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The Dead Can Dance

"With bony hands I hold my partner,
On soulless feet we cross the floor.
The music stops as if to answer
An empty knocking at the door.
It seems his skin was sweet as mango
When last I held him to my breast,
But now, we dance this grim fandango
And will, four years until we rest."
Olivia's poem, Grim Fandango

What do the dead do? Why, dance, of course. (Vampires and skeletons especially, it seems.) It's the hidden language of the soul (whether they have a soul or not). And if the dead aren't immediately chowing down on you, they may end up leading you in a jaunty tune. This probably stems from the Danse Macabre, a medieval allegory about how death unites everyone, how no matter your station, everyone does the "dance of death." And who doesn't want to dance? So if you're a bloodsucker, a bag of bones, or the bleak bringer of biolysis you can still boogie.

People who are hanged by the neck are sometimes mentioned to dance "the hemp fandango", "the sisal twostep" or "the gallows jig", a quite-literally-Gallows Humor reference to the way people would thrash at the end of the rope.

May or may not be related to the band Dead Can Dance. See also Monster Mash, Skeletal Musician, Mummies at the Dinner Table and I Love the Dead.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • One Piece: Brook, natch. Much of the Thriller Bark arc, actually.
  • The theme song for Hakaba Kitaro talks about ghosts dancing.
  • Princess Tutu has this trope show up twice, although considering the show is about dancing and can be darkly bizarre at times that might not be too surprising. The first time is in an episode based on the ballet Giselle, where a ghost of a woman that committed suicide dances against Rue and later Princess Tutu for the right to take Mytho to the Underworld. Later on, in the Depths of Despair, skeletons dance ballet — but not to Danse Macabre, as you might expect, but Dance of the Dying Swan. You also might count Drosselmeyer, who occasionally does brief dance steps and is quite dead.
  • Zombie protagonist Ayumu in Is This a Zombie? has been shown on a couple occasions to be a surprisingly good breakdancer.

    Film 
  • The Rules Of The Game has an actual danse macabre.
  • Appears, naturally, in The Seventh Seal.
  • Love And Death, Boris dances with the Grim Reaper at the conclusion.
  • Beetlejuice (as you might expect) ends with a dance number featuring a living prima donna supported by a team of ghostly footballers.
  • At the end of the John Travolta movie Michael, the archangel softshoes off into the end credits with a ghost as his partner.
  • Woody Allen's film Everyone Says I Love You features a scene set in a funeral parlor where a recently-deceased grandfather's spirit steps out of his body and leads a troupe of fellow ghosts in dancing to the song "Enjoy Yourself (It's Later than You Think)."
  • In Weekend At Bernies II, despite being dead, Bernie dances when he hears music as the result of a voodoo spell.
  • At one point in Dead And Breakfast, the zombies surrounding the protagonists stop their assault to break into song and dance, line dancing while a zombified Zachariah And The Lobos Riders play "We're Comin' To Kill Ya".
  • The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed Up Zombies is a musical with zombie dance numbers. Except they're not really zombies, and... oh, just read the movie's page.
  • Dancing often features in the Fire and Brimstone Hell seen in some of Georges Mlis's films, usually because his Satan and minions are clearly having A Hell of a Time. Heck (no pun intended)—the short film The Infernal Cake Walk, with assorted demons cheerfully tripping the light satanic with the titular dance, is completely devoted to this trope. Did we mention it's from 1903?
  • In Fido, a living woman and her family's pet zombie share a dance set to the Squirrel Nut Zippers' "Put a Lid On It".
  • In Carnival of Souls, the protagonist discovers that the footloose dead take the loss of their dance partners SERIOUSLY. Shudder.
  • In A Christmas Carol The Musical, Marley's ghost and his fellow wandering spirits do this towards the end of the "Link By Link" musical number.

    Folk Lore 
  • Dances of Death
  • Tales of music animating the recently dead and causing them to dance can be found from Europe to the Far East. Almost all versions feature a husband going into haunted ground (ghosts or elves) in order to retrieve the dancing body of his late wife.
  • Taoist exorcisms can involve a dance called the Step Of Yu to remove nearby ghosts.

