Dancing is like bank robbery, it takes split second timing.
~ Twyla Tharp
Some of the earlier memories of music I can clearly remember are of disco. The year was 1978. We lived in Independence, Missouri (home town of Harry S. Truman) and, like so many others in the world, my father took a liking to disco. If you know my father, you’re now saying something to yourself like, “What the fuck?” But, it’s true. He certainly didn’t aspire to be John Travolta, though. The men in my family just don’t dance (which is the ultimate point of this story). But, I think he was into the whole sound of it — appreciating the way those Moogs and synthesizers created that certain thick ambience throughout a room.
He brought home an album once by a band called Arpeggio. There was this ultra-cool song, he said, firing up the Fisher stereo he’d bought earlier that year. That stereo, which he still has, was probably the most high-tech thing my parents owned until after the year 2000. You can still find them on eBay these days. The unit weighed about 25 pounds and featured a “full length slide-rule analog tuning scale with weighted flywheel tuning.” Yeah, it was cool. Everything was analog back then, too. But, this unit had a sky blue light-up display for the analog dial that, in retrospect, made it look ultra hightech.
A quick tangent: Back in college, I had a good friend who was in MENSA, which is supposed to be an exclusive club reserved for the intellectual elite. In reality, it’s an organization for intelligentsia wanna-bes who routinely gather under the guise of mental masturbation but who are really there to commiserate about how they’re actually sociopathic losers. (No offense if you’re a card carrying member, of course.) But, what can I say, this guy was a good friend (and, I’ll admit, an absolute wizard at Trivial Pursuit). So, he invited me to one of his “Mensa Parties” one day — a rare opportunity to see how the smart set lives.
I have to say, it was about as dull as you might expect for that group. The highlight was this mentally anguished guy resembling a young Paul Giamatti who sat in the dining room the whole day arguing the merits of analog versus digital sound systems. “I’m an analog man in a digital age,” he kept droning, as though he’d been prescribed antidepressants in order to deal with this. Coincidentally, he spoke about analog exactly in the same was as Paul Giamatti spoke about Pinot Noir in Sideways . (And, yes, of course I fucked with the guy: “But, dude, CDs sound crystal clear to me!”)
Okay, okay, flash back to 1978. This was back in the days of Funky Town by Lipps, Inc., and Donna Summer and Peaces & Herb. So, dad fires up the Love & Desire cut and cranks it. “Love… ooooooh love. Desire!” Then the electronic synth drums kick in and dad hits the “high bass” switch. I’m about 9 years old and in awe of the whole thing, of course.
In some families, the genes are simply pre-programmed to dance whenever a beat is played above a certain volume. Take my wife, for example. Put down a little “Jump motherfucker jump motherfucker jump” and it’s on. The shoes come off and the woman hits the floor. But, see, I was never like that. In my family, you sort of just sat there in front of the stereo and maybe tapped your foot. Oh sure, I can fake it okay — especially after numerous Budweisers (see the footnoted story at the chapter’s end ) — but it’s simply not in me in the same way as it is for others.
My cousin, on the other hand … That kid had all the moves from an early age. When he came to visit, we put that Arpeggio album on and he owned the room. He’s always been very charismatic in that way, though. In fact, I spent a good portion of my youth wishing I could be as cool as my cousin.
My inability to dance probably influenced my musical preferences during that era. For example, I was a big Kiss fan — although certainly not one of those fanatical 1970s kids who made a scrap book; I just really liked Destroyer (the 1976 LP with Detroit Rock City, God of Thunder, Shout It Out Loud, etc.), Dynasty (the 1979 LP with I Was Made for Lovin’ You Baby), and the Ace Frehley solo album of 1978 with Rip It Out. Thank god pot didn’t exist in my little 9-year-old world in 1978, as I think the cut Ozone on Frehely’s album might have induced one of those permanently stoned states that you occasionally see on college campuses. I always thought that song made me a little dizzy or something. (I also had the Gene Simmons solo album, but found it just a skosh on the nasty side at that age.)
So, you take that sort of hard-rocker youth and fast forward to my young teenage years and what do you get? That’s right: an “air guitar” dancer. You know the type. Instead of dancing, these people simply act like they’re the musicians. Fortunately, I neither knew nor cared at the time that this was a huge turn off for the girls. Dances meant opportunities for the guys to hang out together in a big circle and do air guitar — sometimes with quite a flair. The 1980s was the era of glam rock, after all. Every song had a guitar solo back then. My point here: I got all the way through high school without ever learning to dance like a normal human being. Throughout most of college, I was too drunk to care about what I was doing, although I did manage to lose the air guitar once I learned this wasn’t cool.
