learning to dance

Read this listening to ‘Time’ by Jungle. Keep a foot free for tapping.

There was never any dancing in my house.

There was music – shelves and shelves of it, boxes of records, tapes, CDs, eventually minidiscs and MP3 players – but no dancing. I was in my late teens before I learned to openly dance.

I stole moments of movement where I could. At around 11, I used to dance to Maroon 5 in our dining room, a little ashamed of my hips. Once, my dad caught me mid-gyrate and I stopped suddenly, stilled by his laughter and slight embarrassment. “It’s okay, you’re just dancing,” he said. It was mortifying all the same.

From then on I only danced in secret.

When I was about 13, I took out Belle and Sebastian’s The Life Pursuit from the library. I took it back to my room after school, waited until dark, then I put into my 6-tray CD player, which I had noticed projected a blue glare onto the back wall when the lights were off. In that dim azure, I could see my outline projected onto the wall, haloed blue. I enjoyed the aesthetic effect of my body moving in silhouette, like the opening credits of an old movie. But I was still always afraid of being caught.

I first danced in public when I was 18. I got drunk in a restaurant in Birmingham which shortly afterwards closed down. The food was Greek and the music was Turkish, and I remember little more than that I danced. To dance with friends was such liberation, I knew my personality had to undergo a radical shift to accommodate this new way of being honest.

Dancing is, I concluded, a kind of vulnerability.

***

Whatever’s left of ‘Time’ – dance to it. However you want. Then put on ‘Busy Earnin’. This version.

I have heard a theory that dancing is a kind of mating ritual. According to the theory, popular with evolutionary psychologists, heterosexual club-goers and Latin dance teachers, it’s a way for people to get close to others; to imitate sex in the abstract. But unless my reaction to Jungle is a kind of masturbation, that can’t be the only reason for music’s pull to movement. I sense that it’s got something to do with the heartbeat, the euphoria of staying alive from moment to moment.

Undoubtedly, of course, there is some link between music and sex. Watch that video of Jungle on Jools Holland. Pay close attention to their hips at a minute in, their individuated synchronicity, and tell me you’re not a little bit turned on.

***

I went to Glastonbury in 2014, and the best band I saw were The Beat. Their no-holds-barred ska, paired with the beautiful politics it serviced, made me happier than I’d ever been before. For a few minutes, I literally couldn’t stop smiling; the whole crowd was dancing, joined together in an ineffable unity that felt almost precognitive.

I shy away from ‘primal’, ‘instinctual’, ‘natural’, because I’m aware that these words, when used to describe ‘black music’ – reggae, funk, blues, ska – carry with them the heavy baggage of prejudice. And yet those genres have united people of many different ethnicities into bands and, in Jungle’s case, ‘musical collectives’.

Music which makes you dance makes you share moments, across and despite difference. It is profoundly coercive, which perhaps explains some people’s will to resist. But in the right environment, with the right crowd, that tension becomes pure social harmony.

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