The mood and subject matter in Steen’s paintings range enormously, from intimate moments when a family says grace before a meal to festive celebrations of Twelfth Night. But to all of his paintings we respond in a warm and compassionate way to the ordinary figures he represents.
The Dancing Couple is characteristic of many of Steen’s paintings in that it shows people celebrating a festive occasion; here, judging from the tents in the background, the scene might be a village kermis, or fair and market celebrating a local saint’s day. Two figures dance while musicians play, people eat, drink or smoke, couples flirt, and children play. Steen included himself in the activities; he is the grinning figure on the left touching the chin of the woman who drinks from a wine glass.
Despite the apparent frivolity of the scene, the painting has a more sobering message. Steen was a moralist who often used emblematic references in his paintings to express the transience of human life. The cut flowers and broken eggshells on the floor, and the young boy blowing bubbles on the right are symbolic. Steen seems to suggest that earthly pleasures are short–lived and we should contemplate more lasting values, symbolized here by the church tower in the background.