So, basically, when we get to the 1990s, what you now have in the story is a 20-something who still can’t dance at all. This was fine with me because, as I said from the get-go, the genetic thing just isn’t there. So, I had no particular desire to go clubbing and what not. If I were feeling energetic, I’d rather just run or bicycle or pursue some sort of physical mischief. And, as I’ve said before, that melancholy side of me always steps in and analyzes situations like this. When it came to dance floors, I certainly knew I didn’t belong out there. Strangely, I came to view much of that whole scene as some sort of mating ritual.
Of course, being unable to dance is probably understandable to a lot of folks out there. What’s the big deal, right? So you have an awkward situation every now and then. That’s not so bad.
Yeah, but then something like a soul train takes you by surprise. I’m leaving the midwest here, of course, but only to show you how the story ends.
Now, as should be clear from my earlier discussions about racism, I’m not a black man. In fact, I’m a very average white guy, completely devoid of any of the soul, style, or flava you might associate (stereotypically) with African Americans. For the record, my own personal view is that race doesn’t matter. In fact, any of the ways in which people discriminate against each other don’t matter in my book. But, to finish this story, I’m going to have to enter into a part of the African American culture that few white guys have ever seen.
In the early 1990s, my wife and I were invited to a wedding in D.C. As it turned out, we were the only white couple there (a situational first for me). Normally, I don’t think this would have presented much of an issue. It was, for the most part, a normal wedding day. There was the whole church thing, of course. And, at the reception, the only difference I noticed between all of the “white people” weddings I’d attended in the Midwest over the years and this one was the food. This place had Creole-type food, which was a nice change from my usual “pasta and sauce” diet.
But, then the dancing began. My wife, of course, was in her element …
[Pause for self-realization that I’m self-censoring: Well, I seem to be doing a little tap dancing right now, don’t I? You know, I think I’m just going to enter back into my stereotypical world for a moment in order to finish the story a little more authentically.]
Look, stereotype or not, black folks, in general, are better dancers than white folks. Okay? There, I said it. If that makes me a racist asshole, then I guess go ahead and sign me up for the KKK. But, hey, I’m a good sport. Even though I was always a crappy dancer, I was at least out there, standing on the fringes of the dance floor holding my gin and tonic. I was giving it the old college try, anyway, even though I was a little peeved that a couple of those tall, “smoooove,” brothas were out there subtly putting the moves on my girl (and she flirting right back at them). What’s a white boy gonna do, though? I just can’t friggin dance!
So, I’m struggling through it and then the DJ interrupts, keeping the dance beat going as he starts talking on the mic.
“Okay, y’all, it’s time for the soul train!”
At first, I’m completely relieved. Though I had absolutely no idea what a soul train was, I at least got to stop my pathetic attempt at dancing for a minute to watch what was coming next. So, the beats go on … The lights flash … The atmosphere is on fire. There are 200 people on the floor, minimum.
“Okay,” he says through the mic, “now, I want all the brothas to line up on my left and all the sistas to line up on my right.”
Hey, this sounds easy. I can do this. Just line up next to everyone. I notice several women on the other side of the line eyeing me up, for some reason. I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen next, although I’m comforted by the fact that I’m among the very furthest people from the DJ.
“Allright, y’all know the drill. And, we gonna start right now! Go on, now, and do yo’ thang!”
Everybody cheers and claps. I’m still in the dark. What the hell is going to happen? In my mind, I’m thinking it’s just some kind of ladies choice dance or something. I figure the people all pair off and do a slow dance, perhaps.
Well, I was right about the pairing off. And then … Oh my GOD! Oh, fuck NO! I realized three extremely terrible things at that moment:
First, a Soul Train is like a long hallway made up of people. What you do is pair off — one girl and one guy at a time — and you “do yo thang” (i.e., dance) all the way up the line (for, like, a whole minute, while everyone looks at you).
Second, I realized that I wasn’t at the end of the line; I was near the beginning. I began slamming my drink.
Third, I realized why all the women were eyeing me up. They were trying to figure out who had to do the soul train with the awkward white guy. Trust me, my wife had no problem with this activity. First of all, she can dance really well — probably just as good as anyone there, in fact. And second, I think it’s much cooler to the black guys to dance up the line with a hip white girl than it is for a soul sister to be paired off with the dorky white guy.
So, in no time, my big trip down the Soul Train line comes up. I could see the shock on the face of the unfortunate black woman paired off with me. Well, perhaps it wasn’t exactly a horror-laden look; it could very well have been desperate hope — hope that this awkward guy she’d been matched with wouldn’t completely embarrass her. However, I’m sure that this would be one of those spans of sixty seconds or so in her life that her friends would bring up over drinks for years to come. I felt like telling her, “Trust me, I’m not liking this, either.”
And so we set off together, each of us struggling to get through the next minute. Her graceful dancing would no doubt make her the “good sport” of the evening, while my uncomfortable strut down aisle would demonstrate once and for all to these 200 black people that white men, with the exception of my aforementioned charismatic cousin and John Travolta, cannot dance. Though I’d slammed my gin and tonic for bravery, I held onto my glass with a deathgrip. Holding a glass gave my right arm something to do. Plus, it ensured that I wouldn’t attempt any overly wild movements that might fling ice all over the place.
