native costume to a special dinner, but when the landlady catches him playing drums with dancing girls in his room, she acts like he is a depraved delinquent and chases him down the street with her broom. Ann regrets losing her chance to talk to the man.

My favorite stories involved unusual mental distractions, like the woman in "When It Happens", who constantly imagines the apocalyptic future that she imagines is certain to overtake her sometime soon, seeing the coming destruction so vividly that she feels like she is actually observing it. Another great one was "Travel Piece", narrated by a travel writer who is on her way home from another job. After being a perpetual tourist for so many years, she feels like everything she sees is just an act, a screen shielding out reality, and she wonders if she will ever see behind it. When her plane crashes into the ocean, she feels like she is finally seeing under the mask, but she might not like what she sees. I also liked "Sin Eater", ostensibly about the death of a psychiatrist, but really about the myth he shares about a sin eater, a person that literally ate a dying person's "sins" by consuming a meal while the person is passing away.

Each story could probably be analyzed on its own terms. They are subtle renditions of people and relationships, revealing a masterful touch in writing, and indicate a depth in meaning that extends well below the surface. I'm not sure why I disliked the first few stories - maybe I just hadn't warmed up to her style, maybe I was too involved in the other books I was reading, or maybe this collection just happened to start with my least favorite stories of the set. Despite the rough beginning, by the end of the collection I was won over, and quite impressed with the quality of storytelling. I am still eager to read some of Atwood's novels, but this was a nice solid introduction to her writing. ( )
  nmhale | Mar 14, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Margaret Atwoodprimary authorall editionscalculated
Griesbach, CherylCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Martucci, StanleyCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Werner, HoniCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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A long time ago Christine was walking through the park.
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Book description
Pregnant women, students and journalists; farmers, birdwatchers, ex-wives, adolescent lovers - and dancing girls. All ordinary people - or are they? In this collection of short stories Margaret Atwood maps human motivation we scarcely know we have.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385491093, Paperback)

This splendid volume of short fiction testifies to Margaret Atwood's startlingly original voice, full of a rare intensity and exceptional intelligence.  Her men and women still miscommunicate, still remain separate in different rooms, different houses, or even different worlds.  With brilliant flashes of fantasy, humor, and unexpected violence, the stories reveal the complexities of human relationships and bring to life characters who touch us deeply, evoking terror and laughter, compassion and recognition--and dramatically demonstrate why Margaret Atwood is one of the most important writers in English today.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:23 -0400)

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Students and journalists, farmers and birdwatchers, ex-wives, adolescent lovers - and dancing girls. All ordinary people - or are they? In this splendid collection of short stories, Margaret Atwood maps the human motivation we scarcely know we have in a startlingly original voice, full of rare intensity and exceptional intelligence. With brilliant flashes of fantasy, humour and unexpected violence, these stories reveal the complexities of human relationships and bring to life characters who evoke laughter, compassion, terror and recognition and dramatically demonstrate why Atwood is one of the most important writers in English today.… (more)

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