Can you remember the first time you ever danced? Most of us cannot.
I mean, it’s entirely possible that you or I boogied down while we were still in the womb, as Isadora Duncan claimed she did, maybe gently roiling our mother’s amniotic fluid with a tiny, Fosse-esque shoulder isolation.
Or maybe it was more high-minded. Maybe, like Fred Astaire, we speculatively put on a pair of ballet slippers at age four to kill time while waiting for our irritatingly talented older sister to finish her dance class.
Or maybe we used a gardening implement to stun a small visitor — as Twyla Tharp did a rattlesnake at 11 or so, creating what she considers her first “dance” — and thus yielded a densely layered critique of man’s effort to achieve dominance in the face of unnecessary slithering.
But it’s all a little hazy.
However, I can remember the first time that I actively enjoyed dancing. Come with me now to suburban Worcester, Massachusetts, to a sunshiny Saturday afternoon in 1975. Behold my 13-year-old self, all boyish enthusiasm and buckteeth as I whiz past you on the street; savor the utter awesomeness of my bright orange Schwinn and its Naugahyde banana seat. That single bead of sweat on my brow? It may not be purely the result of strenuous bicycling. You see, I’m going to a girl’s house and, anxious to convince myself that I’m heterosexual, have seemingly rendered my stomach a breeding ground for gossip-dispensing hummingbirds. Indeed, I had recently trimmed the plastic tassels hanging down from my bike’s handlebars from five inches to two: a bold attempt to advertise my startling masculinity.
My classmate Carolyn had just bought the groovetastic Earth, Wind & Fire single “Shining Star,” and she and our mutual friend Dorothy had invited me over to listen to it.
On arrival, I was surprised to learn that, while listening to the song, the girls had been practicing something I’d never heard of, a “line dance.” Lion dance? Lyin’ dance? My head teemed with possibilities, all of them potentially injurious to my air of short-tasseled machismo.
What alien forces allowed me to enjoy this session with Carolyn and Dorothy in a way that I’d not enjoyed previous dancing? I’m not 100 percent certain; I’m still working my murder board. But I’ve got two suspects. First, here was dancing proposed by a peer, not by a parent or teacher. Second, here was irresistible music.
The opening of “Shining Star” is an inviting tangle of what some would call “wet” bass notes: They’re so reverberant and fuzzed that you can almost see them twist out of your speakers like a strand of DNA. This exciting jumble is followed by a sudden jagged rock face of horns. Then, before the lyrics proper begin, we get a string of invocations and greetings (“Yeah! Heyyy? Huh!”), the effect of which is to make the listener feel like he or she has arrived at the most honey-soaked, superfunkadelic part of the universe.
The line dance that Carolyn and Dorothy taught me was that conglomeration of mid-’70s grapevining and hand clapping, the Bus Stop — an assembly line of fun that features less flapping than the Funky Chicken but more dignity than the Bump.
It did not look like anything I had ever seen at a bus stop. Also, it felt like a shit-ton of choreography to me. But the fact that we stood shoulder to shoulder while dancing meant that we didn’t have to look at one another, which hugely reduced the potential embarrassment. Dance is often a form of sexual sublimation, particularly if you are 13 and in the darkish basement of a cute person whose hair smells like strawberries.
Moreover, the part of the Bus Stop where you tap your heels together twice was hilarious to us: It was so dorky and awkward-looking that any thoughts we might have developed about looking good were quickly siphoned off into a beaker called Comedy. Months later, when we ran into one another in the hallway at school, we’d each do the heel tap in the manner of a secret handshake. Like the signature move from the Hustle that John Travolta would immortalize in Saturday Night Fever two years later (point right index finger to left of left foot, then point same as far up and to the right of your head as possible), the heel tapping was the part of the dance that you could really make a meal of. It was the part through which you could let the world know that your orientation was primarily ironic. If you crooked your elbows while tapping heels, you rendered your body particularly poultry-like, as if your feathers had been plucked and now your margarine-yellow carcass was dangling from some car’s rearview mirror.
I bring all this up not because I’m interested in smothered teenage sexuality (well, maybe a little), but rather because I’m intrigued in an anthropological sense by how the function of our Bus Stopping shifted. While boogying in Carolyn’s basement, our movement was a way for the three of us to mediate in an unthreatening way the tangle of hormones swirling through our bodies: dance moves as flirtation. But at school, when we three — and, gradually, three or four other classmates joined us in this — did the heel tap and the poultry arms, we were forming a group or private club: dance moves as insiderism. Then, thirdly, I remember later sitting on a bench at school one afternoon for a top-secret consultation with a classmate, and him signaling to me the oncoming presence of our teacher by tapping his heels together: dance moves as baby cam.