Before I go on, know that I’ve always been a rotten liar. That’s not to say I haven’t lied (or, attempted to). Just ask my wife; I’m a secretive, lying bastard. (But, I’m working on it, okay?) My point, though, is that my emotions are almost always clearly visible. If I’m happy, you know it. If I’m mad, it shows. If I’m embarrassed, my face flashes strange shades of red — like a blotchy, unnatural mixture of a darker Zinfandel and a woody Cabernet. I wish I could control these things, but they’re automatic.
So, by the time we’d gotten a quarter of the way down the Soul Train, my face must have revealed the trauma I’d been experiencing. It wasn’t a Soul Train at all; it was a train wreck , and I was the engineer, frantically scanning my memory for any MTV clips I might have seen in years past showing dancers I could emulate, if only for a moment. I flashed back to my college days, five or six years earlier.
Why, oh why, did I always make fun of my roommate? He used to stand there in the living room practicing moves in front of our crappy television.
“MTV’s on, guys!” he’d say. (I think it was some certain show, actually, but I wasn’t a fan. “MTV Dance Club,” perhaps?) He used to move the coffee table out of the livingroom so he could imitate all of the dancers on the show. The guy spent hours there, refining each move he learned.
“Fuck that,” I’d grumble, preferring to hang out alone on the back deck with my 12-string. (Although, I should mention that the guy did score quite often, reeling in the babes with his well-rehearsed repertoire. One score of his, a beauty queen, was so obsessed with her future in the pageant world that she’d make the guy wear three condoms any time they’d have sex. Talk about safe, safe, safe sex!)
See, I’m stretching out the story here … Partly because there is no story, and partly because this is how unbearably long the soul train seemed to me. Half way down the line, the woman I’d been paired with had entered her own special zone, apparently attempting to salvage the situation in her own way. Thankfully, her experienced moves took much of the spotlight off of me. In the mean time, I’d settled into an uneasy light-bounce routine, where I was more or less walking rhythmically and pumping my head up and down like a dumb albino chicken.
We began to pass by a few of the people I’d recognized from the wedding. The piano player was there. He was kind of an ultra laidback type. When the singer’s boom box (a device I’d grown up referring to, by the way, as a “ghetto blaster” without ever realizing that the term was offensive) unexpectedly gave out during a performance of Luther Vandross’ Here and Now, the guy seamlessly picked up the accompaniment on the piano. That, I thought, was cool. When it got to be his turn, I thought, he’d have no problem negotiating something as easy as a Soul Train.
And then, finally, we got up to the wedding party. If anything, I made the bride and groom laugh, as they both gave me a painful, surprised look that I’ll translate as, “Note to self: Warn all white people about the Soul Train if I ever get married again.”
And then it was over. Sixty seconds in hell, and I made a beeline for the bar to de-stress. But, I wasn’t traumatized by this. Nope, not one bit … Not at all. None. Zero. (Okay, well, maybe a little bit.)
Footnote: I almost forgot the Budweiser footnote I’d promised. Anyway, five or so years back, my brother-in-law and I had downed a good 40 Budweisers together as we remodeled my basement. We’d been doing drywall all day and were extremely loaded. His wife came down and turned on some mix CD that had Whoomp! There It Is by Tag Team. She turned it up all the way and we all began jumping around acting like idiots. To tell you the truth, it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had “dancing.” I was so completely loaded, I guess any inhibitions I’d had about looking like an idiot went away at least a six pack ago. We were basically blowing off steam from sheer exhaustion.
It was a chaotic scene — extremely loud, extremely drunk, laughing our collective asses off. So, while we’re dancing, I grabbed this tool off the shelf called a “Stud Finder.” In case you don’t know, this is a battery-operated tool that you hold flat against the drywall and it lights up when it senses the 2"x4" stud in the wall. You don’t need one a lot, but they do come in handy sometimes.
Anyway, we’re all there jumping around and I grab the stud finder and I say, “Hey, look, it’s a stud finder.” Then I wave the damn thing across myself in a gross manner (yes, there) and god damn if the thing doesn’t light up! We laughed hard at that — one of the hardest laughs I’ve ever had, in fact. My brother in law tried it too, and it also lit up. Of course, we were so bombed, we didn’t realize that it was sensing the metal in our zippers.
✍🏻 Jim Dee maintains his personal blog, “Hawthorne Crow,” and a web design blog, “Web Designer | Web Developer Magazine.” He also contributes to various Medium.com publications. Find him at JPDbooks.com, his Amazon Author page, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Medium, or via email at Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. His latest novel, CHROO, is available on Amazon.com. If you enjoy humorous literary tales, please grab a copy!