Dancing With Myself
Heaven, I'm in heaven
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak
And I seem to find the happiness I seek
When we're out together dancing cheek to cheek
—Irving Berlin, "Cheek to Cheek"
My parents love to dance—my mom, especially. It is only while dancing that she feels my father's equal. My father is king in our household and she suffers under his rule. She tries to reason with him, though he rarely budges from his machismo. But on weekends when they dance, my mother exacts her revenge. She leads.
They met at a dance in a now-demolished Anaheim dance hall that used to stand on the corner of Anaheim Boulevard and North Street. An Auto Zone is there now.
"From the very first moment I met your dad, he didn't know how to dance," she says with a laugh. "He'd try to dance like this," she pumps her legs as if she's trying to squash grapes, "and it would really be uncomfortable for me, not only because sometimes he'd step on me but because everyone would look at us strange. People thought he was trying to show off. So early on in our relationship, I told him I would lead. If he wanted to lead once in a while, fine. But I would lead."
Amazingly, my father accepted this with little protest.
My mother doesn't think much of this toppling of the gender expectation, dismissing it as "your dad alone doesn't know how to dance well. But we dance good together." They do. These two middle-aged adults have lived and danced together with no one else for the past 25 years and act like giddy kids whenever they move in step. "He's still the one who asks me to dance, but of course I have to agree," my mom says. "And when I don't want to dance anymore—healways wants to dance—we don't dance anymore. I feel that in that moment, we're really a couple."
So, you can see, in my family things go much better when my parents dance together. If the world were only like my parents . . .
THE END OF DANCING TOGETHER
Nobody dances anymore. People get their freak on, wave their hands in the air like they just don't care, occasionally jump around or settle for dancing in line. But nobody actually dances: no more Fred Astaire-fusing-his-cheek-with-Ginger Rogers'-type unions, no one losing themselves in the arms of a beloved as they navigate through a swirl of strangers. That type of dancing is nearly extinct, exiled to ballroom competitions, immigrant celebrations and the hellish eternity that is The Lawrence Welk Show.
Think about it: When was the last time you went to the Goodfoot at Que Sera in Long Beach, Anaheim's Boogie, or, for that matter, any club frequented by the horny young masses, and saw a couple slide across the room in a gentle embrace? What now passes as dancing involves little more than two supple bodies, flesh flashing and an occasional grinding up against an ass. And if you think your average redneck bar is a slow-dance backwater, you haven't been to a country music venue since the 1970s: line dancing is king, evidence that industrialization has now so fully destroyed our imaginations that America's folk dance now emulates the Taylorization of the automobile assembly line.
The common perception is that dancing together is reactionary or, worse, it's passé, a cultural relic of an older, whiter, ultraconservative America too reserved in its patriarchy and Puritanism to liberate itself and enjoy the world.
The past two decades have transformed this country into one that, on every social level, dances alone. As couples drifted apart on the dance floor, a corresponding rise in American unilateralism emerged on the domestic and international fronts. Look at the beautiful people of any club and you see our foreign relations policy manifest. People invade others' personal space with nary an invite, men and women touch only in the most obvious and superficial of ways, everybody dances as if there was no one else in the hall. Dancing with themselves, indeed. And as Americans dance alone and without grace, the United States pushes other countries off the international dance floor, like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, blowing everybody else off the parquet, keeping the global boogie for ourselves alone.
THE SUBVERSIVENESS OF DANCING TOGETHER
"Kids, it looks like the Boston police don't want you to have fun," legendary DJ Alan Freed supposedly told an overflowing Boston audience in 1958 when authorities wouldn't let them dance to a dream slate of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis. The ensuing riot was so nasty that Boston officials attempted to convict Freed under an obscure 19th-century anti-anarchy statute that accused Freed of inspiring kids to overthrow the government. Though acquitted, Freed's career was ruined, the stigma of allowing the races to mingle during concerts too notorious to overcome. But Freed didn't care: he soon lost his ABC television program after allowing Frankie Lyman of the Teenagers to dance with a white woman on-air. Soon after, the FBI started a surveillance of Freed, and he died in 1965. All he wanted was for the races to dance together.
By the end of Freed's career, rock & roll had inspired the gradual drifting of couples apart, and the country swing of "Rock Around the Clock" was giving way to numerous goofy dances. Still—kids would still touch and twirl with their partners. In Chris Montez's 1962 single "Let's Dance," the Los Angeles-area singer promises his paramour "We'll do the twist, the stomp, the mashed potato too/Any old dance that you wanna do" but asks her that in the course of their antics she "Hold me tight, don't you let me go." Even Chubby Checker's anthem of dancing as individual calisthenics, "The Twist," contained the line "Come on baby, let's do the twist/Take me by my little hand and go like this."
The negative reaction of civic and government organizations toward rock & roll marathons during the mid-1950s was all about the fear that young blacks and whites would dance together and that the white kids would come to appreciate black America—maybe even produce children with them. But dancers of both races cared not for their elders' segregation, breaking down police-installed barriers along with Jim Crow sentiments for the chance to shimmy together. To these teenagers and young adults, dancing together was the most vigorous method toward smashing the state.