    Literature 
  • In Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, when the dead "dance the Macabray" (danse macabre) with the living. Even The Grim Reaper, the Lady on the Grey, dances with the main character. The only one who doesn't dance is Silas because he is neither living nor dead.
  • In one of the books in the The Hollows series, Piscary's Pizzaria is turned into a vampire dance club.
  • The Discworld example that gives up the quote above is when Death dances with Miss Flitworth at the end of Reaper Man. She's dead, too.
  • In Johnny and the Dead, bag lady and time-traveller Mrs. Tachyon leads the ghosts in a re-enactment of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video.
  • Richard Matheson's short story "Dance of the Dead" has a group of young people in a post-World War III future visiting a nightclub where corpses are made to "dance" through the use of a nerve-gas spray.
  • The "dance of death" was a popular medieval genre for literature/prints and depicted dancing Death leading a train of people from all classes and walks of life: the implication being that at death everyone is equal.
  • In The Dresden Files, specifically Dead Beat, it is stated that zombies need music to stay animated. Specifically, they need a drumbeat to trick them into thinking that their heart is still beating. One of the book's Necromancers accomplishes this with a tricked-out vintage Cadillac featuring a monstrous subwoofer. For very big zombies, polka music works.
  • Kalman Mikszath's novelette, The Deaf Blacksmith Prakovsky has a brief mention of three musicians who accidentally walked in on a ball of dead people. The first sign of something being amiss is the people thanking the DOCTOR for helping them make it to this wonderful party.
  • In Skulduggery Pleasant: Death Bringer, the eponymous Skeleton Detective himself shows off his dancing skills at the Requiem Ball.

    Live-Action TV 
  • When Good Ghouls Go Bad was a made for TV Halloween movie by R.L. Stine, the dead rise from the grave on the night of Halloween and everybody thinks it's a Zombie Apocalypse. But no, it's just the reanimated corpse of a goth kid from the 1980s who wants to finally display his statue celebrating Halloween and then have an undead dance festival. Really.
  • The X-Files episode "Hollywood AD" invokes this trope. It is a fairly odd episode, even for The X-Files, but in it, Mulder proposes that the undead are motivated to fulfill the same drives as the living, and that they might eventually get to dancing, and laughing, and love. After he and Scully walk away, and just before the credits, you see a (fake) cemetery full of the dead dancing to some lively tune.
  • In Lexx, "the dead do not enjoy dancing"... until they're transformed into actual epileptic trees. Then they cheerfully sway back and forth, praising Oberon the Fairy King to the tune of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." It's Lexx.
  • Every episode of Strangers with Candy would end with everyone in the episode dancing happily, and the series finale, after Jerri and the teachers rioted and destroyed the school, was no different. Except everyone was looking a little translucent this time.
  • The Masters Of Horror episode, "Dance of the Dead", written by Richard Matheson and based on his short story above.
  • Vampires dance in Buffy the Vampire Slayer's musical episode.
    • And in The Movie, what does Lothos want to do on the night he and his minions finally launch their full-scale assault on Hemery High? He wants to "dahnce! AH-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HAAA!" (And sure enough, the school dance features - among other things - a vampire deejay playing Heavy Metal records.)
    • Angel also dances, horribly, in a mental scene. Wesley also dances in the same episode, equally horribly. But he's human.
  • Played for horror in Carnivle when a female carnie is murdered so the ghosts of the miners haunting a town can have someone to dance with.
  • The Grim Reaper in Horrible Histories always dances to the "Stupid Deaths" opening jingle, and even gets a team of Thrilleresque zombie backup dancers in the Scary Special song.

