"Master Harold" … and the Boys

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Ballroom Dance Symbol Analysis

Ballroom Dance Symbol Icon
In “Master Harold”… and the boys ballroom dance serves both as a symbol of escape from the world as it is and as an ideal, potential world, a “world without collisions.” Willie and Sam preoccupy themselves with dance as a way to distract themselves from the humdrum routine of waiting tables at the somewhat shabby St. George’s Tea Room. Hally, however, fails to see the beauty and significance of dance. His nonplussed attitude makes sense: as a socially privileged white boy he doesn’t face the same kind of oppression and, therefore, has less to escape from, societally speaking, than Sam and Willie. What’s more, the world already seems a little more ideal when you’re sitting at the top of it. The contrast between an ideal world and the world as it is becomes strikingly evident at the play’s conclusion. Willie spends his bus fare on a song so that he can dance, not with a movie star, but with another aging man, yet, for a moment, Sam, Willie, the St. George’s Tea Room, and the world’s imperfections are transformed into a fluid and ideal beauty.

Ballroom Dance Quotes in "Master Harold" … and the Boys

The "Master Harold" … and the Boys quotes below all refer to the symbol of Ballroom Dance. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Racism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage International edition of "Master Harold" … and the Boys published in 2009.
"Master Harold" … and the Boys Quotes

SAM: That’s your trouble. You’re trying too hard.
WILLIE: I try hard because it is hard.
SAM: But don’t let me see it. The secret is to make it look easy.

Related Characters: Sam (speaker), Willie (speaker)
Related Symbols: Ballroom Dance
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

Sam and Willie are at work in St George's tea room, but because there are no customers, Sam has been reading comic books and Willie has been singing and practicing a ballroom dance routine. Willie has asked Sam to judge his dancing, and Sam responds that Willie is "too stiff" and looks like he is trying too hard, advising Willie that "the secret is to make it look easy." This exchange immediately establishes a dynamic wherein Sam, who is slightly older and has more experience of the world, imparts knowledge and advice to Willie. As in this instance, this advice often takes the form of telling Willie the "proper" way to conduct himself. 

Note that Sam's words here have a double meaning, born out of the symbolic significance of ballroom dance in the play. It's certainly true that giving the appearance of effortlessness is an important element of dance; at the same time, Sam's advice is also relevant to his and Willie's status as black South Africans in the Apartheid era. Their subordinate social position and role as servants to the white family who own the tearoom means life is certainly hard for them, yet Sam's words suggest that they must not reveal this outwardly. Maintaining a smooth, effortless "performance" is arguably important in order to retain a sense of dignity, or simply to stay employed and out of trouble. Either way, Willie's advice proves that life for black South Africans is akin to a complex dance, requiring skill that must be practiced and perfected via shared knowledge. 

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Love story and happy ending! She’s doing it all right, Boet Sam, but it’s not me she’s giving happy endings. Fuckin’ whore!

Related Characters: Willie (speaker), Sam
Related Symbols: Ballroom Dance
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

Following his advice about making dance look effortless, Sam has told Willie that ballroom dance must look "happy," evoking glamour and romance. Willie has asked what romance is, and when Sam explains that it is a "love story with a happy ending," Willie responds that his dance partner, Hilda, is giving others "happy endings," and he calls her a "fuckin' whore." Again, this passage emphasizes how Willie's rough and ignorant nature contrasts with the wisdom and restraint shown by Sam. Willie's violent anger towards Hilda suggests he enacts the frustration he feels as a result of his own oppression on her. Indeed, he blames Hilda for the fact that he does not have "happy endings," and his habit of beating her is an example of a cycle of abuse, an important theme in the play.  

Tried to be clever, as usual. Said I was no Leonardo da Vinci and that bad art had to be punished. So, six of the best, and his are bloody good.