This promise of social revolution explains why community dances were so integral in immigrant and early America to creating and maintaining social bonds. Town dances were not only an opportunity to enjoy a respite from work but also served as an arena where relationships—romantic, civic, business—were created. Families and communities came from miles away at great cost to them merely for the opportunity to hold their neighbor close.
One of the few glimmers of hope in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath involved a dance. When the Joads reached a government-financed migrant camp, the final enticements for the family to reside there were what the camp watchman deemed "the best dances in the county every Saturday night."
"Dance nights?" Tom Joad replied with wonder. "Jesus Christ!"
After a couple of days toiling in the fields, the Joads and others prepared themselves with glee for the grand communal dance. But trouble was imminent. Some men in the camp discovered that the Farmers Association, the group of California agricultural barons that paid pennies to the Okies during the Great Depression, would try to provoke a fight during the dance so that conspiring police officers could raid the camp and imprison the migrant workers native Californians so detested. But Joad and others apprehended the infiltrators before anything occurred, and when the deputies attempted to enter the camp claiming a riot was in progress, Steinbeck writes, "the [camp] guard kept his position. 'We've got no riot. Listen to that music.'"
"And [Joad and his friends] moved quickly back toward the dance floor," Steinbeck concludes after they deposed of the agitators. "And the music of 'Ol' Dan Tucker' skirled and whined from the string band."
TheEven the waltz, what's now considered the most formal of dances, evolved from various peasant traditions. Viennese aristocrats considered the waltz so scandalous that one 19th century observer noted: "One no longer sees dancers there, only Bacchantes. The women feverishly thrill as soon as they are touched by the arm of the man, then they press their breast close to his, their head on his shoulder, and now they let themselves be swept about, imbibing in this voluptuous posture with every movement of the man and that lascivious music; imploringly innocence flees, terrified from the hall, femininity drags itself beseechingly at their feet, and death stands in the corner and laughs up his sleeve."The upper classes eventually appropriated the waltz, the tango and salsa. They had to—the threat of the masses uniting against the rich via their sweeping clinches was too dangerous.THE UNILATERALISM OF DANCING ALONEBut nowadays few Americans think about dancing as revolutionary; few Americans think about their partner when dancing, for that matter. People still technically dance with each other, to be sure, but now they dance apart. Dancing apart requires no cooperation with someone else, not much thought toward the other person. It's a selfish action, the self-serving individual not caring for his partner except as a mirror of his own greatness or as a source of pleasure to be extracted. Dancing apart requires no formation of a relationship, no acknowledgement of the other person's existence, no investment in a greater good. Individuals writhe to their own taste, and if the other person doesn't match you quiver for quiver, that's okay since you're only doing it for yourself anyway. The social contract is no longer necessary; a simple tap on the ass will do. "The only time I ever remember dancing together with someone was during senior prom," Keli Cabunoc tells me. She's a 19-year-old Cal State Fullerton student who's been performing in dance recitals most of her life. "When the slow dances would come on during prom, the entire room would freeze. You wouldn't know what to do. There used to be practice for this, but no one has danced together in ages. But get them dancing freestyle, and you have people stuck in each other's butt. They have no problem with that. Ever since people stopped dancing together, we've created this crazy definition of space that never existed before."Dancing apart is quintessentially 21st-century American—citizens relieved from the expectation of taking care of others, of bothering to consider their neighbor. This dance-floor mentality has trickled throughout American society and especially in the arena of American international relations. We used to be the most desired dancer on the international stage; everyone wanted just one dance, just one chance to impress us with their moves and style. We were ever the gracious partner, providing countries with our care and attention, no strings attached.But we no longer care about agreements with other countries or even their sovereignty. We now operate on a world stage where unmediated force characterizes every dance, where we threaten partners with violence if they refuse our request, and we perform on the floor with the refinement of a yokel. We laugh at our partners for their inability to follow our steps, deride their efforts to improve, and ultimately leave them if they don't capitulate to our requests for someone who will. Very telling are the thoughts of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He blasts some of our longtime European dance partners as "old" and praises the "new" for following our every step without question. He even uses dance metaphors to describe those he thinks have no more credence with the United States. In a fall 2002 press briefing, Rumsfeld laughed off the Iraqi effort to cooperate with weapons inspectors. Iraqi officials "have over a good many years demonstrated a wonderful talent and skill at manipulating the media . . . and international organizations, and other countries. When it's the right moment to lean forward, they lean forward. When it's the right moment to lean back, they lean back. And it's a dance. It's a dance they engage in."The world wanted us to ask Iraq for permission to engage in one final waltz; we preferred to take her by force. THE DIALECTICS OF DANCING TOGETHERI'm not saying that dancing alone produced the rapid decline of American civil society. Nor am I saying that dance is an epiphenomenon—the mere manifestation of what Marx called the mode of production. I am saying that dance and capitalism—first capitalism, then dance—have reinforced a pernicious individualism that is what Hegel might have called dialectical.Dancing together appears simple