Monday, August 27, 2012
I Won't Dance, Don't Ask Me: A Ramble
When you consider the complexity of the step patterns in Mr. Issac's Pastorall, the idea of dancing at all becomes daunting. But people of the upper class used to learn these dance steps (or dances that were less complicated) as a matter of course. They would employ a dancing master, and they would practice their steps. When they learned their steps, they could appear in public and do the very same dances they learned with people they did not really know (or people they knew, or distant relatives they might some day be romantically involved with). It was a way of relating that didn't involve conversation, but that did require manners and a certain amount of discipline.
There were also dances--combinations of steps and arm movements--practices by people not of the upper classes. Perhaps there wouldn't be a dancing master, or matches made with cousins, but there would be codified steps that everyone knew, and they would be danced to music that enhanced the patterns of the dances.
Using a stepping pattern you knew, and dancing with a partner you didn't know must have been quite interesting. Dancing with partner you knew, but with new music written for those familiar steps (that you both knew), sounds like a wonderful poly-sensual experience. Movement and music.
I grew up in the progressive 1960s and 1970s, and though I did go to the usual array of Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties in Junior High School, I never learned the usual array of dances that my parents' generation knew. Come to think of it, my parents never danced, so they didn't know the array of dances that other people's parents seemed to know.
There were children of those times who donned white gloves and took dancing lessons (I have heard stories from friends), but my generation, particularly in the progressive village of Newton Highlands, Massachusetts, let it all hang out. Dancing became less about moving your feet in pre-ordained patterns, many of which explored the wonderful things that can happen when you combine the meter of three with that fact that human beings have two feet. In my youth, it was more about moving your head, hair, hips, and arms to an unvarying rhythmic pattern, and in the case of the "slow dance," swaying to and fro in an improvised pattern, and ignoring your feet as much as possible. I suppose that slow dancing was about listening to the words of the song, and allowing your body to move to them in tandem with your partner.
Perhaps the dancing of my youth was kind of like free swim, as contrasted with laps or water ballet (synchronized swimming) that previous generations associated with social dancing.
I figured that everyone knew how to dance: all you have to do is wiggle to the music and make stuff up. You could mirror what your partner did, or you could even dance by yourself. You could also confound your partner by twirling at odd times, thus adding a bit of surprise to the dance. I used to laugh at the Arthur Murray ads, like this one:
Now I think it might be fun to really learn the popular dances of the 1920s and 1930s.
I was a child of the time, and a pretty good improviser in my youth. Once, sometime in the 1970s, there was a group of jazz musicians playing on the street in Harvard Square, and Brother Blue and I were among the people standing and listening. He grabbed my hand (it was perfectly safe because everyone in Cambridge knew Brother Blue through his story telling) and encouraged me to dance with him. (He said I was a great dancer, but he might have said that to all the girls.)
I find it amusing that there is now an all-encompassing term for tandem dancing according to choreographed steps: Ballroom Dancing (even though it seems that most ballrooms are used for anything but "ballroom" dancing). Unfortunately tandem dancing has become more of a spectator sport (consider the dancing you see on the TV like "Dancing with the Stars") than an interactive pastime, or a way of enjoying music. Some people take ballroom dance lessons at a dance studio, or they take ballroom dancing as a college course, or they learn to waltz so that they can dance with a parent at a wedding, but it seems that many young people still think of dancing as something connected with recorded music that is intended to be played so loudly that it drowns out both conversation and thought, and has a "beat" so forceful that it makes you move mechanically. Combine that with an auto-tuned voice, strobing lights, "over the top" costuming, and very little movement of the feet, aside from the occasional stomp, or fitness move, and you get the usual "party" experience. Fancy footwork is left for the personally adept, and is most often done solo (rather than in tandem), for display purposes. Sometimes dances (I'm thinking of high school talent shows) are performed by several people at once who do not interact with one another. They usually dress alike, and stand in a line, facing an audience, which has been conditioned to cheer.
So now we both understand how daunting a task it is to find ways of getting young people to appreciate the all-important connection between music and dance in Europe in the 16th through the 18th centuries.
N.B. I should add that there are pockets of non-mainstream dance culture all over the place. We even have some here in downstate Illinois, including belly dancing and contra dancing, but they all have specialized and dedicated communities. Most of the students I teach have only been exposed to dance as mainstream youth culture: watching or participating in high school dance teams that perform at sporting event half-time shows and in talent shows, going to high school dances, going to parties, and watching television, music videos, and movies.