    Music 
  • Voltaire's "Day of the Dead". It's a lively tune about someone visiting Mexico during el Da de los Muertos (November 1, or the Day of the Dead/All Souls' Day), with expected results.
  • Saint-Sans's instrumental "Danse Macabre", based on a French poem by Henri Cazalis about Death using his violin to raise the dead and make them dance. The Skeleton Dance is based on this.
    • Iron Maiden's "Dance of Death" has a narrator speak of their experience joining in a festival straight out of the medieval Danse Macabre archetype. Given the band's penchant for literary, historical, and musical references, it's a good bet they were well aware of Saint-Sans's piece.
      • Avenged Sevenfold's "Dancing Dead" describes a similar scene. Interestingly, on the same album, they cover an Iron Maiden song ("Flash of the Blade"), and A7X is also very fond of academic, literary, and biblical references.
  • The Kingston Trio's "Zombie Jamboree".
  • Bobby "Boris" Pickett and the Crypt Kickers's biggest hit, "The Monster Mash", which is Frankenstein's Monster inventing a dance craze.
  • As mentioned in the caption above Oingo Boingo had a "Dead Man's Party." Elfman's involvement in composing for the Burton works mentioned in "Film" adds additional cool.
  • "Skeletons on Parade" by Ludo, apparently a reference to the Day of the Dead
  • The Insane Clown Posse's "The Headless Boogie" (a Spiritual Successor of sorts to "Monster Mash").
  • Halloween Treat, which was a Halloween-themed Disney clip show put together in 1982 for the then-debuting Disney cable channel, had a Dixieland jazz theme song with a "Gothic" sort of shuffle that in addition to being about equal parts goofy and ghoulish ("Tricks and treats to try tonight/....Your spirit's gonna howl tonight") is pretty danceable and is almost a guaranteed Ear Worm.
  • Sound Horizon will have you know that Thanatos, dour god of death or no, is not against a good dance party.
    • In addition, since the album following that one, Marchen, was effectively a Concept Album all about revenge from beyond the grave, this trope was perhaps inevitable in the live performance of it. It's particularly pronounced in "A Fairytale of Light and Darkness" and "The Song of Dusk."
  • Toni Childs has The Dead are Dancing, with a repetitive chorus about how the dead are dancing in the town.
  • The old hymn "Dem Bones".
    Dem bones better get up and dance around
    Dem bones better get up and dance around
    Dem bones better get up and dance around
    Now hear the word of the Lord

    Music Videos 

    Newspaper Comics 
  • There's a Calvin and Hobbes strip that invokes this by way of Woolseyism. In the original, Calvin and Hobbes play cowboys, and when Hobbes "shoots" Calvin, he gives him a "Death Rattle." In French, the translator changed it to, "It's the Danse Maraca-bre!" Feel free to groan, or gmir.

     Professional Wrestling 

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Warhammer there's a necromantic spell called "Vanhel's Dance Macabre", which makes the undead units it's used on move faster, presumably by making them dance.
    • There's also a short story set in the Warhammer world called Totentanz, in which a Liche ( one of the Nine Lords of Nagash) has a wager with an Arabyan vizier as to who dances better, a living human (performing the Dance of Seven Veils), or the chosen wights of the Liche who dance to a chamade, and all join in...
  • Magic: The Gathering has a card named Dance of the Dead, which raises a creature from the grave.
    • Also, the much more unsettling card, Macabre Waltz. "All dead move to the hollow rhythm of necromancy."
    • Death's Duet is yet another. "Life has always been a dance. It is only fitting that death sing the tune." Despite the flavor text, the card art depicts two nearly skeletal zombies dancing.
  • The Munchkin enemy "Mr. Bones" is depicted as a dancing skeleton with a cane and a hat.

    Theater 
  • In Carl Orff's opera Der Mond, the dead not only dance, but play ninepins and sing drinking songs.
  • Evil Dead: The Musical, especially the number "Do the Necronomicon."
  • The song "When the Night Wind Howls" from Ruddigore.
    For then is the spectre's holiday
    Then is the ghost's high noon!
  • Cirque du Soleil examples:
  • Tanz der Vampire's title actually refers to a social event, but nobody can deny that the dead don't get down in the finale.
  • In the final scene of The Consul, Magda (soon to be dead) has a vision in which her mother (already dead) dances with John (not dead yet but obviously doomed).
    The Magician: Choose a partner. The dance is on.

