Dancing the social steps

AUG 2 — I have never “got” choreographed dancing.

To my eyes, the sight of a conjoined mass of rehearsed and pre-defined steps has always appeared to violate the very essence of music, which as an abstract art is inherently open to personal interpretation and expression.

Dancing, I have always felt, should be about closing your eyes, really listening to the music, losing yourself within it and letting the sounds move you spontaneously — not simply copying whatever everyone else is doing in a controlled and robotic sheep shuffle.

That attitude has always made me regard with horror songs like The Village People’s late Seventies disco (ahem) classic, YMCA, which apparently requires all those present to enthusiastically wave their arms in vague letter shapes, all in the name of “fun.”

But now the veil has been lifted and I have seen the light, allowing me to realise something that I’m sure everyone else has instinctively known all along: why choreographed dancing is so ubiquitously popular.

The catalyst for my overdue revelation was attending a barn dance, a form of social gathering which became particularly fashionable in the United Kingdom in the late 1980s but has its origins in previous centuries.

Forgive my ignorance: I have no idea whether barn dances have penetrated Malaysia’s shores so this may mean nothing to you, but I am sure you will be able to easily picture the scene of groups of cheery dancers performing identical simple and jaunty routines with regular partner changes, all accompanied by traditional country-style music.

For the reasons outlined above, barn dances have always left me cold and it was therefore with trepidation and reluctance that I succumbed to my wife’s request to join her at such an event to celebrate a friend’s birthday last week. To say I was not looking forward to the evening is an understatement.

People enjoying the traditional “Baile de la Alpargata” (the espadrille dance) during the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, northern Spain, on July 10, 2015. — AFP pic
People enjoying the traditional “Baile de la Alpargata” (the espadrille dance) during the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, northern Spain, on July 10, 2015. — AFP pic

To my surprise, however, it turned into an occasion which transformed my perception of choreographed dancing, largely thanks to the explanations offered by the caller — the man whose job it is to lead the dance and show everyone what they should be doing.

Unlike any other callers I have experienced, who restricted themselves to a “watch me and copy” approach, this particular caller preceded every dance by actually explaining what we were doing and why we were doing it: the traditional origins of the dance, the social occasions on which it is performed and the mood it is supposed to convey.

One thing he didn’t even regard worthy of a mention, beyond a brief and polite acknowledgment of the band, was the actual music, which it became clear was only there to allow the dancers to keep time and rhythm.

Midway through the evening, with the context of what was happening now in place, the lightbulb in my mind suddenly switched on and I understood for the first time that this kind of dancing really does have very little to do with music: it is primarily social.

The whole point of choreographed dancing is precisely the opposite of my conception of personal, individual expression: everybody is doing the same thing, expressing their solidarity by dancing in unison and allowing themselves to be guided by pre-determined routines rather than having any opportunity to steal the show.

Social dancing, to use a phrase which I had never previously heard but is apparently widely known, is fundamentally an expression of fellowship and community, not introspectively “losing yourself in the music” as I had always thought the purpose of all dancing should be.

The evening wasn’t at all what I had expected, and it got me thinking that every culture I have personally experienced, without exception, possesses its own variant of the English barn dance I had just attended.

In Catalonia, where I currently reside, it is called the Sardana — a slow-moving jig where a large circle is formed and complex, polyrhythmic shuffle steps are performed which befuddle novices but seem second nature to natives.

The Scots have the Ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee); the English variant is Morris dancing; in Germany there are Oompah bands; Americans have country & western and line dancing… the list goes on.

There are regional differences but all these dances are essentially the same: they are highly ritualised, leaving little room for explicit expression and emphasising the community above the individual.

Given its omnipresence, social dancing must tell us something fairly fundamental about human nature, and I would guess it is this: on these occasions, it doesn’t matter who is rich, who is good-looking, who has the best job and who has the best connections. It doesn’t even matter if you can’t really dance — the steps are generally easy enough to be quickly learned by the most rhythmically challenged.

Everyone is the same, and in a world where showing off and preening ourselves are increasingly commonplace, there is something very important about that. We are a social animal and can achieve nothing without cooperation and mutual acceptance — and the more strongly we possess those qualities, the better our societies function.

In an increasingly unequal world, the social dancefloor is one place where artificial differences are erased.

After a lifetime of missing the point, now at last I finally understand what’s going on. But that still doesn’t mean I’ll join in with YMCA.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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