The Story Behind The Double Meaning Of Garth Brooks’ Timeless Ballad, ‘The Dance’

“The Dance” is one of Brooks’ most iconic hits.


Madeleine O’Connell

| Posted on

January 10, 2024

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Photo Courtesy Garth Brooks

Garth Brooks produced several signature tracks throughout the height of his career in the ‘90s, but one in particular that has certainly stood the test of time is his 1990 chart-topper, “The Dance.”

“The Dance” Songwriter Tony Arata Performed The Song At The Bluebird In Nashville

In a video shared on Brooks’ Facebook page in 2017, he recounted the very moment he first heard songwriter Tony Arata bring “The Dance” to life at Nashville’s iconic The Bluebird Café.

“Tony gets a bad rep in this town, tongue in cheek, that he’s very Dylanesque in the fact that you sometimes can’t understand him because his singing is kind of hard to define. The two songs right up to ‘The Dance,’ I didn’t, understand a word,” he shared honestly. “’The Dance’ came, and it was clear as a bell.”

Following the show, Brooks shared his admiration with Arata and promised that if he ever got a record deal, he would record the song. 

On the surface, the lyrics appear to be another heartfelt love song, and while technically that is true, there is also a much deeper meaning between the lines that Brooks instantly resonated with. 

What’s The Story Behind Garth Brooks’ “The Dance”?

Arata sat down with Bart Herbison of the Nashville Songwriters Association International in 2016 for an interview with The Tennessean, and during their conversation, he shared the journey behind “The Dance” and how the movie Peggy Sue Got Married first sparked the inspiration. He explained that he had moved from Savannah, Georgia to Nashville in 1986 with his wife and they went to see the film together. In one of the scenes of that movie, Kathleen Turner, who plays the lead character Peggy Sue Bodell, takes a trip back in time and learns a valuable lesson. When she tries to alter the course of her life by turning down what she knows will become an unhappy marriage down the line, she realizes how much her life would be affected by one small decision.

“When Nick asks her to marry him, she says no, and there’s a locket around her neck with her kids’ pictures in it, and when she opens that locket, the pictures fade. And it just hit me so hard,” Arata admitted. “We didn’t even have children at the time, but it just hit me that you don’t get to pick and choose your memories in life. You have to go with things as they play out. You don’t get to alter them because if she had not married him, regardless of how bad it turned out, she would not have had her children. So she had to do the whole ride. She didn’t get to pick and choose and get to do the parts she wanted to.”

He felt so compelled to tell the story through his own words, that Arata wrote the whole song the next morning within about 30 minutes. Despite its profound delivery, it ended up being turned down for three years until landing with Garth Brooks and because of that, Arata felt as if he lived the same message of the song. If he hadn’t seen those rejections, “The Dance” might never would have become what it is today.

“I wrote it in 86 and Garth’s first album did not come out until 1989. I didn’t even realize at the time how lucky I was to have had that song turned down for three years…I was turned down by the biggest and the best. And at the time, of course, it is hard to be rejected and be turned down, but in retrospect, it was the best thing that ever happened because one, it wound up with someone who got it from the first time they heard it,” he told the outlet.

“The Dance” Music Video

When the music video was released around the same time, Brooks explained that the song offers a double meaning. In one way, it centers around a man who has lost his other half and is choosing to celebrate the joy and love that came from the relationship rather than dwelling on the sadness of seeing their journey together come to an end. The other side of the song finds Brooks singing about someone who is dying while in pursuit of something they believe in wholeheartedly. The video even shines a light on a few people whom Brooks believes to be included in this category, such as Lane Frost, Keith Whitley, MLK, and John F. Kennedy.

“To a lot of people, I guess ‘The Dance’ is a love gone bad song. Which, you know, that it is,” Brooks began in his statement. “But to me, it’s always been a song about life. Or maybe the loss of those people that have given the ultimate sacrifice for a dream that they believed in, like the John F. Kennedy’s or the Martin Luther King’s. John Wayne’s or the Keith Whitley’s. And if they could come back, I think they would say to us what the lyrics of ‘The Dance’ say.”

Garth Brooks Self Titled Album
Garth Brooks Self Titled Album

Self-Titled Debut Album

“The Dance” was released as the fourth and final single off Garth Brooks’ self-titled debut album of 1989, following close behind “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old),” “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” and “Not Counting You.” The project went on to be certified diamond by RIAA while the song itself topped the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and earned both the Song of the Year and Video of the Year by the Academy of Country Music in 1990. 

Although it was released more than three decades ago, the universal message of “The Dance” remains a staple in today’s country music catalog of legendary songs, and continues to touch the hearts of listeners all around the world.

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Madeleine O’Connell graduated from North Central College with a bachelors degree in Journalism and Broadcast Communications before deciding to pursue her studies further at DePaul University. There, she earned her masters degree in Digital Communication & Media Arts. O’Connell served as a freelance writer for over two years while also interning with the Academy of Country Music, SiriusXM and Circle Media and assisting with Amazon Music’s Country Heat Weekly podcast. In addition to Country Now, she has been published in American Songwriter, Music Mayhem, and Holler.Country. Madeleine O’Connell is a member of the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music.