In many places, I have seen the phrase "engage in a delicate dance". But I don't know what this phrase means. For example:

He engages in a delicate dance, trying to keep some children stable while treating the sickest.
[Source: Nature]

Preservation and Development, Engaged in a Delicate Dance.
[Example source: New York Times]

Senate and House committee leaders already are engaged in a delicate dance with Mueller to secure documents and public testimony from James Comey.
[Example source: USA Today]

What does this phrase mean?

  • Picture someone doing a delicate ballet dance, very carefully balancing on one toe and then the other.
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 15, 2017 at 3:05

1 Answer 1


It's a metaphor that implies skill, meticulousness and balance. Possibly feet - more on that with the examples.

In your first example you have a person who is providing health care to more children than they can reasonably care for. He's doing his best to help the sickest children, while keeping the others stable. These are conflicting priorities and balance is crucial. The sick children are in themselves delicate, and he must be meticulous and skillful in his care to avoid harming them further. The metaphor of a dance in this case implies a doctor or nurse that is moving briskly on his feet around a hospital (or similar).

In your second example, there's a "dance partner". The committee leaders must carefully interact with Mueller, balancing their own desired outcomes against Mueller's own motivations and duties. They must handle the negotiations with care in case a small mistake causes a complete breakdown of communication. This one has a couple of foot-related idioms that relate to it. They might not want to put a foot wrong (make a conspicuous mistake) or step on anyone's toes (offend someone, in particular by interfering with their responsibilities). They might also be described as walking on egg shells - a more obvious metaphor where stepping carefully to avoid breaking something fragile is used to illustrate the need to proceed slowly and with great care and caution.

Hopefully that helps!

  • Good examples of the broadening of the delicate dance metaphor. Aug 15, 2017 at 10:26

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.