Saturday, January 1, 2011

Essay: On Dancing

[Note: A few months ago, I was thinking about things I could do to bust out of the loop of churning out concert review after concert review. I had this ambitious notion of taking a step back and looking at all the different ways that I enjoyed music — from the perspective of playing, of the joy of accumulating albums, of the act of listening, etc. etc. As with lots of if-I-had-more-time ideas, it never really went anywhere, but I did start an essay on what is perhaps the most elemental way of reacting to music. And then, every couple months, after one incident or another, something caused me to dust it off. Whether this is worthy or not, for some reason this stuck with me, and I have the notion that if I don't just post the damn thing I'll keep rewriting it ad infinitum. I could assert, on putting this up on January first, that this has nothing to do with any sort of resolution on my part, but you could probably call bullshit on that.]

On Dancing

Alternate title: Come in From The Cold


"Back in 1957 we had to dance a foot apart," Joni Mitchell once sang, looking back to her teenaged prairie years. "And they hawk-eyed us from the sidelines, holding their rulers, without a heart." In Manitoba in the middle eighties, at a four-room rural elementary school it wasn't quite that strict, but it was still sort of the same.

Sixth grade. A dance, held in our classroom, desks pulled over and hugging the walls, DJ'ed by someone switching cassettes in and out of a ghetto blaster.1

Dancing was in my blood. I remember dancing — back then, before adolescence and all the confusions that brought on, I danced instinctually, without worry. To "Let's Go Crazy" and to Bryan Adams and to Duran Duran. Even to all the slow-dance songs, mostly with D——.

And then, at one song's close, a hand on my shoulder. Mr. F——, the principal, pulling me aside, suggesting, without saying anything outright, that that was probably enough.

I didn't dance the rest of that night. In my youthful obedience to any kind of authority I was a Good Boy, and if it was suggested that I shouldn't dance too closely with a girl like that, well, so be it. At the time, I didn't really understand what was going on at all. I vaguely knew, of course, that D——'s sister wasn't a "good girl", though I had no real clue what that meant. And I knew that their family was poor, and vaguely suspicious for not being gainfully-employed, virtuous types, coming to school in clothing that was somehow dirty just by its hand-me-down nature. The whole family was trash, in one sense — and D——'s sister was trash, too, but in a different sense. I guess it seemed reasonable to keep a naive, bright nerd like me away from that.

A couple years later, when adolescence came, and dancing was suddenly far more meaningful, I never danced, unless forced to. And I never really thought about why. In fact, the whole incident — the small-town classroom, the swirling, multicoloured light decorating the walls and probably "One Night in Bangkok" playing on the ghetto blaster — was something that I didn't really remember for many years, until as an adult it came back to me in a burst — maybe when I first heard Joni's song.

And maybe now it occupies a slightly-outsized place in my mind, because it so strongly evokes a lot of things that I never really thought about for so long. Most strongly the shame — that a teacher would "correct" my behaviour like that must have meant that I was wrong, that I had failed at some lesson that I hadn't been aware was being taught.


I never really thought of it in those terms at the time, but as a teenager I was obsessed with mind-body dualism. As in keeping the two as widely separated as possible.2 Feeling unable to deal with a lot of things, especially all those awkward things involving bodies, I mostly opted out, now learning about shame of a different kind from a body that I never really liked. Reading as many paperback sci-fi novels as I could get from the bookmobile when it came through town, it never seemed completely implausible that we could all really just be brains in jars in some laboratory somewhere, all this physical stuff just fed to us as simulated sensation. The very idea was vaguely comforting to me, and seemed to appeal to the idea of a higher plane, something that I could understand, but that my peers, sneaking off to smoke or make out, were missing out on.

I don't even want to talk about the grim cavalcade of high-school dances, spent mostly leaning against a wall, waiting for that one moment where the rules bent and everyone could swear in the gym, shouting heymotherfuckergetlaidgetfucked together. And occasionally joining in a large circle of dancing teenagers, all the while feeling apprehensive about the slow dances, when you could put a hand on so-and-so's body and maybe make eye contact. And if you were really lucky, it would be at the end, during "Stairway to Heaven" — a song completely lousy for dancing to, its only virtue being the eight minutes of closeness it provided.

Eventually I found a part-time job that regularly kept me busy on those nights — although at the time I hated the work and thought it was a drag that I was missing out on socializing, I never really realized I was deliberately structuring my time so as to be kept away from all that stuff.