Related Characters: Hally (speaker)
Related Symbols: Ballroom Dance
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

Hally has started doing homework and Sam has noticed a caricature Hally drew of his math teacher. Sam compliments the caricature, but Hally says that when his teacher found it he "tried to be clever" by saying Hally was no Leonardo da Vinci, and used this as an excuse to give Hally six lashes of the cane. This story suggests that Hally's teacher gets a kind of sadistic pleasure out of punishing him, even making a joke out of it. It also further emphasizes the thematic importance of artistic skill as a metaphor for desirable behavior. Just as Sam criticizes Willie for dancing stiffly, Hally's teacher (presumably) scolds him for drawing badly. These examples show that both Willie and Hally's behavior is constantly being monitored and evaluated. 

I’ve been far too lenient with the two of you. But what really makes me bitter is that I allow you chaps a little freedom in here when business is bad and, what do you do with it? The foxtrot! Specially you, Sam. There’s more to life than trotting around a dance floor and I thought at least you knew it.

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Sam, Willie
Related Symbols: Ballroom Dance
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

Hally has been behaving in an increasingly cruel and strict manner with Sam and Willie, even rapping Willie on the bum with his ruler. Having at first complained that the two men were distracting him from his homework, Hally then abandons his homework and begins strolling around with the ruler in his hands "like a little despot," telling Sam and Willie that he has been "too lenient" with them. The manner in which Hally quickly assumes the role of a pompous, unforgiving ruler is disturbing. Although the chronology of events makes it clear that Hally's obnoxious behavior directly results from his fear of his father, Hally's sudden change of character suggests that compassion and friendship give way all too easily to cruelty. 

Regardless of his friendly relationship to Sam, Hally clearly believes that––as a white person––it is natural for him to rule over Sam and Willie, even though they are much older than he is. Indeed, the tone Hally adopts implies that he is wiser and more mature than Sam and Willie, although it is obvious from Hally's behavior that he is still very much a child with a naïve and somewhat foolish understanding of the world. Hally's comment that there is "more to life" than the foxtrot is misguided, considering the dance represents fundamental themes of struggle, harmony, and propriety within the world of the play. It is also ironic that Hally is precociously scolding Sam for taking the foxtrot too seriously, considering the reality of Sam's life is far more harsh and complicated than Hally's. 

There’s no collisions out there, Hally. Nobody trips or stumbles or bumps into anybody else. That’s what that moment is all about. To be one of those finalists on the dance floor is like… like being in a dream about a world in which accidents don’t happen.

Related Characters: Sam (speaker), Hally
Related Symbols: Ballroom Dance
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

Hally has mentioned that he has to write about a significant cultural event for his homework, and is considering writing about the ballroom dance competition in New Brighton. Sam has described and reenacted the event along with Willie, and when Hally asks if the dancers are given penalties when they bump into one another, Sam explains that the dance competition is "like being in a dream" in which people don't bump into each other. This passage illustrates the symbolic significance of ballroom dance within the play, and shows why Sam and Willie are so invested in it. Unlike the real world, in the ballroom all people work together in harmony, without "accidents" or conflict. Sam admits that this is only an unrealistic "dream," but remains committed to pursuing it if only in the realm of dance. 

It’s beautiful because that is what we want life to be like. But instead… we’re bumping into each other all the time. Look at the three of us this afternoon… Open a newspaper and what do you read? America has bumped into Russia, England is bumping into India, rich man bumps into poor man… People get hurt in all that bumping, and we’re sick and tired of it now.

Related Characters: Sam (speaker)
Related Symbols: Ballroom Dance
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

Sam has described the ballroom dance competition at New Brighton, and explained to Hally that there are no collisions there. He tells Hally "this is what we want life to be like," and reflects that instead, news of the world is filled with conflict: "England is bumping into India, rich man bumps into poor man." Sam's words further emphasize the symbolic importance of dance, especially to black South Africans whose lives are dominated by tension and discord with the ruling whites. Note that the example of England bumping into India makes an explicit connection between ballroom dance and colonialism. 

Sam's choice of words is reminiscent of the way adults might teach young children about conflict, using gentle metaphors that obscure the violent reality of such struggles. His statement that people are "sick and tired" of being hurt by "all that bumping" could indicate that black South Africans may be on the verge of revolting against the oppression to which they are subjected; however, the overall impression of his speech seems more to indicate the necessity of escaping this oppressive reality in the "dream world" of dance. 

