“Dance of the Happy Shades”
by Alice Munro
from Dance of the Happy Shades


And we come to the end of this magnificent collection of short stories, the first of many from Alice Munro. Before moving on, I want to thank Betsy for participating. It has really been a pleasure to read these, and Betsy magnified that because, first, it’s always fun to share these kinds of experiences and, second, her pieces on the stories are illuminating and compassionate. Together, we will next be moving on to Munro’s second book, The Lives of Girls and Women, which we will be treating as a novel. Please join us.

Now, on to “Dance of the Happy Shades,” which is narrated by a middle-class adolescent girl just beginning to realize how flawed her mother is, how much each of them are shielded by social norms from something special, how empty life can be in this structure. It’s another great critique on a culture that puffs itself up and disdains anything different from itself.

When the story begins, the mother is trying to find an excuse to avoid going to one of Miss Marsalles’ “parties.” Miss Marsalles, the narrator’s piano teacher (and once the narrator’s mother’s piano teacher), is different. Miss Marsalles seems to trust everyone, and her “party” is her sentimental term for a tedious recital where the parents and children showcase hollow enthusiasm. Except for Miss Marsalles, who always looks so genuinely pleased.

It’s almost as if it’s this very pleasure sets Miss Marsalles apart and allows the parents to look down on her. She speaks “of children’s hearts as if they were something holy” and her place is decorated with sentimental objects of the past. Even the gifts she gives to each child who performs “seemed to feature that tender childish nudity which our sophisticated prudery found most ridiculous and disgusting.”

But Miss Marsalles is also set apart by class. This year she’s had to move to a smaller home, and the narrator’s mother hopes perhaps that is excuse enough not to have the “party.” But, that not being something you can say out loud to Miss Marsalles, it turns out not to be a very good excuse. Nothing else works either because, as the narrator says, “my mother is not an inventive or convincing liar, and the excuses which occur to her are obviously second-rate.”

So they go to the party, and the narrator’s mother immediately feels betrayed when her friend, another parent of a student, doesn’t show up. They were supposed to suffer through this together. Still, this doesn’t stop the mother and the other parents from looking around the room, obviously judging everything, communicating disapprovingly to one another. The narrator is embarrassed too. She doesn’t seem to love her teacher (she’s already feeling more sophisticated), but she does realize there’s something wrong with discussing Miss Marsalles and her situation in her own living room while Miss Marsalles attends to each sub-par performance with happiness.

The story shifts focus toward the end. Throughout the story, Miss Marsalles seemed to be waiting for more students to arrive, but, the parents and narrator realize, anyone smart enough not to be there at the beginning is not going to show up late. They’ve escaped. But the students only Miss Marsalles expected do show up. They are students from Greenhill School for handicapped children.

The parents quietly moan as they realize the party is not as close to being over as they’d hoped. And now they have to listen to these students. Miss Clegg tries to lighten the mood while showing just how superior these parents feel: “Sometimes that kind is quite musical.”

As it turns out, one of the girls from Greenhill School performs a beautiful rendition of “The Dance of the Happy Shades” (going by Wikipedia, this may refer to a piece from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice). Everyone is quiet. The narrator says the music “carries with it the freedom of a great unemotional happiness.” When the performance is over, Miss Marsalles “smiles at everybody in her usual way. Her smile is not triumphant, or modest.” After all, says the narrator, “people who believe in miracles do not make much fuss when the actually encounter one.”

So who are the shades? Are they the parents who, because of attitudes of superiority and condescension, are often unable to partake in the beautiful connection between people, life, and art? Or are the shades Miss Marsalles and the children from Greenhill School, dancing and happy, obscured by social mores? Either way, the narrator recognizes that she and her mother do not inhabit the same land as Miss Marsalles and these children from Greenhill School, and perhaps she is the lesser for it. But at least here she was able to receive “that one communiqué from the other country where [Miss Marsalles] lives.”


Alice Munro’s “Dance of the Happy Shades” is important.  In this story, Munro shows a typical children’s piano recital, complete with its little sandwiches and elderly teacher, its itchy mothers and bored children. But she adds the surprise at the end of real music played so it “could be felt” by the most unlikely candidate: a teenaged girl with Down syndrome. Thus is everyone confronted with a peculiar challenge to their sense of what is right: somebody who doesn’t really belong, somebody who is a disabled stranger, somebody who at that time would have been mostly cloistered from society, somebody who would have difficulty with speech, is more perfectly communicative than anyone else in the room.

Munro speaks for me. My beautiful, engaging, bookish, athletic, funny, musical, four-year-old grandson has Down syndrome. I recently returned from a conference in Worcester where father and son guitarists Ricardo and Cesar Coloma performed, playing the music “so it could be felt,” as Munro would have said, regardless that the younger Coloma has Down syndrome. See more here.

Serious literature about people with Down syndrome is not common. When this story was published in 1961, there was only one other serious work in which Down syndrome figured — Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury, published in 1929. Faulkner’s book beautifully uses Benjy Compson to express every human’s essential need for love.