Did I mention that dancing was in my blood? My family always danced. My mum, all my aunts, they're dancing fools. At any sort of family event it never took long for all of the sisters to get up and start dancing.

I remember my sister's wedding, a top-floor hotel reception room, overlooking downtown Vancouver on a foggy November night. My new in-laws, sitting around with rigourous politeness while our side took over the dancefloor. My Auntie M——, bad hip and all, was still nimble enough to be cutting a rug to the jazz-y trio playing at the reception — and still light-footed enough to be able to sneak around and goose the trumpet player, thirty years her junior. "Oh, Joseph," she said afterwards, "I sure could cuddle up with him!" Even always-serious Auntie J—— was out there on her with two bad knees. Me, I drank what I could from the open bar, danced as little as obligation and appearances required, stared out the window over the foggy city below and at the end of the night was blitzed enough to be supremely confident that I could navigate the late-night transit system in an unfamiliar city, leading to an interesting journey that involved a long walk in the rain in my new suit after failing to distinguish between buses heading from downtown over the Granville and Berrard bridges.


A few years later and a year ago, at my cousin J——'s wedding, there was a different cast of earnest, sober guests on the groom's side and the same steal-the-wine-bottle-and-get-on-the-dancefloor collection of my relatives. In the clubhouse overlooking a golf course at the edge of one of Manitoba's lesser metropolises, as "family" we were handed an envelope of drink tickets, and I got a good start over dinner, which seemed like the best way to enjoy the evening — although I soon realized that if I kept that up, I was headed for a sloppy end to the night and an even worse morning after. After the bride and groom's dance, when the traditional parents' dance followed, the groom's mom and dad took the floor with stately gravitas while my Auntie M——, long widowed, was sitting at her table. No one had planned in advance for this. My mum shot me a look over the rims of her glasses and nodded her head, enough of a hint for me to go over and do the gallant thing of taking my aunt out to the dancefloor — which everyone afterwards said was a very nice gesture that I unhesitatingly took the undeserved full credit for.

And after that, as the DJ began his night's work (and, by gawd, I'm pretty sure he played "Let's Go Crazy" and Bryan Adams and Duran Duran) I just ended up staying on the dancefloor for most of the night. Maybe it was just enough drinks in me to be relaxed, or the smooth-soled dress shoes that I wore that slid around the dancefloor in a way that my normal concrete-gripping shoes do not. Or maybe it was that there was a crowd of my cousin's friends for whom I had no rep to live up to — or maybe, even, the normalizing desire to vaguely demonstrate to a gaggle of revered aunties that this still-unmarried bachelor in his mid-thirties does, indeed, dance with girls. Whatever it was, I spent pretty much the whole of the night up there, actually having a fairly fun time, and saving myself the fate of my cousin D—— who had gone the drink-the-night-away route, showing up the next morning painfully hung-over during the family breakfast before we all drove back down the Trans-Canada.


Although there's more of a chance these days that I might be spotted actually dancing of my own volition, there's no arc to this, really — no next incident where I could brag that I have gotten over myself, that I don't feel about all of this more or less the same way that I did at all those high school dances. Although I am now, by small increments, younger and more sociable and less grim than I was a decade or two ago, I still lug this same body around, and I still lug all of the same, um, discomfitures as I have for years. I suppose I like to think that with age I have more perspective and more licence to accept myself — and I do, kinda. But at some level it's not really anything you control.

I think about how, a few years back, I realized I wasn't just a brain in a jar and began to consider how to deal with the ramifications of that. I think about how I would like more closeness in my life instead of the proximities that I settled for, even if I never really got a handle on dealing with the notion that other people probably feel like this from time to time as well. I think about how I could reach back to that kid at that sock hop in a sixth-grade classroom.

All we ever wanted was just to come in from the cold.

1 In that time and place, about as far as you could get from "urban" desolation, that was the only name I ever remember being used for portable cassette players. The more polite "boom box" was not in common circulation. This didn't seem weird or vaguely racist at the time.

2 All of this might have had something to do with the fact that I ended up, years later, with a philosophy degree. Which, in retrospect, was not particularly helpful in dealing with any of this.


  1. Terrific. Your writing reminds me of Chuck Klosterman. Keep on writing.

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this man; you're an excellent writer. Keep it up!