Elton John’s song “Tiny Dancer” doesn’t seem like it would evoke anything Biblical or holy
“Tiny Dancer” is, in fact, about lyricist Bernie Taupin’s first wife, who had actually been a ballerina as a child and was Elton John’s and the band’s seamstress. It’s been a favorite song of mine since childhood, when I first heard it featured in the movie (that may as well be a semi-biographical account of my life) My Girl 2. I often sing this song as a lullaby to my babies.
The more I hear the words, the more it evokes a particular Scripture for me
I’m talking about the infamous woman of Proverbs 31 (which is featured in Proverbs 31: 10-31). The line you probably know best from it is, “Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.” It makes it sound like nothing but piety in a woman is deserving of recognition and can feed into the trope that women are to be silent and submissive. Really, though, the Proverbs 31 woman is so much more than this, and, I think, is described perfectly in the song “Tiny Dancer.”
“Blue jean baby, L.A. lady, seamstress for the band”
There are several verses in Proverbs 31 that this opening, iconic line relates to. “She seeks out wool and flax and weaves with skillful hands” (31:13). “She is not concerned for her household when it snows– all her charges are doubly clothed. She makes her own coverlets; fine linen and purple are her clothing…She makes garments and sells them, and stocks the merchants with belts” (31: 21-22, 24).
What these verses all have in common is clothes or the making of clothes. As a seamstress, this is what that women would do! A fun aside that ties into the purple clothing, there’s a story that Maxine Feibelman (Bernie Taupin’s first wife) once dared Elton John to wear a pair of mauve tights she had found on stage…and he did! This set of lyrics and verses are fairly straightforward.
“Pretty eyed, pirate smile, you’ll marry a music man”
This is where that infamous verse comes in: “Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting; the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised” (31:30). Fairly straightforward again as the description of the woman in “Tiny Dancer” evokes a charm and beauty we know will not last. Music man, though, can be seen as an allusion to Jesus, the Eternal Song. (If you went to Franciscan University of Steubenville or are in anyway FUS-adjacent, you’ve probably heard of the household Brothers of the Eternal Song. Their covenant is actually quite beautiful and puts into words the expression of God as Song).
“Ballerina, you must have see her dancing in the sand”
This is another one-liner that relates to several verses of this particular Scripture. “She picks out a field and acquires it; from her earnings she plants a vineyard. She girds herself with strength; she extends her arms with vigor…She puts her hands to the distaff, and her fingers ply the spindle. She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy” (31: 16-17, 19-20).
Dancing is work! It takes great physical strength and control to dance and especially, I imagine, to dance on sand, which offers much resistance. In these verses of Scripture, we see the image of strength and graceful movements of the body. Each movement is a delicate work yielding great rewards for those around her. All of the movements of our lives can be seen as an intricate dance of grace against the resistance of the world, making a beautiful picture.
“And now she’s in me, always with me, tiny dancer in my hand”
This, to me, evokes an image of being held in the palm of God’s hand. Who gets to be held in the palm of His hand? Those who are good and holy. “Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband, too, praises her. ‘Many are the women of proven worth, but you have excelled them all’…Acclaim her for the work of her hands, and let her deeds praise her at the city gates” (31: 28-29, 31). Saints are simply holy people, and holy people are simply those who draw close to the Lord; to be held in someone’s hand means to be close to that person.
“Turning back she just laughs/The boulevard is not that bad”
“She is clothed with strength and dignity, and laughs at the days to come” (31:25). This was the lightning strike of recognition for me, the moment I put these pieces together– these very literally relate to each other through the image of a woman laughing. The song evokes a woman who is undeterred by the noise, distractions, and goings-on around her, carefree because she knows who she is and where she is going. This is the same image that Proverbs 31:25 evokes! We should be secure in ourselves, who we are, Whose we are, and in where we’re going; that makes a strong woman (and a good disciple).
“Piano man he makes his stand/In the auditorium”
“Her husband is prominent at the city gates as he sits with the elders of the land” (31:23). A piano man is someone who speaks loudly and conveys some sort of wisdom to his audience (whether that be deep, reflective, observational, or just silly). The auditorium is a place you’d go to hear a music man, just as the city gates were once the place where you would go to hear the elders and their wisdom.
“Looking on she sings the songs/The words she knows, the tune she hums”
“She opens her mouth in wisdom; kindly instructions on her tongue. She watches over the affairs of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness” (31: 26-27). In this analogy, singing and song is akin to wisdom. As the woman of the song is singing and humming, she is speaking wisdom. As she knows the words, this means she is steeped in Scripture and Tradition and is close with our God.
“But oh how it feels so real/Lying here with no one near/Only you and you can hear me/When I say softly, slowly/Hold me closer, tiny dancer”
“Who can find a woman of worth? Far beyond jewels is her value. Her husband trusts her judgment; he does not lack income” (31:10-11). The man treasures his wife for she is good and leads him in goodness. That’s what the song is saying, too, albeit in a setting of great intimacy.
“Count the headlights on the highway/Lay me down in sheets of linen/You had a busy day today”
This one is pretty loaded! “She brings him profit, not loss, all the days of her life…Like a merchant fleet, she secures her provisions from afar. She rises while it is still night, and distributes food to her household, a portion to her maidservants…She enjoys the profit from her dealings; her lamp is never extinguished” (31:12, 14-15, 18).
This describes all the things the woman does throughout the day and, it turns out, she’s indispensable! Her husband again treasures her for all of her deeds and how she makes sure their household runs and all get their due. She works, does her job, and cares for all those entrusted to her.
There are only two lines in the song that I don’t think neatly fit into the Proverbs 31 woman
That is: “Jesus freaks out in the street/Handing tickets out for God.” There was a practice in the 1970s (maybe still today?) where Christians would stand on the streets and hand out fliers about and tickets to their church services. They were commonly called Jesus freaks for being so devoted to God (or the appearance of being devoted to Him through a sort of performative service). If you’re a child of the 1980s or 1990s, you probably remember DC Talk’s song “Jesus Freak” which flipped this derogatory term on its head as an ideal to strive for (they also released a few books by this name telling the stories of Christians throughout the world).
Since the term is used as a derogatory remark in the song, I didn’t think it fit with the point of Proverbs 31: 10-31. However, if we suspend our understanding of the term as derogatory, it could possibly relate to, “She watches over the affairs of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness” (31:27), as they both describe someone at work who does not wile away their time.
Be a Tiny Dancer
Neither Elton John nor Bernie Taupin nor Maxine Feibelman nor any of the other California women Bernie encountered are likely to be models of virtue, let alone Catholicism. That doesn’t mean, though, that we cannot enter more deeply into our faith through a song they created. Be who you are, be secure in that, and be secure in God. “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire,” said St. Catherine of Siena. “Tiny Dancer” has certainly set the collective imagination of American society afire; imagine how much more aflame a woman of God would be! Be a tiny dancer.
Image courtesy of https://www.wallpaperflare.com/ashi-ross-in-huntington-beach-woman-doing-ballerina-pose-near-sea-wallpaper-zcvoh