My life story has a void. An awe striking, bewildering void that should never exist in any person’s life, and that is that I never learned to dance. Even more than that I have never danced at all. You would never know it by looking at me or even talking to me, for outside of this one glaring omission I think that most people would say that I live a painfully normal life. I grew up in an average town with middle class parents, a brother, a sister and a dog named sparky. I have had a fairly average number of relationships and a wealth of experiences except for this very simple and common one; I have never danced. Not alone in my room, not in front of the bathroom mirror, nor on a makeshift stage with my action figures as an audience, not once. Actually once I won a toaster on a radio call in show when I guessed the name of the artist and the album correctly, and when jumped up I pumped my arm and twisted a little bit, and I think that there are a few people possibly in Iceland or Siberia that might have called that a dance. But that is as close as I have come in 38 years.
Even more amazing is that throughout my entire high school career we did not have one single school dance. Not a mixer, freshman dance, Sadie Hawkins, prom nothing. It was as if life was determined that it would never teach me how to dance. Even today I can’t think why our school did not have dances, I don’t know if it was an orchestrated prohibition or a simple oversight.
I suppose, never going to ‘a dance’ is probably a tragedy really because it is commonly thought of as an important cultural experience and I missed out on it. I missed out on having to choke down my pride and pump up my courage to ask the prom queen for a spin around the floor. I missed out on having to watch friend’s heart fall as he tried to do the same. I missed out on stepping on a girl’s toes or pinning a flower on her dress. I had never even had to question myself as to whether or not I had rhythm. Which is likely the most trying test of one’s ability to be honest. This intricate aspect of teenage culture passed me by, passed my entire high school by.
Thinking back I do not remember seeing anyone dance at my high school, not even a jig in hall with friends. I certainly do not remember anyone starting a petition to have a school dance ‘a la Footloose’. And in spite of all the fun commonly associated with dances, like the one in ‘Footloose’, I don’t think that it occurred to any of us that we were being robbed, robbed of some mythical, liberating part of life. Looking back with all of these questions in my mind can be scary because I had never before considered all that I had missed in my youth having never had a dance, until today.
Flipping through the advertisements and warnings that I had only three days to claim my million-dollar prize was a plain light blue envelope with a return address that looked strangely familiar to me. It was from my old high school and inside was an invitation to, guess what, a reunion dance.
Even in my initial excitement I had to wonder what in the world were they thinking? Reunions are supposed to be about reconnection and nostalgia this one was going to be a slapstick freak show of the rhythmically challenged. Every inch of me was screaming to stay away from that dance, but like a clip of some old guy taking a golf ball to the crotch, no matter how painful it was going to be to watch I could not turn away. I sent my reply back the same day; I was not going to miss this. Not only was I going to see the hodgepodge of life that was my graduating class, I was going to get to see them try to find their groove like a small herd of newborn giraffes taking their first steps on the Serengeti.
The lead up to this reunion was incredible. I could not believe how anxiety producing the mere thought of meeting my old high school friends and foes on a never before traveled dance floor was. My thoughts were pinned on it, my dreams enacted it, and through it all I could never tell if I was excited or scared.
On the day of the event I arrived fashionably late, two and half minutes that is. I could not bear the thought of someone breaking out an ill timed Robot trot without me there to point and laugh. I was so punctual in fact that I got roped into helping the DJ set up, as we were arriving together.
He looked like an over tanned Johnny Fever on steroids. He looked my way through his thick smoke tinted glasses, “Hey Man! Could you help get my stuff inside? I brought the hearty techno for this shin dig” he said in a low raspy yet polite voice.
“Sure no problem seems like the party hasn’t really started yet anyway.” I attempted to sound cool while trying to hide the fact that I had no idea what his ‘techno shin dig’ was, and that I was so geekishly anxious for this dance that I was clearly the first to arrive.
We each grabbed one end what looked like a port-a-potty with a tightly wound black screen front door, and headed inside. My first glimpse of that auditorium took me right back to a thousand different movie and television scenes of proms, reunions, and crazy high school discos. But I did not have one single high school memory that coincided with the setting that lay before me. An open Gym floor surrounded by rows of table with folding chairs, streamers and balloons all over and a big Banner with our school colours hanging ominously above it all.
My newest supervisor piped in. “The music will be flowin’ like water over the falls tonight my friend. Not a soul in the house will escape it.”
