heathengirl investigates...

The origins of a famous quote (or is that misquote?)

Emma Goldman, Russian-American Anarchist and Feminist (1869-1939)

A while ago, I began to wonder about why there are so many different versions of the famous Emma Goldman quote, "If I can't dance, it's not my revolution". Or is it "If I can't dance to it, I don't want your revolution"? Or maybe "If I can't dance, I don't want to join your revolution". You get the picture, I'm sure. But what finally got me off my heathen behind and into full Resourceress mode was seeing the following version of the quote in the .signature file of a fellow Middle Eastern dancer:

"If I can't dance I don't want to be in your revolution; that's no solution.
If I can't sing and shout, you can count me out. And I'll dance my way to freedom."

Since I'd never seen any variation of the quote extend beyond the word "revolution", and certainly none with a rhyme scheme, I just had to check this out. So what had previously been a mere point of curiosity became a bigger interest.

Initially, I did a Web search on the first part of the quote: "If I can't dance...", since that was the consistent phrase in all the variations. That search turned up lots of examples of the quote and its many variants, but none that cited a specific work or speech by Goldman as its source. I was feeling frustrated by the lack of concrete information on the quote, and considered seeking professional help (a Reference Librarian, that is) in my search for the quote's origin.

So I went to my local public library because I figured that, if nothing else, a look through their collection of books of quotations might be worthwhile. Unfortunately, it was not very helpful in uncovering the origin of the quote I was searching for. I found lots of quotations about dance and about revolution in those books, but none about either subject that was attributed to Emma Goldman. In fact, I only found one quotation attributed to Emma in the dozen or so quotation books in the library's reference collection. Several of her male Anarchist and Communist contemporaries were quoted in these books but she was not. Emma Goldman was even missing from a modern book of quotations by women, which really surprised me.

Having given up on the library's reference section, I sat down at one of the 'Net-enabled computers and searched the Web for "labor quotes" and "Emma Goldman". I chose those particular search terms because I was looking for LaborNet's Labor Quotes site, a very good labor site I'd found months earlier and bookmarked at work, to make sure I hadn't missed the information I was seeking there. That search turned up the AFSCME Women's Labor History page, which included a link to the Emma Goldman Papers site. This last site finally provided the information I had been seeking: an essay by Alix Kates Shulman called "Dances With Feminists". In this essay, Shulman explains that Emma Goldman did not actually say or write the "If I can't dance..." quote, and offers a plausible explanation of where the quote actually came from. The fact that Goldman didn't actually say the words that are so often attributed to her would explain both the number of variations on the quote and why no one mentions the source of the quote when they use it.

By the way, when I informed my fellow dancer about what I'd discovered about the Emma Goldman quote, she told me that her .signature quote was part of a song she'd learned and sung as a camp counselor many years ago, which explains the additional words and rhyme scheme in that version. So, another mystery solved, and some lessons learned. See what can happen when a curious Resourceress gets a bit of time on her hands?

Legal stuff: This page and all site contents, except for material with other copyrights noted, copyright © 2002 by Pam Williams. All rights reserved.
Photo of Emma Goldman from the Anarchist Image Archive of the Pierre J. Proudhon memorial computer, aka flag.blackened.net (which recently got a spiffy redesign).
Last updated: 5/7/2002. Happy May Day! Woo-hoo!