Dance Like Nobody’s Watching

Mark Twain? Satchel Paige? William Purkey? Susanna Clark? Richard Leigh? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following words are attributed to a variety of people including Mark Twain, Satchel Paige, and William Purkey:

Sing like no one is listening.
Love like you’ve never been hurt.
Dance like nobody’s watching,
and live like it’s heaven on earth.

The ordering of the lines varies, and sometimes other statements are inserted. Could you explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1987 the songwriters Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh composed “Come from the Heart” which included the following lyrics:

You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money
Love like you’ll never get hurt
You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watchin’
It’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work.

QI believes that the other sets of expressions containing the statement “dance like nobody’s watching” were derived from these lyrics. There is no substantive support for ascriptions to Mark Twain or Satchel Paige. Additional information about the attribution to William Purkey is given further below. The important reference work “The Yale Book of Quotations” has an entry ascribing the lyrics to Clark and Leigh.[ref] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Susanna Clark, Quote Page 156, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The popular song “Come from the Heart” has been covered by multiple artists. Kathy Mattea achieved a number one hit on the country chart of Billboard magazine in 1989.[ref] 2006, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Country Hits by Joel Whitburn, Updated & Expanded Edition, Quote Page 560, Billboard Books, An imprint of Watson-Guptill Publications, New York. (Google Books Preview)[/ref]

A reviewer of Mattea’s 1989 album praised the singer’s heartfelt delivery of the statement about dancing:[ref] 1989 October 1, Sunday Record-Journal, Off the Record: Well-crafted, Professional Work Earns Stardom by Howard Glazer, (Album Review of Kathy Mattea: Willow in the Wind, Mercury Records), Quote Page E-2, Column 5, Meriden, Connecticut. (Google News Archive)[/ref]

You get the idea that this is going to be a good record from the very first cut, the mandolin-tinged “Come From The Heart,” with its delicious mandolin licks and uplifting message of unbridled spontaneity. (Has anyone ever said “give it all you’ve got” as well as Mattea does with the line “You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watching”?)

In 1994 an article in “Orange Coast Magazine” profiled Danielle Kennedy who was a real estate agent and motivational speaker. She was one of many people who felt a strong emotional resonance with the song which the magazine ascribed to Susanna Clark:[ref] 1994 July, Orange Coast Magazine, Volume 20, Number 7, Orange County Revealed: Danielle Kennedy by Allison Joyce, Start Page 94, Quote Page 95, Publisher Ruth Ko, Published by Orange Coast Kommunications (now Emmis Communications). (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

This is a woman who steadfastly believes in living in what she calls “the present moment,” and in pursuing “what arouses one’s desire.” And, as in childhood, music still motivates her. Today, she lives by the words of Susanna Clark’s song, “Come From the Heart”:

You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money,
You’ve got to love like you’ll never get hurt,
You’ve got to dance like there’s nobody watching,
You’ve got to come from the heart if you want it to work.

Words we could all live by.

In 1997 a Syracuse, New York newspaper published an article about a much-lauded teacher who enjoyed using quotations. She employed a variant quotation containing the phrase “heaven on earth”. No ascription was listed in the article:[ref] 1997 June 14, The Post-Standard, Section: Local News, Liverpool Teacher Among Best in State Kathleen McHale Wildrock Is Praised by Her School Principal for Taking Education “Beyond the Four Walls of the Classroom” by Jacqueline Arnold, Start Page B1, Quote Page B3, Syracuse, New York. (NewsBank Access World News)[/ref]

After district administrators nominated her for the state’s Teacher of the Year award, Wildrick had to fill out a lengthy application and get 10 letters of support. She ended, of course, with a quote:

“Dance like no one is watching, love like you’ve never been hurt; sing like no one is listening, and live like it’s heaven on earth.”