Little did he know that once the rhythm grabbed these folks there maybe a flow of people trying to escape crushed toes, broken hips, and massive head injuries. I knew this suave DJ had absolutely no idea what he was getting into. So as we returned to pick up the other one of Goliath’s speakers, I thought that I would try and warn him. “I know you’re probably used to hoppin’ bars and teen bashes, but this could end up being a real slow scene here tonight. I am pretty sure that most of these people don’t dance much.” I thought that might be the hippest way to say, ‘You don’t have a prayer Mac,’ like I knew what was hip.
“All the better…” the smooth talking socialite replied. “We’ll get to see the music move through the crowd for real.”
Once again, I had no idea what he was talking about. He had said three sentences to me so far and two of them sounded like they needed subtitles. Unfortunately, I ran out of ideas on how to conceal my confusion, so I decided to keep my mouth shut.
The next twenty minutes or so were a blur of the DJs preaching of how ‘the rhythm is gonna get cha’ and me biting my tongue in response. I came to the conclusion that no matter what I said this distributor of groove was not going to lose faith in his medium. And as much as I feared for his self respect, as he laid his hopes on the line to a group of people whose only experience of dance was likely the tickle me elmo that they bought their kids for Christmas, I admired this slick DJ. This event was not a job to him, it was an opportunity, an opportunity to share the music with a whole new crowd of people. And in his mind what better crowd than one that was fresh and untouched. And he believed in it, he believed that the music would grab these people and all he had to do is put it out there loud and clear, honestly. Still I was afraid of the fall this guy was going to take when he realized that all the music does for these people is make them sweat, stare, injure themselves.
We finally lugged the small fortress of music electronics to the stage and set up the switchboard and player in a small room above the dance floor. While up there I again began to peer out into the crowd that was my high school peers and though the music had not yet begun, I was afraid, afraid for them and afraid for myself. What were we all going to do when that music started and how exactly were we all going to embarrass ourselves? Despite the undeniable need I had to reconnect with my youth I had an overwhelming insecurity. I couldn’t take it. I asked the DJ if it was OK if I stayed up there with him while the party got started.
He was gracious and cool all at once. “Whatever blows your hair back”!
Who’s got a hair blower? Once again whatever that DJ said did not register in my vocabulary but I tried my best not to let on. I assumed by his cavalier style that he was OK with my staying.
Despite my confusion, relief must have been written all over my face, because the DJ shot me a cool grin as I sat down to avoid the dance. I thought it would be a good idea If I could stay away from the hub of action and still take in the experience from safe distance, at least until I got more comfortable with the whole idea. When I looked out into the crowd I could not believe so many had come. The auditorium was packed. I could see the faces that haunted my dreams, and others whose mere memory have tickled my mood for the past twenty years. Even so far removed from the entire setting, I could honestly say that it was good to see them all again. Those faces that belittled me for so long even after we no longer shared the same classes, somehow seemed less intimidating with 20 years of wrinkles and water retention. And those that made me smile as a high-schooler, did so again. The positive energy almost made me ashamed that I was a bystander to it while others created it. Still the thought of the music and the collective reaction to it, kept me at bay.
And just like that… the night began. ‘Kokamo’ by the Beach Boys, hit the airways of that auditorium. There was no welcome speech or any annoying ice-breaking name game. With what seemed like no hesitation at all, the dance was on.
“I thought this would make a good first spin for a soft toned crowd,” said the sly voiced DJ
Oh yeah this was sure to quell the nausea and vomiting that would be induced once someone actually tried to move to the music. “Groovy.” I replied. Where in the world did that come from, I thought. Groovy? Like I was a god of music supervising the dispensing of vibes to my people. Groovy! Do people even say groovy anymore? I think I heard it on ‘Scooby-Doo.’ Obviously the tension was getting to me, I had no idea what was going to happen.
Thankfully, there were only a few gentle sways in the auditorium. You know that sway that people do on the subway when they are trying not to dance even though they can’t help it. The one that allows you to enjoy the music without actually expressing to any bystanders that ‘oh yeah I am dancing’. That swaying.
Then the other shoe fell. After two soft-toned numbers, the DJ dropped the needle. ‘Twist and Shout.’ Run and Hide, because you know there are people in this auditorium who think they can dance and do not understand that seizure like dancing is painful to watch as well as perform.