Of all the arts, dance is the most porous and adaptable. If words are the way that humans pinpoint and define experience, then it makes a certain kind of anti-sense that pure, wordless movement is a universal language. With the exception of certain gestures that some cultures find impolite or wanton, most physical movement is readable around the world: If, while standing in a busy intersection in Boston or Beijing or Abu Dhabi, you put your hands up in the air and start shimmying your shoulders and clapping rhythmically, most bystanders can figure out that you’re not having trouble hailing a taxi.
Even better, though, is the fact that this universal language has crazy range: Dance can relax you or whip you into a frenzy; it can be wholly instinctive or utterly self-conscious, fancy or down and dirty, mild or strenuous, communal or private. For some people, it’s a spaceship: “To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful,” wrote Agnes de Mille, who changed American concert dance with her “cowboy ballet,” Rodeo, in 1942, and who changed musical theater with her choreography for Oklahoma! a year later. For others, dance is a battle cry. As Gillian Lynne, the British ballerina who went on to choreograph Cats and Phantom of the Opera, puts it, “Nipples firing!”
Sometimes dance is a few different things at the same time. Consider the viral Running Man Challenge videos of 2016. Started by two New Jersey teenagers and then made popular by a pair of University of Maryland basketball players, the challenge saw groups of people filming themselves doing variations of the street dance the Running Man to the song “My Boo” by Ghost Town DJ’s. The meme spread to the NFL and the NBA, where it proved a winningly madcap way for groups to bond with one another, and maybe also to flex their collective muscles so as to psyche out the competition.
But when the challenge then spread to police departments — which, at the time, were under fire for their treatment of minorities, with several controversial killings being much discussed in the media — the dance was working on a political level, too. “Yes, we’re occasionally malignant, possibly racist defenders of justice,” you could almost hear these uniformed officers telling us, “but we’re not immune to the charms of precision choreography!”
Not to go all grandpa on you, but it’s tempting, if admittedly a little far-fetched, to note that dance is one of the oldest arts, and thus to surmise that maybe all those extra years of existence have somehow enabled dance to become increasingly porous, to take on more meanings. But maybe a more fruitful tack to take here is to acknowledge that dance, and the reasons that we dance, are usually a reflection of the environment we’re situated in. At your neighbor’s 85th birthday, you might do some delicate touch dancing, perhaps prompted by a desire to celebrate a life or by a desire to work off some cake-derived calories. But when you shimmy at a rock concert, you’re more likely a slave to the rhythm or someone looking to reap the maximum amount of fun from a $100 concert ticket.
Dance, unless it’s filmed, is “the art that vanishes.”
It can also be a reflection of different life stages. Look at Louis van Amstel, the Dutch ballroom champion and Dancing with the Stars regular. “Dance has meant so many different things to me in the course of my career,” he once told a fitness magazine. “At first, all dance meant to me was nothing, because my grandparents wanted me to dance. It wasn’t my choice.” Then, another color: “After doing my first competition a while later, it lit up a fire for me which made me see dance as a sport. It became about winning.” A third: “Because of my growing up with alcohol abuse from my parents and their unhappy marriage, I used dance as therapy. I could express my feeling through dance but didn’t have to share my personal feelings with anyone. If it weren’t for dance, I probably would have ended up becoming an addict myself.”
I’m intrigued, and maybe spurred on by the fact that all the versatility and utility I’m ascribing to dance flies in the face of some people’s view of the art. Many scholars relegate dance to second-class status among the arts. They usually do this because they think it’s a kind of theater, or because it often relies on music (indeed, dance and music are so intertwined for sub-Saharan Africans that many of the region’s indigenous languages don’t have separate terms for them, though they have a variety of ways to describe specific techniques or styles). This condescension is passed on to generation after generation via cultural osmosis: When I was little, I thought ballet dancers walked on their tippytoes so they wouldn’t wake the audience.
I’m also partly fueled by the idea that dance, unless it’s filmed, is “the art that vanishes.” We tend to overlook this fact today: 2005 saw not only the debut of YouTube, but also of Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance. But many dances created before the advent of film or video are lost to us because dance is so notoriously difficult to notate. Which makes me wonder if maybe all the versatility I’m seeing is a hedge against ephemerality.
All the more reason to try to put it down in words.
Often when a speaker or writer wants to reference an occasion when proceedings reached an emotional peak that is beyond the powers of words, he or she will say, “And then we danced.” Prior to this hallowed phrase, the speaker will have offered up a full and highly detailed description of the meal before the dancing; or of the particular kind of half-light seeping through the bar’s grubby, faded, cotton curtains; or of the complicated exchange of barbs and deprecations among a group of people that unexpectedly and gradually morphed into consensus and then celebration. But once “and then we danced” is broken out, a cone of silent acknowledgment descends over the conversation, and we all nod our heads knowingly.
We spend our lives trying to describe for one another various incidents and their subtle emotional underpinnings and repercussions, yet when it comes time to cite a moment of huge emotional scope, we rely on a shorthand that describes a wordless activity.
But isn’t there more to the story?