In 2001 a columnist in a Chapel Hill, North Carolina newspaper discussed the “heaven on earth” variant of the quotation and ascribed the words to the author and speaker William Purkey. The columnist also incorrectly suggested that Kathy Mattea created the country song:[ref] 2001 December 16, Chapel Hill Herald, Section: Editorial, Wild Mind takes over, and ideas flow by Susan Gladin (Columnist), Quote Page 5, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (NewsBank Access World News)[/ref]

The ledge above the keyboard, intended for sheet music, is a perfect place for things I like to look at – interesting rocks, colorful tiles, favorite photos and a treasured saying, “Sing Like There’s Nobody Listening.” The words come from a poem that Kathy Mattea turned into a country song. They urge us to abandon the inhibitions that keep us mute:

Dance like no one is watching,
Live like you’ll never be hurt
Sing like no one is listening
Live like it’s heaven on earth.
– William Purkey

Purkey’s words are marching orders for all of us – not just the singers or musicians, but the athletes, the artists, the cooks, the auto mechanics, the teachers and the writers.

By 2004 the “heaven on earth” version had been reassigned to the luminary Mark Twain. A journalist in a Charlotte, North Carolina repeated the information that had been sent to him by a reader:[ref] 2004 July 16, Charlotte Observer, Section: MAIN, Say Again? Your Favorite Quotes Right Here by Jeff Elder (Staff Writer), Quote Page 2A, Charlotte, North Carolina. (NewsBank Access World News)[/ref]

But of all the quotes, this one sent in by Eric Fordley of Charlotte is my favorite. It seems like such good advice:

“Dance like no one is watching. Sing like no one is listening. Love like you’ve never been hurt. And live like it’s heaven on Earth.” – Mark Twain

In 2004 a member of the Stumpers community of librarians contacted the songwriter Richard Leigh to ask him if he “was drawing on an old saying” when he co-wrote the song “Come from the Heart”. Leigh responded forcefully with a statement that the material in the song was original:[ref] Website: Project Wombat Mailing List Archive, Message title: [PW] Old Stumpers archive question – March 2004, Author of message: Fred Shapiro, Date on message: July 10, 2013, Description of message: Copy of 2004 message sent to the STUMPERS-L mailing list, 2004 message Date: March 17, 2004, 2004 message Subject: “Quote Query– dance like nobody’s watching”, 2004 message From: Bristol Public Library Reference. (Accessed on February 2, 2014)[/ref]

For some reason, people have a great deal of trouble attributing this lyric to its creators: Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh. The reason you can not find any printed or recorded support for these assertions dating back any earlier than our song, is because they don’t exist. In other words, as disappointing as it may be to learn for those who use our work without permission, the lyric is not in the public domain, but actually a relatively new work “made up” by a couple of hard-working songwriters.

I have seen it attributed to everyone from an unnamed Buddhist Monk, to the great Satchel Paige; but it just isn’t so. I think the folks out there must be unconsciously disappointed that something that cool came from such ordinary people, so they keep giving it the loftier authorship they believe it deserves.

In 2009 Fred R. Shapiro, the editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations”, was the host of a subsection of the “Freakonomics” website dedicated to the discussion of quotations. In October of 2009 Shapiro was asked about William Purkey’s connection to the quotation:[ref] Website: Freakonomics: The Hidden Side of Everything, Article title: Quotes Uncovered: Heaven on Earth and Third-World, Article author: Fred Shapiro, Date on website: October 15, 2009, Website description: Blog created by Steven D. Levitt who is a Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago and Stephen J. Dubner who is a journalist. (Accessed on January 30, 2014) link [/ref]

In the realm of word and quotation origins, there is so much misinformation and misremembering that authorities such as the Oxford English Dictionary and the Yale Book of Quotations generally do not accept undocumented claims of priority. I have corresponded with Mr. Purkey about this and he was unable to supply reliable documentation.

In conclusion, QI believes that the song lyrics of “Come from the Heart” should be credited to Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh. Other popular sets of statements overlap these lyrics and apparently were derived from these lyrics. The provenance of these modified sets is less certain. The ascriptions to Mark Twain and Satchel Paige are unsupported.

(Special thanks to Kirk Justus for his email inquiry in 2011. Thanks also to A.S. Paul and Jarvis DeBerry who expressed skepticism about the attribution to Mark Twain in tweets in December 2012. Thanks to Andrew Old who tweeted an inquiry in January 2014. Thanks to the Project Wombat and Stumpers participants who have discussed this topic.)

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