I blurted without thinking, “What are you doing! They aren’t ready for this.” Again, as if I was supervising ‘my subjects’ in an experiment.
But my musical metaphysical friend replied gracefully and calmly. “Let’s just see what the music says to them.”
Sure enough ‘he’ walked onto the dance floor with his partner by the hand. It was him, the captain, the valedictorian, the most likely to succeed. The guy I admired for my whole high-school career graced the dance floor. I can’t really encapsulate what happened when he began to move. But I think that the benevolent DJ surmised it well.
“He must be hard of hearing because there is no way the music told him that.”
Oh for the love of lemon pie. It was like a mild cyclone where the only signs of anything tangible were glimpses of flapping elbows and swinging ankles. It looked as if the hanger was still in the shirt he was wearing and he was trying to get it out without actually touching it. I was embarrassed, everyone was embarrassed. I mean this was the guy, the guy I aspired to be the whole time I was in high school flailing around the dance floor like a wounded animal. I was amazed that he couldn’t see, he couldn’t see that he looked ridiculous; he couldn’t see that everyone around him knew that he looked ridiculous.
Seeing him there on the dance floor I am not sure that it would have mattered if he knew he was embarassing himself. I think that he had the spotlight, he had our attention, just like he had it when we were all in high school. The moth on the window shuffle was a different way of going about getting our attention, but nonetheless his goal was achieved and he was probably satisfied. And with that amphetamine overdose impression that he was enacting on the dance floor, we all gazed on and he was right where he wanted to be.
I tried to relief the tension that was building inside me by putting a positive spin on the situation. “Maybe he is trying to be scary in light of the approaching Halloween season. It looks a little like some kind of monster mash”
The DJ did not miss a beat “Well, it’s not quite scary, but it is disturbing.”
Then out of the background I noticed a small stocky gentlemen start jiving his way to the floor in an uncoordinated fashion. And just like a sad flashback from the high school lunchroom I could see that it was Dweedle dumb, the spotlight grabber’s footstool, which followed two steps behind him for all of high school. By the looks of things he had not put anymore steps between himself and his leader. Never to let his leader fall alone he took up a place on the dance floor himself, and I wouldn’t have believed it was possible but this guy was worse. I think he was trying to do the funky chicken but it ended up looking like the epileptic ostrich.
The DJ couldn’t help but chuckle a little, “Maybe their injured and this is their way of crying for help?”
I failed to see the humour myself. I mean the dance was at a complete halt, people were not even talking anymore everyone was just staring at the recurring traffic accident that these two guys were trying to pass off as dancing. We couldn’t let this go on. It seemed like nothing was going to stop them either, song changes, different speeds of song, all ended up with the same result two guys trying to fight their way out of an invisible bubble.
I actually started to panic. I turned to the DJ for help “You gotta do something, this dance is bombing.”
The DJ gave me a sobering look, “What do you want me to do those guys are the ones with the spastic shoes man. They’re freaking everyone else out.”
I retorted “You gotta help him”
“You can go out there and show them some real moves get em’ started”
“It’s not my dance”
“Get on the mike and force some others out to dance”
“What do you mean no!”
Then the DJ began to speak somewhat slower, pulled off his smoked back sunglasses and looked right into me. “I will not take that which is not given freely. If I force from them what they do not offer, then the act, and the offering itself, has no meaning. Dancing is about being in the moment, it’s about physically displaying what you feel inside, and in the act of display, you share with everyone around you and then maybe you help them to feel it too. If we take it from people then the meaning is lost and people can’t share in it, because people never gave of themselves. The dance becomes about appeasing someone like me who, for this moment, has some power here to manipulate things, to create something, but there won’t be any lasting effect. A meaningless act is not what I want to create. I want to see how people feel, and I want them to get over their fear through each other and dance, and then when they see the party it will create their act will mean more to themselves and everyone around them. That’s the problem with the Marx brothers out there, they don’t care if others have fun, or feel free, they don’t care what environment they are in, they just want to be the center of it. I understand your reaction, they look pathetic and no one can look away, while all the time the opportunity to have some fun is passing. True change has to come from within, the party people out there are the only ones that can move things on.”