Munro’s story goes beyond Faulkner’s careful, thoughtful and loving portrait of Benjy, however. In Faulkner’s novel, Benjy is mute, and he is a victim. In Munro’s story, the girl is not mute, in that she plays music, real music, with skill and sensitivity. She is, in fact, a musician, when all the students are just drudges. And despite her probable hospitalization, she is not a victim. She is an actor in her own life, an actor upon the stage of the story, an actor upon the perceptions of the other characters, and upon us, as well.

In “Dance of the Happy Shades” Munro went against the tide of 1950’s accepted beliefs. Most parents of a child with Down syndrome at that time were advised to institutionalize their baby at birth. They were told the child might never talk and couldn’t be taught. (Even Arthur Miller. In an article entitled “Arthur Miller’s Missing Act” in the September, 2007, issue of Vanity Fair, Suzanna Andrews tells the story of how Miller consigned his son Danny, who had Down syndrome, to the Connecticut State Hospital system.)

While Munro’s characters are from an institution, they show promise one could not have easily imagined at that time, and Miss Marsalles shows goodness most people of the time would have called wrong-headed.

Munro’s story is marked by the courage she summoned, for a variety of reasons, to write it.

In the seventies, various court decisions in the United States closed many of the state institutions and simultaneously ordered public schools to educate all children in their jurisdiction. By the eighties, many children with Down syndrome were being educated in public schools. This is the picture now in Boston: students with Down syndrome are often in inclusive classrooms, learn sign language, learn to read, do math, learn sports, learn music, attend community college, have jobs. The Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress has a group of young adult self-advocates who travel to schools and medical schools to deliver lectures and conduct Q & A’s about what it is like to have Down syndrome. There is still much to be done to accomplish full inclusion in ordinary adult life for individuals with Down syndrome, however. Independent living, meaningful work, and marriage are the next frontier, not just for individuals with Down syndrome, but for many with disabilities.

What makes Munro’s story especially important is the way she tells it. The whole episode is seen through the eyes of a young teen who is old enough to observe what adults like her mother are saying and doing, but still young enough to have a mind of her own about what she is observing. The story thus sidesteps sentimentality and mawkishness. Instead, it has the teenager’s straightforward voice, and when the child with Down syndrome finally performs, we are as surprised at her beautiful music as the narrator.

I like the fearlessness of the story: Munro is not afraid to claim, in Miss Marsalles, that goodness exists. She is not afraid to show that goodness is complicated, that it can feel peculiar, unfamiliar, embarrassing, or even strange. Munro sets goodness against whining, carping, backsliding, missing the point, condescension, and blindness. In this story, Munro lets music be its own self, a language, an experience, a gift, a transport, a way of thought, not just a drudgery to be done.

Most of all, Munro gives disability a human dimension: in this story disability has a right to enjoy promise. Here, disability is just a part of being human, not the totality. Here, a person with a disability has her own gifts, her own mentor, and her own right to the pursuit of artistry. Munro allows both love and disability a voice, as well as ignorance and impatience.

If I were still teaching, I would teach “Dance of the Happy Shades.” I’d pair it with “The Sound and the Fury,” the Vanity Fair article, and a little Shakespeare. I’d also show an episode of Glee and one of Life Goes On.  I’d include an excerpt from the papers of seventies activist Benjamin Ricci, who fought the state of Massachusetts on behalf of the son he had placed at the Belchertown State School. We would consider the limitations of the point of view in Of Mice and Men, a widely studied but possibly misleading book. The students would pay a visit to the inclusion nursery school where my grandson is a student; they’d go on a day when the music therapist is there. They’d attend a conference at the NDSS, NDSC, or MDSC. And one of the Massachusetts self-advocates with Down syndrome would come to speak to them. We would consider the question of prejudice: is it easier to accept prejudice if a person looks different? (NDSS data shows that some persons with Down syndrome possess an IQ similar to that of some ordinary, unclassified, people.) We’d consider the way autism, Asperger’s, cerebral palsy, and other disabilities affect the inclusion of children in ordinary life. And then we’d read this story again.

A comment on the title “Dance of the Happy Shades”:  The title appears to refer to a musical piece by Hector Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique. If this is true, the title must be ironic, as the shades who dance in the Berlioz piece are participants at a witches’ Sabbath. Ironically, people with Down syndrome are often seen as happy, although Miss Marsales’ music students with Down syndrome are not particularly happy. What they are, or what one is, is gifted. One has to wonder then, whether the shades in this story are actually the mothers, who in their insularity are half-dead and happy in their ignorance, as they seem to lack a true understanding of either music or people. At the same time, though, the children with Down syndrome indulge their love of music, happily ignorant of the assumptions of ordinary people, who would most likely deny their right to play. Munro’s use of this ambiguous title for the whole book further extends the meaning: In “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” the little girl delightedly dances with a friend of her father’s, although it will be years before she understands who the friend really is. In “Trip to the Coast,” the repugnant grandmother dies “victorious,” a happy shade. Munro specializes in the half-perceptions of her characters — and their shades of truth.

My deep thanks to Alice Munro for writing “Dance of the Happy Shades.”

(One important caveat regarding the story is that it was written at a time when many hospitals to which people with Down syndrome were consigned were so overcrowded as to have become warehouses, a situation which Frederick Wiseman’s groundbreaking 1967  movie, Titicut Follies revealed. Munro’s “Greenhill School” appears to be an exception, or perhaps the story takes places in a time just prior to that sad warehousing.)

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