Literature Study GuidesMaster Harold And The BoysSection 4 The Dance Contest Summary

Master Harold... and the Boys | Study Guide

Athol Fugard

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Master Harold... and the Boys | Section 4 (The Dance Contest) | Summary



Sam starts dancing and singing, and soon he and Willie are goofing around. Hally rebukes them, saying sharply, "Sam! Willie!" He hits Willie with a ruler. "Hit him too!" Willie objects, but Hally tells him to shut up. He speaks at length, and very pompously, about the impropriety of Sam and Willie dancing in the tearoom. Sam calls dancing "a harmless pleasure"; Hally calls it, with scorn, "a rather simple one." Sam continues his defense of dancing. Incredulous, Hally says, "You're not asking me to take ballroom dancing serious, are you?" Sam asks Hally what is wrong with "admiring something that's beautiful and trying to do it yourself." Sam and Hally go back and forth over whether a dance like the foxtrot is art. Sam contends art is what's beautiful; Hally says it is what's meaningful.

Upping the stakes of the argument, Sam says Hally should come to the dance contest in two weeks, where he could see for himself. Hally claims he can imagine it, having seen Sam and Willie practice. Sam points out what Hally fails to imagine: the excitement and the music at the annual event. At the mention of an annual event, Hally pricks up his ears; he wonders if he could "get away" with writing his essay about the dance contest, focusing on "the culture of a primitive black society."

Hally asks Sam and Willie to create the scene of the dance contest for him. Sam describes the setting and Hally takes notes. Then Sam takes on the role of the emcee at the 1950 Eastern Province Open Ballroom Championships. He introduces the contestants, including "our very own Mr. Willie Malopo and Miss Hilda Samuels." Sam wants Willie to play the jukebox, to add to the scene, but Willie objects. "I only got bus fare," he says.

Sam explains how the performances are scored, with points for "individual style, deportment, rhythm, and general appearance." Hally asks if points are docked for colliding with another couple; this question causes Sam and Willie to burst out laughing. "There's no collisions out there," Sam explains. Being on the dance floor as a finalist is "like being in a dream." To his surprise, Hally finds this perspective beautiful. Warming to his theme, Sam describes the dance as an image or experience of peaceable coexistence. He describes all kinds of conflict with the metaphor of a "collision" on the dance floor: "America has bumped into Russia ... rich man collides with poor man." He proposes that people could learn how to get along from dancing: "Learn to dance life like champions instead of always being beginners at it."

At first Hally is skeptical; maybe the dance is just an example of "dreaming about the way it should be." Sam says, "it starts with that," with dreaming. Their conversation drifts again to great figures of history. Sam brings up Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948); Hally mentions South African statesman General Jan Smuts (1870–1950). Hally starts to think of a grander scope for his essay, incorporating Sam's ideas with titles like "Global Politics on the Dance Floor" and "Ballroom Dancing as a Political Vision."


The dance contest, like the boarding-house memory, functions as a separate scene with its own setting and characters. Sam sets the scene, almost as if reading out stage directions, and then he plays another character, the dance contest's emcee. Using the technique of having the characters create a play-within-a-play, Fugard expands the scope of this one-act, one-room production.

Sam and Hally have different approaches to art. Hally looks at art from the perspective of the discerning viewer or consumer. He relies on his education to help him know which art forms are important. He scorns low forms of entertainment. For instance, at the beginning of the play, he dismisses comic books as "rubbish," and in this section he is incredulous about taking ballroom dancing seriously. Sam, on the other hand, looks at art not only as a consumer but as someone who can participate—someone who can also create art. "The important thing about art is admiring something that's beautiful and trying to do it yourself," Sam says about ballroom dancing.

Deep down Hally also wants to be an artist. In the previous section Hally thought about turning the kite incident into a short story. In an interview with the American literary magazine Paris Review, Fugard said he could see his growing interest in becoming a writer in the character of Hally, the "gauche young schoolboy playing around with words ... thinking about writing a short story." With ballroom dancing, Hally doesn't become interested until Sam shows him that dance can be a symbol of peaceful coexistence.

However, Hally initially thinks about approaching ballroom dancing as an example of primitive art. He pictures the essay he'll write about it "in strict anthropological terms." His initial thesis is that black Africans' "war-dance[s]" have evolved into ballroom dance contests. He intends to approach the topic as a white observer explaining "the culture of a primitive black society." While he believes Sam and other black South Africans are now part of a modern society, he still views them as separate and lesser; ballroom dancing is still "the release of primitive emotions through movement." Eventually Hally becomes intrigued by Sam's vision of the dance, in which harmonious coexistence is not limited to one group or race.

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