I was struck by how articulate he was in the moment. He understood a lot more than I ever could have imagined, and now I understood a little more too. His music was not a mandate or a threat. It was an opportunity, an opportunity to get swept in something that was bigger than any one person in that dance hall tonight. Like any opportunity you could make use of it and risk looking foolish by buying into it, or you could watch it pass by and never know what it could have been, or meant. There was a long silence between the DJ and me. I couldn’t say anything. I felt embarrassed and disappointed and pity all at once.
And then, like that first crack of sunshine after the rain, everything got brighter.
“Here is a guy in the groove man.” Stated my philosopher/DJ
A man who looked a lot like everyone I went to high school with, but at the same time was no one that I could recognize, came out with a gentle but easily visible sway. He actually danced, he stood in the middle of a crowd of people and let the music take control and move him. He was in rhythm and it was noticeable, heck it was contagious. Unlike his predecessors he did not seem to attract the spotlight instead he danced within the crowd as a part of it and he then inspired that crowd. It did not take two minutes before he had a willing dance partner and it was not long after that before others began to follow his lead. He was a good dancer, he seemed to move with the music almost as if he was connected with it somehow. His movement had no thought to it but flowed through the melodious spirit that was filling him and the entire dance hall, it seemed. Even though he looked like someone I graduated with, whom I went to class with, whom I was a friend with, I could not place his face firmly in my high school memories.
And like magic we had a dance on our hands. People in every corner of the room were talking, dancing, and laughing all at the same time.
Not everyone was a good dancer, as a matter of fact some were quite poor, I am pretty sure I saw one lady knock her own tooth out while attempting ‘the running man.’ But everyone there had a piece of the music. Somehow they had caught at least a little of the melodious spirit that was filling the room. What’s more is that I am pretty sure that just about everyone there was a bit of a better dancer by the time the DJ had spun his last track. So the next time they jumped into a dance they would be that far ahead.
As I stood outside the entire party, like Egor with Dr. Frankenstein’s experiment, I was envious them, the dancers, the minglers. They may have looked stupid sometimes, they have been self-conscious sometimes, some of them may even have lasting injuries, but they were a part of something that night. No it was more than that, they took part in creating something that night, something that was bigger than all of them but was even more because of them. For it was their effort, their risk that made that night great. They risked looking stupid and committed themselves to the spirit of music in order to create together a place where people could move, sing, talk, laugh, and have fun in freedom and joy. Where people did not have to worry who was watching or what they looked like because everyone else was doing the same as they were, acting out their inspiration, doing their imperfect best to join in the spirit. And all the while I watched from a cold and removed distance.
Driving home that night I could not help but let my mind wander, but it kept coming back to unanswerable questions. What if I had tried to participate? Where would I be now? What would I feel like? Would have I been good at it? Would it have mattered? These questions reminded of the simple truth of that night, it could have been fun. It could have been fun to feel the music running though me and it could have been fun to dance, and laugh, and talk with the people that really formed my personality and my history. The reality was that I had missed what could have been a tremendous opportunity not only to dance an have fun myself, but to pass on a spirit of freedom, fun, and joy to everyone around me that night, and in doing so, create that spirit even more. Maybe I would have felt inspired enough to take that fun to others outside of that dance. I think I realized that the rhythm was not in the music that night, it was in the people and the music was just there to coax it out of them and the DJ was there to offer the inspiration to us. Surrendering to that coaxing had consequences, people danced, sang, laughed, and played, and sometimes those consequences were funny, sometimes they were sad, and sometimes they look pretty painful, but the end result was beautiful because it was bigger than any one person and common to all the people there. It was like a kingdom of freedom and joy, where all were accepting, risking, bold people as if they were naturally meant to be that way.
I was feeling sorry for myself because of the insecurity that incapacitated me that night. It is to easy to feel sorry for ourselves sometimes, like we are not at fault because we did not know what the consequences would be, if only someone had told us things would have been different. The reality is that people warn us all the time, in the demeanour, their advice, their hopes, we just need to have ears to listen. The decision is always is ours to risk the respect and comfort that we have to be a part of something more. That night at the dance I was comfortable, I enjoyed the experience, and I missed out. Again. Just like in my youth having never experienced dancing, I had missed a really good opportunity to experience something, something that I did not understand going in but still something that could have been great.
I think that I’ll ask my wife to start dance lessons with me on Monday. I think I understand now that I need to learn to dance, I need to fill the void. At least I need to take the steps to let the void be filled.