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The Meaning of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”

“Tiny Dancer” is an iconic song by the British pop music mastermind Elton John, appearing as the opening track to his 1971 prog-rock album, Madman Across the Water.

Like many of his most famous songs, “Tiny Dancer” was penned in collaboration with John’s longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, with Elton writing the music while Taupin wrote the words.

The track has remained one of Elton John’s most popular songs throughout his long career, and today it is seen as one of the decade-defining tracks of the 1970s, along with John’s other smash hits like “Your Song”, “Rocket Man” and more. He simply is one of the greatest artists of all time, and thus many of his songs have come to define his generation.

“Tiny Dancer” Origins

“Tiny Dancer”, however, is a bit different than your typical radio single success. Due to its long runtime of 6 minutes and 17 seconds, it took some time to grow on people, as it was too long for many radio stations to play it.

Looking back to the 1970s, radio was the main way that people found out about new music, so this one grew more by word of mouth, from people buying the album itself, and of course from Elton performing the song live during his extensive touring.

Today, as we know, “Tiny Dancer” is a staple in mainstream rock radio, remaining in full rotation over half a century removed from its official release. It’s not surprising at all to flip through the channels and hear this song on any given rock or oldies station, in any given city.

According to a Rolling Stone Reader’s Poll from 2012, which named “Tiny Dancer” as Elton John’s best all-time song, the song was not written about Bernie Taupin’s wife but rather about the women he met in California, his first time visiting the United States in 1970:

“As regards the true meaning, that’s almost always been misread. The biggest misconception about the song is that it was written about my first wife.” The song was originally dedicated to her, but Taupin swears he didn’t write it about her. He says he wanted to capture the free spirits of the women he met in California on his first visit to America in 1970. “They were so different from the women I knew in England,” he said. “They’d mother you and sleep with you. It was the perfect Oedipal experience.”

Excerpt from Rolling Stone about the origin of “Tiny Dancer”.

While Taupin may have spoke these words in 2012, as Rolling Stone points out, he did indeed dedicate the song to his first wife, Maxine Feibelman, in an interview with the very same magazine in 1973.

Taupin and Feibelman divorced in 1976, and some time later he began to deny that the song was about her. However some of the details about her life make it fairly clear that it was about her, including how she worked as a seamstress for some California bands.

Even Maxine herself stated in 2019, during an interview with the New York Post, that she knew it: “I knew [the song] was about me. I had been into ballet as a little girl and sewed patches on Elton’s jackets and jeans”.

“Tiny Dancer” Lyrics Meaning

Looking at the lyrics, it seems that Taupin may have written the song both about his wife at the time and about the women that he encountered in Los Angeles. During the time when they were still together, it makes sense that he wouldn’t want her to know that the song was about other women, too.

Let’s dive into these lyrics, starting with the first verse:

Blue jean baby, L.A. lady
Seamstress for the band
Pretty-eyed, pirate smile
You’ll marry a music man
Ballerina, you must’ve seen her
Dancing in the sand
And now she’s in me, always with me
Tiny dancer in my hand

First verse to “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John.

The opening lines focus on a woman who is part of the music scene in Los Angeles, sporting blue jeans and working as a seamstress for a band. In addition to her beauty, she’s also a wonderful dancer. The final lines in the verse suggest that they are together, or that she has made an impact on his life that he will always remember.

His descriptions of the woman could be applied to just one woman, or it can be used to see a more broad-spectrum picture of what many of the young women in the music community in Los Angeles were like at the time, especially when they were hanging out with rock stars.

In the second verse, Taupin offers more insight into the woman’s personality, as well as the cultural scene in Los Angeles:

Jesus freaks out in the street
Handing tickets out for God
Turning back, she just laughs
The boulevard is not that bad
Piano man, he makes his stand
In the auditorium
Looking on, she sings the songs
The words she knows, the tune she hums

Second verse to “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John.

Opening the second verse is the image of a “Jesus freak”, like the ones you see on street corners in the big cities, preaching about God and salvation. Encountering these people is something that is likely to annoy most casual street-strollers.

However, the woman in Los Angeles just laughs, unbothered, and even seems to enjoy it as she turns back and tells him that “the boulevard is not that bad.” This presents a free-spirited attitude of letting people be the way they want to be, and not letting it ruin your day.

Then, the song goes a bit meta, as we see a Piano man whom we can only imagine is Elton John himself, playing songs in an auditorium. She knows all the words to every song — further placing her within the context of the music scene.

The pre-chorus is up next:

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

Pre-chorus to “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John.

Here, we shift away from the descriptive lyrics in the verses, and into a more intimate moment with the two of them alone.

This section, thanks to Elton John’s immaculate presence as a performer, has the feel of building up to the chorus, which invites a singalong, once you know it (and we all do):

Hold me closer, tiny dancer
Count the headlights on the highway
Lay me down in sheets of linen
You had a busy day today
Hold me closer, tiny dancer
Count the headlights on the highway
Lay me down in sheets of linen
You had a busy day today

Chorus to “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John.

His plea, “hold me closer, tiny dancer,” speaks to the universal longing for connection, as the lovers do something as simple as watching cars go by on the highway out the window. They lay down in bed together, in cozy sheets of linen, and unwind from a busy day.

From here, the first verse is repeated again, followed by another round of the chorus, and by that point we’re all shouting it at the top of our lungs. This song structure serves to teach you the words the first time around so you can sing it the second time around, whether it was intentionally constructed that way or not.

Also, going with what Taupin said, how he wrote the song about a multitude of women he encountered in Los Angeles, the repetition of the verse could also mean that he has met another girl in blue jeans, with pretty eyes and a pirate smile, working as a seamstress for the band.

The music video for “Tiny Dancer” premiered in 2017 at the Cannes Film Festival. Created by Max Weiland, it was selected as the winner of a competition that involved filmmakers creating contemporary music videos for Elton John classics. Videos for “Bennie and the Jets” and “Rocket Man” were also released in 2017.

Enjoy the “Tiny Dancer” video below.

Elton John – “Tiny Dancer” (Video)

Britney Spears Version: “Hold Me Closer”

In 2023, pop singer Britney Spears re-emerged onto the music landscape after a decade-plus hiatus with the official Elton John collaboration, “Hold Me Closer”. He sings the chorus to “Tiny Dancer” and some additional lyrics in a modern, upbeat and electronic duet with Britney Spears.

Watch the video for “Hold Me Closer” by Elton John and Britney Spears below.

Elton John & Britney Spears – “Hold Me Closer” (Video)