Where To Dance With Death In London

By Londonist Last edited 20 months ago
Where To Dance With Death In London
Picture shows a painting of people such as princes, paupers and popes dancing with skeletons
Danse Macabre of Basel, watercolour copy by Johann Rudolf Feyerabend, 1806: upper left. Image from the Historisches Museum of Basel

The image of a beautiful woman dancing suggestively with a skeleton or 'death' 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.

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 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

People dancing at Enon Chapel, London, with the gruesome corpses stuffed under the floorboards below them.
Enon Chapel — Cemetery and Dancing Saloon. Photo by Wellcome Images.

This unassuming 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 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. The complete story can be read here.

Interestingly the chapel became a venue for tea dances which capitalised on its 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 built — the excavations for which, in 1967, produced large quantities of human bone.

Joseph Grimaldi’s grave memorial

Grimaldi's grave memorial. Photo by Carla Valentine.

Joseph Grimaldi was an incredibly popular Regency entertainer. His re-imagining of the medieval 'fool' character led him to become the first white-faced clown (like those we see today), and originator of the fine art of the pantomime. He's highly respected in the arts and showbiz field and it is he who is honoured annually in a Clown's memorial service every February in Dalston.

Grimaldi even has a park dedicated to him in Islington (off Pentonville Road), where he died. In the park is a memorial, designed by Henry Krokatsis and installed in 2010. It consists of two bronze coffins embedded in the ground and divided into sections, each of which plays 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...

Hear 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 naturally very popular at Halloween and is often performed in London.

If you want more than just the sounds of the dance, the Last Tuesday Society's Danse Macabre multi-sensory Halloween Ball takes place every year.

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". You can re-create the original Thriller dancing zombie extravaganza by seeing Thriller Live! in the West End.

The thing about being 'scare-oused' is that it's an enjoyable feeling that most of us seek to recreate by watching horror movies or playing computer games. For more interactive death experiences, London does the odd zombie flashmob, and year-round zombie attack games.

And there's always its death cafes, too.

By Carla Valentine

Last Updated 31 October 2016