A small group of us would heard to Camp Washington Chili after the Thursday night dances. The six or seven of us, ages ranging from college students to young professionals to retirees, would occupy the table of the diner long into the night and past the hour when it would be reasonable for us to go to sleep. We were dancers, and although the discussion meandered, the topic I spoke of more reverently than any other was that of dance philosophy. The group grew to the point where it was no longer intimate, and those who I enjoyed the company of the most stopped dancing, but the philosophy of dance is a subject that can be carried into almost every aspect of one’s life.
Organized dance culture. It draws odd parallels to organized religious culture. Beyond the walls of the temple, the mosque, the church, the synagogue or the atheist circlejerk known as a “reason rally,” lies people who drink at a bar or get high in a basement and debate the philosophical and spiritual troubles of modern society in a way that is more candid and reflective of reality than every could be found in a wall of a sterile forced-thought institution. In the same way, dancing with friends or random people in a hole-in-a-wall bar, although often more challenging, and often less elegant, is often more authentic.
You can learn a lot in dance classes. You learn basic steps and patterns that go with a particular genre of music. A good instructor will introduce his or her class to the history of how the dance originated. Really good instructors attempt to teach musicality. Ballroom instructors teach pieces of dances they’ve dissected over the years into adaptations that are either simpler forms of the dance for audiences both young and over forty; teaching the abstract motions of what use to be a dance. Either that or they turn the dance into an elaborate choreographed piece of art, with vibrant costumes, designed for shows and competition. In all cases, the soul of the dance is often lost.
Learning basic steps is the beginning. Many dance socially awkwardly to the rhythm in jerky mechanical fashions, but do so happily. Some dance elegantly and with their own unique style, and do so happily. And finally, there are those who see the basics as a guide, like the five paragraph essay from high school; a crutch to understand the fundamentals of writing before being released into a world that expects people to elaborate and expand. And finally, there are those who never attend a dance class. They simply hear music and respond by moving their bodies. Often forgotten, these are the people who originally created the dances others have turned into doctrine.
It’s relatively easy to ask someone to dance at a social dance event. People are there to dance. In the dim lights of a music venue or a dance club, people are more cautious. They’re nervous or suspect ulterior motives. Those who attempt to dance in the strict form they learned in class, prancing about in front of a band and stealing the show, are often viewed as douche bags. There are those who dance bomb an event, people in a particular style of dance who see a live band playing that style and attempt to create an impromptu organized dance to promote their style and possible their dance organizations. These are the people you will rarely, if ever, see enjoying live music casually at the same venues. Occasionally, they do at least encourage others to join them dancing.
There are those who are happy dancing alone, who enjoy dancing because it’s driven by the music, who can approach a stranger and ask them to dance and then unshackle themselves from the constructs of rigid steps or structured dance, who dance when appropriate and realize the show is about the band, the music and the people. It is those dancers that create an expression whose movements become an organic extension of the music.