Sting wrote this after he saw a brief news story about women dancing in the streets of Chile torn apart by the Pinochet regime. The women were dancing in the streets with pictures of their husbands, fathers, brothers or sons pinned to their clothes or they were holding the pictures and dancing with them.
Branford Marsalis played the sax.
This was released as a single along with a Spanish version of the song, "Ellas Danzan Solas." It didn't chart.
Jackson Browne said in a 2008 issue of Rolling Stone: "'They Dance Alone' is one of my favorite examples of how to speak to people. He magnified an appropriated image and passed it on to the world."
Sting: "I never tackle political issues head-on. With something like 'They Dance Alone,' and the Pinochet regime, the metaphor was of the poor women dancing alone in front of government buildings; you could understand that metaphor whether or not you knew the political issues. I've never set out to write a song that is about, for example, the environment. Songwriting is much more veiled than that. The meaning reveals itself as you go into it. A song should be plastic enough for you to find different meanings there. That's what all art does, all poetry, if you can call it that."
Sting visited Chile with the Police in the '70s at the height of the Pinochet regime and caused somewhat of a ruckus. He told the Independent On Sunday in 1994: "I asked Amnesty International what they thought and their advice was that I should go, because rock'n'roll means freedom in these countries. So we went out there and it was pretty painful. There were troops and tanks on every street. At the press conference they'd put a little British flag and Chilean flag on the table. I picked up the British flag and threw it in the bin. They said, 'What did you do that for' and I said, 'In our country that flag is the symbol of the British fascist party.' There was uproar. They called us animals. They weren't very nice to us, the right-wing press in Chile."
Not surprisingly, this song was banned in Chile.
Sting returned to Chile during a 1986 tour on behalf of Amnesty International, along with Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Youssou N'Dour, and Tracy Chapman, where he was honored under the new government. "[They] gave me a medal and a citation for my efforts, and the mothers of the disappeared gave me a hug. I'd lost my own mother but had inherited many more," he recalled in Lyrics By Sting.
Sting's mother was terminally ill with cancer while he was writing this album. She died before it was released.