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Dance of Death

A series of woodcuts, said to be by Hans Holbein (1538), representing Death dancing after all sorts of persons, beginning with Adam and Eve. He is beside the judge on his bench, the priest in the pulpit, the nun in her cell, the doctor in his study, the bride and the beggar, the king and the infant; but is “swallowed up at last.”

This is often called the Dance Macabre, from a German who wrote verses on the subject. On the north side of Old St. Paul's was a cloister, on the walls of which was painted, at the cost of John Carpenter, town clerk of London (15th century), a “Dance of Death,” or “Death leading all the estate, with speeches of Death, and answers, by John Lydgate” (Stow). The Death-Dance in the Dominican Convent of Basle was retouched by Holbein.

PHRASES.

I'll lead you a pretty dance, i.e.
I'll bother or put you to trouble. The French say, Donner le bal à quelqu'un. The reference is to the complicated dances of former times, when all followed the leader.

To dance attendance.
To wait obsequiously, to be at the beck and call of another. The allusion is to the ancient custom of weddings, where the bride on the wedding-night had to dance with every guest, and play the amiable, though greatly annoyed.

“Then must the poore bryde kepe foote with a dauncer, and refuse none, how scabbed, foule, droncken, rude, and shameless soever he be.” —Christen: State of Matrimony, 1543.

I had thought
They had parted so much honestly among them
(At least, good manners) as not thus to suffer 
A man of his place, and so near our favour,
To dance attendance on their lordships' pleasures.

Shakespeare: Henry VIII., v. 2.

To dance upon nothing.
To be hanged.

Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894
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