The role is the kind of high-wire dare certain types of actors and directors cannot resist. T. Scott Cunningham, who has created a number of lovable losers onstage in the last decade, lets the audience share the passionate satisfaction he finds in making this shattered man a very funny tour guide through human bewilderment. And the director, Jessica Bauman, translates the strange, jazzy rhythms of Mr. Rutherford's prose into movements of one man and one chair around a stage in what appears to be a dance macabre for people of undefeatable good cheer. [ Source ]

In the above excerpt from The New York Times there is an example of dance macabre usage. As far as I know, the correct phrase is danse macabre, but I'm not sure whether this is simply a typo or a grammatical error, and whether macabre dance is the correct form.

The phrase dance macabre occurs rather frequently in comparison with macabre dance as this Ngram shows:

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In the light of the above remarks, which is correct: dance macabre or macabre dance?

4 Answers 4


Most likely a typo, possibly out of (well-intentioned) ignorance. I would argue that danse macabre is a set phrase in English, similar to à la carte or cause célèbre. The ngram below suggests that the parallel English phrase dance of death is far more popular than any permutation of the translation.

dance of death usage

  • 1
    "cause celebré" should be "cause célèbre"
    – jlliagre
    Commented Jul 18, 2012 at 21:05

"Macabre dance" would be standard grammar, but the inversion isn't wrong. Especially in poetry, and normally in foreign phrases, you will come across post-positive adjectives. In this case, the writer was probably used to the word order in the French phrase danse macabre, but spelling-wise either slipped into or attempted anglicization. I doubt it was a mistake, since there was no attempt at quotation marks or italics, and the result is grammatically fine.

That said, danse macabre even in English appears to numerically surmount the other options:

  • 3
    I would argue against "macabre dance" being standard English. Although it is a grammatically correct literal translation of the French phrase, another ngram search suggests that dance of death is more than seven times as common in English.
    – HaL
    Commented Jul 18, 2012 at 19:09
  • 1
    @HaL I meant standard English grammar; in other words, following standard English rules of adjective-before-noun. I'll change it, and see if you can reverse the downvote :)
    – Daniel
    Commented Jul 18, 2012 at 19:10
  • 1
    And the fog lifts.
    – HaL
    Commented Jul 18, 2012 at 19:15

With the s, and set in italics, danse macabre is a French term that the person is using as a reference, like joie de vivre or je ne sais quoi. With a c, and no italics, macabre dance is just an English phrase like loud music or interesting painting. With mixing and matching of c/s, word order, and presence or absence of italics, it's an error of one kind or another.

  • Je ne sais quoi? I don't know what that means!
    – user16269
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 6:29

In the piece from the NY Times, the writer is without doubt alluding to Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre so to have used "Macabre Dance" would break that allusion.

How can we be so sure they were alluding to the music? For me, it seems clear that the writer is not suggesting that the performance was literally macabre, so what other intention could there be?

I think the phrase "macabre dance" would be very seldom-used. There's no allusion in it, and a dance that is actually macabre must surely be a rare thing...?

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