    Video Games 
  • Luigi's Mansion: Floating Whirlindas. They're just dancing and minding their own business... VACUUM TIME!
  • In King's Quest VI you can enter the Underworld and play a bone xylophone to make all of the demons dance, including some skeletons doing a Rockette/line dance thing! See it in all its glory here!
  • In Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, you get a hint for a future puzzle by watching your parents' skeletons dance in a concussed hallucination.
  • Mr Bones was a Sega Saturn platformer/rhythm game about a skeleton army raised by an evil necromancer. The only one not under his sway is the titular Mr. Bones, the resurrected corpse of a blues musician who is free from the mind control because he has music in his soul. The object of the game is to get through the haunted woods and put on a music and dance show that puts music in the souls of the other skeletons to free them. I'm not making any of this up.
  • The Wii Game Battle of the Bands has as a playable band: Scariatchi - a trio of Mexican skeletons who rose to play latin music and boogie.
  • As do the Sanbone Trio from Gitaroo Man. They'll make music with your bones.
    • You know a game's good when you're in danger of being flamenco'd to death by rib bones. Only to be saved by a talking robot dog from space. And then beat the flamenco skeletons with a magic guitar.
  • Castlevania features Ghost Dancers enemies starting off with Super Castlevania IV where they also have a boss status in the form of Paula Ghoul and Fred Ascare.
  • The Zombie class has their Thrill Dancing attack in Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten which summons a mob of dancing zombies that convince the target to join in. Amusingly, it has a S rank for the damage it causes (Which is the highest).
  • By wearing either the Garo Mask, Gibdo Mask, or Captain's Hat in The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask you can keep the Redead from trying to eat you. And what do they do when they aren't eating you? Dance, of course.
  • The Legend of Zelda
  • A "good" death in The Sims 2 lets The Grim Reaper hand you an Umbrella Drink, while two "Hula Zombies" accompany you in traditional dance. Death is a tropical vacation, provided you've lived your life right.
    • In The Sims 3's "Supernatural" expansion pack, zombies will climb their way onto your lawn during a full moon, and occasionally bring along a stereo for them to dance along to spooky music.
  • Deep inside a castle in The Bard's Tale, you run into two groups of zombies having a dance-off.
  • Sam & Max once investigate "the Zombie Factory", which turns out to be a nightclub for zombies created by a vampire. Open Mic Night is every night!
  • The gamestop pre-order promo for Batman: Arkham Asylum is a bonus level of dancing skeletons. They also sing "Dem Bones."
  • The Dancing Zombies boss in Monster Party.
  • The Dancing Zombie from Plants vs. Zombies summons a quartet of "backup dancer" mooks to guard him as they boogie toward your front lawn.
    • Also in that game, if you grow the Tree of Wisdom high enough, it will unlock a cheat code of "dance" that makes several classes of zombie "dance" toward your position instead of walking.
  • Burn, Zombie Burn! has a "Dance Gun" weapon that allows you to force the zombies to dance. While they're doing this, they won't attack you, giving you plenty of time to mow them down with a chainsaw, TNT, or other weapons.
  • One of the playable characters in Bust A Groove 2 is Bi-O, a zombie who could do Thriller-esque moves.
  • Spyro: Riptos Rage has a mission where you must collect all these bones to repair a caveman's skeleton friend. Once you collect them all he gives you an Orb and the skeleton forms together and dances. (The music it dances to rather catchy too)
  • World of Warcraft, besides having dance animations for every playable race including the undead Forsaken, has an odd encounter in one of the Razorfen dungeons where the PCs walk in on a skeleton dance party. The skeletons are not amused.
  • This is about half of what goes on in Spookyraven Manor's Haunted Ballroom in Kingdom of Loathing.
  • Referenced in the title and an in-game poem in Grim Fandango, but only as a metaphor.#
    • "In life his skin was sweet as mango / when I held him to my breast / but now we dance this Grim Fandango / and will for years before we rest..."
  • In Alone In The Dark 1992, a group of ghost ballroom dancers guards the pirate's key, and you must play the Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) record on the gramophone to make them dance and move away from it.
  • Discworld II opens with a song and dance routine performed by skeletons.

    Webcomics 

    Western Animation 

    Other 
  • Don't forget Disney's Haunted Mansion rides.
    • Similarly, the Dutch amusement park "De Efteling" has a Haunted Mansion with the same theme where the dead dance to the "Dance Macabre".
  • The musical piece by Saint-Sans mentioned above is based on a poem by Henri Cazalis which was in turn based on an old French superstition that said that Death appears at midnight on Hallowe'en and calls forth the dead to dance while he plays the fiddle until the break of dawn.
  • Any ballet that features dead characters by default, like Giselle and Dracula. (Yes, there's been a ballet based on Dracula. Several, in fact.)


Dancing With MyselfDancing TropesEverybody Do the Endless Loop
Dancing PantsAbsurdity AscendantDeranged Animation
Damsel ErrantOlder Than PrintDirect Line to the Author
Dead All AlongUndead IndexVampire Dance
Daylight HorrorHorror TropesVampire Dance
Corpse BrideImageSource/Animated FilmsUndeathly Pallor

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