and rather meaningless but involves the same philosophies and intricacies that maintain civil society. It's Hobbes' social contract personified, a person-to-person treaty involving negotiation, compromise, trust and the following-through of the agreement. You first ask someone for permission to share a dance; if they refuse, you respect their decision and move on. If the request is accepted, you quickly work out points—how close you can hold each other, the duration of the dance, even the opportunity to dance again—as you proceed to the floor.Then you actually dance. Cooperation is not an option but a mandate if the dance is to be enjoyable on both parts and repeated in the future. Steps must be in unison; the enjoyment of the other person is integral to the fulfillment of the contract. The best dancers are not those that are the most handsome or beautiful or even polished, then, but those who understand that the utilitarian good trumps individual pleasure when people dance, as each person entrusts the other with his or her body, safety and pleasure.THE PROMISE OF DANCING TOGETHERWhen I think of the negotiations, truces and treaties involved in dancing together, I think of my parents, I think of migrants maintaining their strength, I think of kids rioting for freedom. I think of community.In his classic 2000 study of the decline of American civic life, Bowling Alone, Robert D. Putnam noted that dancing together was a form of social capital that declined as Americans increasingly isolated themselves from each other. Toward the end of his book, the Harvard professor reported with excitement a modern-day anecdote regarding the power of dancing together. In New Hampshire, a small town weathered a shipyard closure by organizing dances that united its disparate classes and races. "Let us find ways," Putnam concludes, "to ensure that by 2010 significantly more Americans will participate in (not merely consume or 'appreciate') cultural activities from group dancing [my emphasis] to songfests to community theater to rap festivals."Dance should once again assume the redemptive details of the social contract. We should hold each other and negotiate, put some thought into how we interact with each other, learn the importance of partnering up. Dancing together isn't such a radical concept that Americans have to talk to their grandparents or see Bettman Archive photos of Frank Sinatra crooning to bobby-soxers in order to learn how to dance together again regularly. They just have to attend the nearest Mexican party.More than any other sector of American society, immigrants build community through dances. But among immigrants, it's the Mexicans who most nearly exemplify the social contract that is dancing together. Every hallmark moment in Mexican society is an opportunity to dance—weddings, baptisms, informal gatherings, birthdays, anniversaries. And Mexicans don't engage in just any dance, either. Visit any fiesta and you'll see people glide to the Mexicanized versions of waltzes and polkas backed by the strains of banda and conjunto norteño. Even the zapateada, a furious stomp with African and indigenous origins, is usually danced together despite the flailing limbs and breakneck speed.Mexican-immigrant dances in the United States raise thousands of dollars for the rebuilding of hometowns in Mexico; dances allow Mexican parents to teach their children how to act in polite society. Tellingly, Mexican society does not consider girls and boys to be women or men until they begin to dance. Once they're eligible to dance, they're eligible to take care of their community, too. Mexicans know that dancing together holds communities and families together. Dancing together solidifies trust, creates new relationships, rejuvenates the injured civic and personal soul. Dancing together is love.I know. I attended a rock en español concert in Fresno earlier this year with my kind-of girlfriend at the time. We hadn't spoken in some time and the drive through the flat fields of the Central Valley—the same fields that hosted the dance where Tom Joad and his family found temporary respite from their misery decades ago—had been a little tense. We were listlessly waiting for headliners Café Tacuba to appear onstage, passing the time by grimacing through conversations.Then it boomed from epic speakers: "Chúntaro Style," a severely loopy song by vallenato/raperosEl Gran Silencio that celebrates the type of dancing together that even young, assimilated Mexican Americans nowadays are starting to disparage. I knew what to do. I asked her if I could have a dance, and she accepted. I put my arm lightly around her waist while holding her other arm high and we danced a powerful polka. Some rockeros slamming in the pit looked toward our gyrating weirdly, then started to laugh at us for dancing in a way they saw as antiquated. We didn't care. We didn't have to rely on the pleasures of sex to get physically close again; instead, we just held ourselves in a way that was at once platonic and romantic. By accepting my offer of a dance, she let me know that I could occupy her personal space and she would not be offended. By asking her to dance, I let her know that I wanted to hold her, to be close to her, in a way that was more permanent than merely shaking my crotch against hers. We danced in the same spot—it was too crowded in the concert hall to move around—for what was 10 minutes but felt like decades, never letting go. Our relationship was renewed; we danced that one night and fell in love again. But we never had the chance to dance again. And when she told me two weeks ago that she couldn't be with me for the moment—maybe forever—I couldn't help thinking: we didn't dance enough. Grapes of Wrath showed how the ruling and upper classes of cultures worldwide have occasionally viewed dancing together as a threat to society. Examples cross the hemispheres: salsa, cumbia and all the twirling couple-centric dances of the Caribbean were originally slave expressions outlawed by their owners. Argentine elites originally reviled the tango because it originated from the dank brothels and bars of turn-of-the-20th-century Argentina, practiced by immigrant men who plotted to overthrow the government while twisting and stomping the tango. One of the main reasons disco—the last popular dance to involve people dancing together—was so ostracized was because it was first practiced in black and gay clubs.
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