You’re right. We musn’t despair. Maybe there’s some hope for mankind after all. Keep it up, Willie.

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Willie
Related Symbols: Ballroom Dance
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

Hally has asked Sam if it is enough to throw oneself into the "dream" of ballroom dance, and Sam responds that this dream can be the start of actual progressive action. Hally concludes that the United Nations is "a dancing school for politicians," and announces that he now feels more hopeful about the future of mankind. This sudden change of opinion illustrates the power of art to inspire optimism; however, Hally's newly hopeful mindset soon shatters, implying that this power is somewhat limited. Note the irony of the fact that Sam and Willie remain consistently hopeful while Hally is quick to resort to a pessimistic, resentful attitude. Although all three characters experience struggle, Hally is arguably in a far better position due to his social, racial, and economic status. 

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Ballroom Dance Symbol Timeline in "Master Harold" … and the Boys

The timeline below shows where the symbol Ballroom Dance appears in "Master Harold" … and the Boys. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
"Master Harold" … and the Boys
Ignorance vs. Learning, Education, and Wisdom Theme Icon
Dance and Dream Theme Icon
...his dancing, and Sam tells Willie to relax. Willie is frustrated with the difficulty of dance. (full context)
Abuse, Oppression, and Inequality Theme Icon
Ignorance vs. Learning, Education, and Wisdom Theme Icon
Cripples and Broken Things Theme Icon
Dance and Dream Theme Icon
Sam and Willie discuss movie star dancers and romance as a metaphor for dance. Willie says he doesn’t have any romance left... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Ignorance vs. Learning, Education, and Wisdom Theme Icon
Cripples and Broken Things Theme Icon
Dance and Dream Theme Icon
Hally and Willie banter about dance and Willie accidentally hits Hally with his washrag. Hally tells “the boys” to get back... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Abuse, Oppression, and Inequality Theme Icon
Ignorance vs. Learning, Education, and Wisdom Theme Icon
Cripples and Broken Things Theme Icon
Dance and Dream Theme Icon
...from behind the counter. He says there is more to life than “trotting around a dance floor.” (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Abuse, Oppression, and Inequality Theme Icon
Ignorance vs. Learning, Education, and Wisdom Theme Icon
Dance and Dream Theme Icon
Hally says that dance isn’t art and that art is “the giving of meaning to matter” or “the giving... (full context)
Ignorance vs. Learning, Education, and Wisdom Theme Icon
Dance and Dream Theme Icon
Sam begins to describe the festive atmosphere at the dance hall, the lights, the excitement, the music by Mr. Elijah Gladman and his Ochestral Jazzonians,... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Abuse, Oppression, and Inequality Theme Icon
Ignorance vs. Learning, Education, and Wisdom Theme Icon
Dance and Dream Theme Icon
...asking how many finalists there are (six couples) and for a description of the final dance. (full context)
Abuse, Oppression, and Inequality Theme Icon
Ignorance vs. Learning, Education, and Wisdom Theme Icon
Dance and Dream Theme Icon
...for stumbling or doing something wrong. Sam and Willie laugh. Sam explains that the finalist’s dance is a kind of ideal world, “a world without collisions.” Sam says “it’s beautiful because... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Abuse, Oppression, and Inequality Theme Icon
Ignorance vs. Learning, Education, and Wisdom Theme Icon
Cripples and Broken Things Theme Icon
Dance and Dream Theme Icon
...to mind his own business. Sam tries to distract Hally with more talk of the dance competition, but Hally tears up the page he had been writing on. Hally calls all... (full context)
Abuse, Oppression, and Inequality Theme Icon
Ignorance vs. Learning, Education, and Wisdom Theme Icon
Cripples and Broken Things Theme Icon
Dance and Dream Theme Icon
...spend his bus fare on a song from the juke box, and the two men dance to a song sung by the singer Sarah Vaughn. Sam leads and Willie follows. (full context)