Dancing is one of those more mysterious aspects of our culture and, like the appendix and the British royal family, might appear to have no obvious practical purpose.
From the Cha-Cha to the Charleston, the Hoedown to the Haka, dancing comes in a diverse range of strange and wonderful forms.
How does one begin to make sense of this odd compulsion for collectively shaking our booties to the beat of a drum? Can animals dance? What is dad dancing? I will attempt to address these and other questions in due course. But first some backstory…
According to Wikepedia: ‘Dance was an important part of the oral and performance methods of passing stories down from generation to generation. The use of dance in ecstatic trance states and healing rituals (as observed today in many contemporary “primitive” cultures (sic), from the Brazilian rain forest to the Kalahari Desert) is thought to have been another early factor in the social development of dance.‘
Dances were (and still are) used to prepare warriors for battle, as well as celebrate great victories, summon rain or promote bonding among tribal members.
Most modern dancing is less about rituals or narratives and more about flirting, dating or mating – expressions of sexuality or displays of skill and rhythm. Being a great mover it would seem, can get you noticed, perhaps even a shag*. Conversely being an awful dancer can get you attention for very different reasons.
Dad dancing is an example of the latter. It proceeds from the assumption that a happily married family man no longer feels any need to try and look cool on the dance floor. He has attracted a mate, had kids and is happy to just dance for the sheer fun of it, (and/or to embarrass his family).
Dance in the movies comes in many varieties – Saturday Night Fever depicted the dance floor as an urban arena, where young studs could wow or intimidate their peers and charm the opposite sex with smooth moves and raw bravado. It was a far cry from the Hollywood days of old, where classy couples swished around lavish film sets, never breaking a sweat or dropping an F-bomb.
Musicals like the Romeo and Juliet inspired West Side Story took dance into new realms, exploring social problems, tribal rivalries and transcendent love, with an irresistible energy and style.
More recent dance movies have focused on young street dance enthusiasts battling it out with acrobatic moves that would put most folks in traction for a few months.
India and the east gave us elaborate and richly symbolic expressions, costumes and movements, as well as lavish and exuberant Bollywood spectaculars.
Latin American brought us Salsa, Tango and Samba, dances filled with wild passion and hot rhythms, while traditional Irish dance provided opportunities for those who’d lost the use of their arms to join in the fun.
England’s 70s punk scene spawned the Pogo, possibly the world’s simplest dance form and one which provided a useful cardio workout, as well as affording (brief) views of the stage for shorter concert-goers.
The massive influence of African culture and its numerous styles contrasted strongly with the white European’s ballet, ballroom and Morris dancing. It brought new levels of energy and creativity to the streets and clubs, as well as movies and theatre stages. From Lindyhoppers to breakdancers, traditional tribal to tap and modern dance, the rich diversity of forms continues to inspire new generations.
Dancing may often have been a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire as George Bernard Shaw put it, but for many of us, dancing the night away was a simple, primal pleasure, pure escapism, often fueled by alcohol or narcotics. Sometimes it was very close to the tribalistic or trance-inducing rites of old.
Certainly for me and my other half, dancing to repetitive electronic beats was a shared pleasure for many years, although these days we are slightly less inclined to hit the clubs and music festivals, perhaps for fear of ending up more hip op than hip hop. Plus walking frames can really get in the way on a crowded dance floor and attract unwanted mockery from pimply youngsters on the pull.
Most other species do not share our love for this strange activity. While some do stage quite elaborate performances to attract mates, few animals respond to music in a simulacrum of human dancing. The only known creatures that appear to have any true rhythm are birds. Parrots in particular have demonstrated their unique ability to move in time to a changing beat, although they refuse to participate in Line dancing.
Just as most men believe themselves to be above average drivers, so to do many who actually brave the dance floor delude themselves as uniquely gifted. I know I certainly have the moves and body of a God. Unfortunately these days it’s closer to an arthritic Buddha.
‘We’re fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance.’
Of course by adopting standards and value judgements, one rather spoils the whole activity. It really shouldn’t matter a damn if you are a veritable Michael Jackson / Beyoncé, or a clueless, two left-footed clodhopper. Dancing should be whatever you want it to be – a celebration, an expression of freedom or just a natural reaction to a great beat after several pints or rum ‘n’ cokes.
So the next time you hear the strains of Billie Jean coming from the jukebox, or the DJ spins Groove is in the Heart, put your best (or worst) foot forward and dance like nobody is watching. Hips can be replaced you know.
* Interestingly, a Shag can be a dance, the sexual act or a type of rug. Always good to clarify before proceeding.
Copyright J.Lennick 2016 All rights reserved.
Picture of Snowball the parrot, the first ever (scientifically validated) nonhuman Dancer. Courtesy of Irena Schulz/Bird Lovers Only
David Brent pic – copyright bbc.co.uk