About This Word

dance with the devil

[dans with th uh dev-uh l]

What does dance with the devil mean mean?

To dance with the devil is to engage in risky, reckless, or potentially immoral behavior.

Where does dance with the devil come from?

R.A.N. Harvey's History of the French in America, published in 1885, records a folktale about a girl who declares, against her mother's wishes, that she would dance on her Communion day even if she had to dance with the devil. Her dancing partner does indeed turn out to be the devil, who can only be banished by a priest after wounding the girl. A Finnish folktale, reported by the Finnish Literary Society, also tells of a girl who is so proud to be chosen as the devil's dance partner that she dances until her feet bleed. Although these stories feature the devil literally, they help establish the idiom's sense of flirting danger or of indulging in self-destructive behavior.

The Library Congress recorded a copyright for a musical composition titled "Dancing with the Devil is a Dangerous Game" in 1944. Drummer Cozy Powell released an instrumental called "Dance with the Devil" in 1973. Keeping with the phrase's musical overtones, a 1984 book on the Rolling Stones was also titled Dance with the Devil.

In Tim Burton's 1989 movie Batman, the Joker, played by Jack Nicholson, asks "you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?" before shooting Bruce Wayne. What he means, exactly, is unclear, but the character claims he just "like[s] the sound of it." It suggests a kind of romantic recklessness.

The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs records "If you dance with the devil, you will get burned," with examples dating back to the mid 1990s. It also notes a similar expression, using "lie with the devil," in earlier use. In the 1972 Andrew Sinclair novel Magog, for example, one character warns another "Lie down with the Devil and you get fucked by the Devil too."

The 1999 thriller 8mm features a variation on the idiom that further emphasizes moral peril "When you dance with the devil, the devil doesn't change — you do." Michael Signer, mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia, used this variant in response to President Trump's sympathetic-seeming response to far-right violence in Charlottesville in 2016.

Who uses dance with the devil?

The concept of dancing with the devil is frequently invoked in politics to describe interacting with perceived enemies or potential dangerous figures. One such political text is Michael Rubin's 2014 Dancing with the Devil: the Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes. An article from the libertarian Technology Liberation Front, as another example, warned that tech companies working with the federal government was a dance with the devil and that they would "get burnt."

Rapper Immortal Technique invoked the sense of moral danger in his 2001 song "Dance with the Devil." The song tells the story of a criminal who will go to any length for success, but then commits suicide in remorse for his actions.

Dance with the devil is also used in colloquial speech and writing for humorous effect, characterizing mildly ill-advised behaviors one engages in but knows better (e.g., I know it's 3am, but I'm going to dance with the devil and watch one more episode on Netflix.).

Dance with death is a similar phrase used to indicate an activity that tempts fate. For example A Dance with Death served as the title of a book about Soviet Airwomen in World War II.

For example

If your mind doesn’t dance with the devil just a bit, you are probably not the woman for me

@dsartiststudio, March, 2018

I worry that it's a dance with the devil...It’s multimillions of dollars, and money changes people. And if we don’t remain vigilant and ask questions, we will go the way of other institutions.

Margaret Brabant quoted by Jenna Johnson, The Washington Post, March, 2013

It happened again after my first post-Whole30 cheeseburger. Chicken parm was problematic, too. My favorite late-night writing snack, Oreos washed down with a glass of whole milk, became a veritable dance with the devil.

Kate Morgan, The Cut, February, 2018

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