to lead someone a merry dance

Discussion in 'English Only' started by susanna76, Nov 29, 2011.

  1. susanna76 Senior Member

    Hi there,I

    I'm wondering about "to lead someone a merry dance." I've seen it before but the only impression I was left with was someone dancing around (like a buffoon) someone else in order to attract his attention and fool him. By the way, what DOES this phrase refer to literally, and how is the connection made to the figurative sense?

    And what IS this figurative sense?
    WR gives:
    lead someone a merry dance Brit. cause someone a great deal of trouble or worry.
    a second Web site ( has:
    to deceive someone

    and a third (
    to evade capture

    This latter sense seems to be the one used by Toni Jordan in her novel Fall Girl:
    "Poor Benito [a pirate] was set upon by the British Navy and he led them a merry dance, right along the southern coast of Australia."

    Thank you!
  2. exgerman Senior Member

    English but my first language was German
    It's a reference to various medieval customs involving line dances, where people line up in the streets and follow and imitate the steps of a leader. There were happy ones as referred to here, and less happy ones like the dance of death and the pied piper of Hamelin.
  3. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    Another Country
    English English
    Hullo Susanna. For me the meaning is primarily the WR one you quoted, entirely ironic in that the dance is anything but merry.
  4. susanna76 Senior Member

    Hi again. Exgerman: That explains the "lead" in the phrase. Thank you!
    ewie: Thank you!
  5. exgerman Senior Member

    English but my first language was German
    Thinking it over again, the dance itself is (deceptively) merry, but the result is not.

    The children enticed away by the pied piper were happy to go, and enjoyed the dance. They didn't kow how it was going to end.

    The cross-section of medieval society depicted in the dance of death were led in a merry dance by a skeleton and were enjoying themselves while playing follow the leader, unaware that they were going to their death.
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2011
  6. susanna76 Senior Member

    Somehow I'm fascinated by this phrase. Why does WR say Brit next to it? Is it not used in the US?

    It reminds me of Danse Macabre. I think that's what you're saying.

    I know the basic storyline of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, although I have never actually read a version of the legend. Wiki has some interesting observations about the story, how it may disguise various historical truths.

    Thanks so much, again, to both of you!

    One thing though: Are you sure this is the origin of the phrase, or you just made the connection extemporaneously? I'm asking because, as I said, I really like this phrase, and I'd like to be able to use it properly.
  7. exgerman Senior Member

    English but my first language was German
    It's what I've always associated the phrase with, but I don't know if that is really the source.

    Yes, dance of death is the northern European version of the danse macabre.
  8. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    Another Country
    English English
    ~Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 14th ed.

    I think we can safely assume that the merry dance and pretty dance versions are one and the same expression, though I've never ever heard the latter.
    It's unclear whether they mean the kind of dances you've been talking about ('folk' dances) or more ballroomy stuff like the quadrille.
  9. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod (English Only)

    I have only read it or heard it in British works. I'm familiar with it because I've been exposed to it but I wouldn't personally use it.
  10. susanna76 Senior Member

    Hi exgerman, ewie, and JamesM, I really appreciate your help. Thank you!!

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