Dance it up
Remember the last time you danced for joy?
Remember the last time you danced?
If you’re struggling with either of those questions, isn’t it time to arrange a re-visit to joy?
YouTube celebrates toddlers dancing with abandon for the sheer exuberance of being alive, and I for one am unwilling to accept that it’s downhill all the way from there. Are you?
The brilliant thing is, you can dance yourself to joy, as well as dance to express joy.
It works both ways.
I speak from personal experience – if you were to catch me after a three-hour bout of salsa, I will look and sound very close to merrily drunk. Because dancing creates a high, minus hang-over.
Minus most of the expense. What’s not to like?
I cottoned on to that in the mid-90s, and then someone dragged me into Argentine Tango. And the high went from lasting till the next morning to lasting for the best part of the week. My colleague’s eyes went square on a Thursday at my reply that I was still feeling fine, thank you, after a great Tango outing the Sunday before.
I’m good to go – but where do I go?
“Ok,” you say, “you’ve convinced me. Memories of exuberant dancing fun are flooding back, I’m rearing to go.”
Unfortunately, there is a snag. Socially-acceptable settings for dancing for most people in this part of the world today consist of:
- If you’re under 30: bobbing up and down in a nightclub
- Um, what?
Humans are sociable creatures, so if there is no place where it’s Ok for us to dance, most of us will simply stop. And forgo joy, that willingly?
Well, we may find other things to enjoy around other people: beer, beer, and… wait a second!
Let’s face it, most parties still include music and dancing for a reason: leave them out and it’s suddenly so dull, you have to drown your boredom in a magic potion, aka a drink.
Admittedly, there are a few places which explicitly include dancing. But there’s the rub: you arrive at one of those, and you *would* dance, if you could. If you could dance, that moment at a wedding when the music comes on would be your chance to shine and let your hair down. Tricky to do though, if the last time you dusted off your moves was… when was it again?
What to dance then?
So, Ok, you’ve decided that dance is something worth your while, and you’re willing to be proactive about it. Woohoo!
Next likely challenge: what to pick? Most of the dance we see in the media is not something you would want to do in a social situation. It might be stunning, it might be athletic, it might be moving – but it’s not *sociable*. Granted, youngsters can have fun copying a move or two from the latest music video. That stops looking cool some time in your twenties. Then, what shall we dance?
Most people need a “dance” to help them to dance. Inventing from nothing is awfully hard. And so there is an abundance of dance forms around the world – take your pick! Visit Cuba, and there will be grandmas dancing it up like nobody’s business alongside the boys and girls. Visit Buenos Aires, and you will find a culture where those with 50 years of dance under their belt are in great demand.
Why the empty space?
Yes, why an empty space where the English dance would be? What happened to the local (even if not indigenous) dance culture? Briefly (and so unavoidably cursorily):
- Historically, dances would get high-jacked, stolen: society culture would take a vibrant peasant dance and trim it, clean it up and choke it to death with politeness. This happened to waltz, originally a peasant dance indulged in for the pleasure of whirling round and round. It got smoothed, censored, and eventually looked so “exclusive” as to put most people off.
- Zealous religions (and England’s past has plenty of that) repress dancing because of the likely pleasure involved, which they see as a threat: people might enjoy themselves too much, and forget to bow low enough and feel lowly enough.
- The democratic impulse of the 60s and 70s that insisted that you could dance your own way and please yourself left people with no “way”, no definite shape to use as a starting point. So popular dance degenerated into bobbing up and down. “Your own way” also made it near-impossible to dance *with* someone, as it lacks a framework for collaborating. So in fact you end up dancing in front of people, not with them – more on that later.
Our culture has become “physically silent”
Having lost the thread of continuity with our dances that were, instead of creating a dance form to express our own current culture, we end up borrowing.
We’ve got so used to it though that it may be worth stating the obvious: most of the recent “global” dance forms stem from black culture: break dance, hip-hop, salsa, I could go on. Youngsters find it exciting to take those up, and I’m all for exploration. Trouble is, they tend to pick up the dance parrot-fashion, and end up missing what the dance is on about. It does not necessarily become *their* dance. Which often means that the dances degenerate into fads, and so each has to be swiftly replaced by another, apparently arbitrarily shaped, still failing to answer the hungers of their hearts.
Part of how our culture has become physically silent comes from a shift in the 20th century towards abdicating participation in favour of celebrating professionals. Further back, this was again a class thing – wearing a tall hat, one was too dignified to step onto the pitch, or the dancefloor, so one had to get one’s pleasure vicariously, by paying to watch other people exert themselves.
20th century took this further: we now pay footballers to run around for us, and we get the “safer” pleasure of cheering over a pint of beer. We don’t sing – that’s Pavarotti’s job. If someone thinks they can sing, we tell them to shut up: “you’re no Pavarotti”. It amuses me to toy with what the ultimate logical conclusion of this trend would look like: imagine a young Pavarotti being told to shut up, because he’s not “some great Pavarotti”. The loop would close, and that dystopian world would fall silent for ever. Its people would forget what the sound of humans singing was like at all.
The popular story of Billy Elliot has been speaking to us for decades about the poverty of the popular attitude to dance in England. That boy *would* dance – in the wilderness of his birthplace, which would suppress all such impulse to joy.
I propose that we retrieve dance from the professionals. That we go beyond clicking Like on a stunning YouTube clip.
For the professionals, dance is their passion, their daily bread, maybe even butter. For you, it’s your chance for feeling alive, or as the song has it “staying alive”. So what if you can’t put your ankle on your dance partner’s shoulder? As long as you can come alive to joy with the best of them!
