THE DANCING MAN by Ruth Lercher Bernstein (Clarion Books. $15).
In a village by the Baltic Sea, young Joseph was surrounded by a dreary and hard world. But no one else saw what Joseph did; a world of dancing fires on the hearth, trees swaying in rhythm and clouds moving gracefully across the sky. His dream was to someday dance as nature did and cavort from village to village.All these things Joseph kept secret.
One evening a man appeared in a long red coat, a tall green hat, and on his feet a pair of silver shoes. "I'm the Dancing Man . . . and I have a gift for you . . . " He left the silver shoes for the lad.
The years passed and when the shoes finally fit Joseph's dancing feet, he came to the village where people joined hands, swayed and smiled.
Joseph danced in many villages. In one he danced with a flower, a gift from an old woman. In another he danced for a weary peddler who laughed and forgot his cares. He danced the signs of spring into a great home where a pale girl, full of illness and pain, finally smiled and begged him to stay. But Joseph danced on and on.
In a town where children feared the darkness, he danced " . . . frogs and streams and stars and moons. . ." They pleaded for him to remain with them, but the silver dancing shoes carried him on to a farm that was rich in harvest.
"Before he knew it, Joseph put out a foot.
He began to dance.
He danced the sowing of the seeds and the green crops growing.
He danced the fruits ripening.
He danced the fine harvest . . ."
And the farmer, his face shining with understanding, danced in the fields.
Over much time and through many seasons, Joseph danced, and though the silver shoes shone, he realized one thing still remained for him to do. As he neared the southernmost seas, a boy stood on the shore and Joseph knew the words to say, "I'm the Dancing Man. I have a gift for you."
Twenty years ago, Bornstein wrote this text and has now restored it into a picture book with fresh, new pastel oil paintings. The gently faded palette of village life is highlighted by the Dancing Man's long red coat and sea green top hat. This is later replaced by Joseph's blue cloak and yellow chapeau, suggesting that the communication of the dance may be a gift but the rendition at any level is one's own.
The artist has not included details that would be detractors in her art. The focus is entirely on the dancer, and his message is the story - beautifully told. Each vibrant, double-page spread of yellow, blue, pink and green (and sometimes a blend of all those colors) serves as a backdrop for the Dancing Man.
Several interpretations of "The Dancing Man" may be made by the reader: esoteric, spiritual, aesthetic. But the theme is simply, "pass-it-on." Barbara Cooney did the same in "Miss Rumphius" as did Virginia Burton in "The Little House."
What a powerful message to give young readers: that when something is lovely, we want them to share it and pass it on. We are grateful Bernstein, 20 years ago and now, has done it with "The Dancing Man."