21st century is seeing a swing back from “the rule of the experts” to people stepping up to participate in their culture through blogging, creating YouTube channels, showing up to connect with their world. Dances spring up as an expression of a culture. This vibrant modern culture will likely give birth to new dance forms, and I’m keen to see what they will be like. In the meantime…
Tango in a cold climate
If you see a girl at the next table having a great time, would you say “I’ll have what she’s having”?
Or would you rather opt for “She is such a hussy to be enjoying that cake”?
I’m not being flippant in quoting the famous scene from “When Harry met Sally”. Because the choice to turn up for the delicious or to try to talk it down is with us every day.
Tango has received sensationalist billing to date. It’s portrayed as an expression of fatal passions, self-destructive impulses, as self-indulgent and decadent. That cake can’t possibly taste as good as it looks. Can it?
Would you like a flavour of the cake from someone who has actually tasted it?
Tango Argentine way
Tango the dance is unique, in my experience, in its focus on dancing *with* someone. It often feels like one of those satisfying conversations with your best friend: a conversation where they get you, they care about what’s going on for you, the exchange is flowing because what is going on for them is equally as compelling for you, and as the time draws to a close you feel held, supported and full of new courage and zest.
The parallel I’m suggesting with conversation is not accidental: Tango’s attitude is improvisational, the dance hold is intimate. It is less about pleasing on-lookers, and more about an enriching experience for the dancers themselves. It not only takes two – it is *for* two. It is responsive, subtle, and respectful. It feels like holing up in a quiet corner and keeping each other company moment-to-moment, and yet still getting to feel the pulse of life swirling around you.
If you have not seen a social Tango dance (that’s the Tango less reported), the “conversation” in a partnership is triggered by the music starting, with the leader (most often the man, but the dance partners can agree on who will take the lead) guiding the pair’s movements around the dance-floor, steering safe of obstacles and other dancers – much like a driver negotiating passage around a town’s busy streets. The dance arises moment-to-moment as the dancefloor spacing, with all the other couples moving around, changes every few seconds. Ever-changing space around the pair is one influence on the choice of what comes next, music is another. Far from being simply a race around the room, the dance weaves, rocks and pauses in every-changing variety of textures to express what the music’s rhythms and melodies evoke for the dancers. The lead’s companion-for-the-song is tuned to their slightest movement and aims to co-operate with the suggested shapes for the dance, yet still has freedom of expression within that to create their half of the conversation.
The game of surfing together through the dancing throng, holding on to each other and punching up the music, is delightful, at times fast-paced and relies on teamwork of the highest order negotiated through touch. This accounts for the on-going learning and upgrade in skills that long-term dancers report – and relish.
Psychologists tell us that people get a natural high from stretching their skills to meet a new challenge (that’s one of the basic principles of designing computer games – only this Tango game is danced with real bodies!). Tango’s challenges get more subtle as your skills improve, so that at each stage you get as much stretch as you can handle. This means that the Tango is a long-running game, keeping its players fascinated for years and decades: you can always take your Tango higher!
It is so far impossible to deliver to you the actual flavour of a cake through a screen, and so it is with Tango. To taste it for yourself you’d have to turn up in person. But if you think you’d like what the girl at the next table is having, do give it a whirl!
How came Tango to be this way?
Argentine Tango is a strikingly modern dance which answers the hungers at the very heart of modern lives. It was forged in a forerunner of the modern city: Buenos Aires at the turn of 1900s. Full of lonely immigrants from all over the world who brought their music, their dance and their hears full of longing to belong to the melting pot, the city has been nicknamed the “New Orleans of the South America”. Buenos Aires created Tango as New Orleans saw the emergence of another great 20th century art form – jazz. Similarly to jazz, Tango is a hybrid absorbing influences from Europe, Africa and the East, and this means it has vitality in spaces and its musical variety is staggering.
Nowadays the modern nomadic lifestyle has made the situation of the erstwhile immigrants commonplace, and the challenges of finding a community turn up for us time and again: one statistic reports that every year one in three people will change jobs and one in 10 will move home. We constantly have to leave people behind and go looking to make new connections – very much what the immigrant culture of earlier Buenos Aires was grappling with.
What Tango can do for you
It takes a lot of time to forge true friendships, it is not possible to replace a childhood friend in a hurry. So Tango came up with the next best thing – the most complete words-free way of giving and receiving companionship.
It is a language that can take you around the world: walk into any tango social dance (they’re called ‘milongas’) and you’ll find a bit of home turf, a place where people can “hear” you. There are now websites for arranging house swaps for Tango travellers, and a website for finding a milonga in any city world-wide.
Kicking up your heels in austere times
There is an interesting correlation between the popularity of going dancing and the levels of general prosperity: as other, more expensive, forms of entertainment grow too much for most pockets, more people get into dancing.
I don’t know how well your pockets are faring – but I do know that even just sitting back at a milonga delivers the uplifting sight of people in their glad rags having a good time. These people are skipping on a hefty drinks bill, because the music and the movement are a great lift already. If you’re finding a dearth of fun outing options, if you’re keen to open up your opportunities for enjoyment, then Tango may have something for you.
Dance it your way
Argentine Tango happens to have captured my heart. More than a decade since I first got the bug, I teach it and speak – and write – about it constantly. I’m not wedded to it though: I’d be happy to see you strut your stuff, whatever your preferred dance style, music or outfit.
I find joy is a win-win game, and it’s infectious: your smile will spark up mine.
May your joy flow abundantly!