Tuesday, October 10, 2006

to dance or not to dance

Public education can be the nadir of many a good thing about the arts. By this I don't mean that public schools shouldn't have music education or art education or anything like that. No, I mean to say that the single greatest reason I disdained dance as an art form and pasttime was the public school system of the state of Oregon. Truth to tell the state itself is not so important as the nature of compulsory education.

Dance and appear to be inextricable. The old joke that having sex standing up looks suppciously like dancing is going to be around for as long as humans are. Point noted. That dancing is considered grounds to determine the sexual vitality or suitability of a potential or actual partner is also a commonplace.

But for me all that was moot because I was compelled to take physical education classes and when I had to choose between one of only two options of swimming or dancing I chose dancing. I think those were the options and that was surely my Scylla and Charybdis moment because I just sink like a stone and the only thing that would be more humiliating for a thirteen year old boy who was self-conscious than dancing would be to have no idea how to swim and be around a bunch of other hormonally lobotomized simians wearing a swimsuit. So I took the dance class in seventh grade.

Whether it was seventh grade or eighth I don't clearly recall now so much as that I remember "sock hops" held in the gymn during lunch hour from time to time. THis was apparantly the low-rent variation of prom and it was considered a big deal. The lights were low and various soft rock standards by Journey or Foreigner were playing. It was the late 1980s, after all. I never ventured in to the gym for any of that because it all seemed like some kind of custom wanting a justifiable explanation. Boys and girls asked each other out without regard to a junior high school having a sock hop. And most of the dancing didn't seem to be dancing so much as opportunites to stand holding each other while rotating, as it were, on invisible turntables while some awful song by Eddie Money played amidst dim lights.

Well the dance class would relieve me of my misconception that dancing didn't involve moves. I learned a couple of simple and simly irritating country dance styles. During this time the boys and girls were paired off randomly (in theory) and then every boy ended up dancing with every girl in sequence. This must have been terrible either for the reason that you wanted to dance with just a handful of cute people of the opposite sex, or that you didn't want to dance at all. There were, no doubt, other reasons. It was the whole compulsory nature of it I grew to detest. I grew to detest that the dancing was always based on the motiff of sexual pairing every single time. The idea that dance had some expressive or social function apart from the sexual bond never got explored and I was a wallflower type so I most dreaded the end of each session.

Slow dancing.

Damn it, this was why I didn't go to those stupid sock-hops. It was literally a ree for all until you were literally the wall flower and then you were told to find someone, anyone, and dance with them. I was always one of the people chosen last or had someone chosen for me, usually, to be quite blunt, a fat and inscure girl who didn't deserve to be forced into it any more than I did. I'd occasionally get made fun of for getting who ever it was I got stuck with. The only thing worse than being the last kid picked to be on a team sport is to be the last kid picked (and entirely not by your own choice) to dance with someone you don't know and don't like and don't consider attractive. What's there to like about it? Does it build character?

Now if people like dancing, cool. I'm happy for them. If people consider dancing to be a sign of character, though, I'm afraid I must always disagree. Gene Kelly kicked ass. Really, I love Singing in the Rain, and I totally dig how Kelly elevated dandce to a level where a non-dancer can appreciate his art for its narrative and archtypal value. But, dude, most people are NOT Gene Kelly or Cyd Charisse. For one thing they don't look that good and for another thing they surely dont' dance as well.

I know, it's sort of cowardly to not like dance or dancing as a personal activity for these reasons but I was really soured on the whole idea by that formative experience. If you don't win a kid over to the idea of dancing at that point then basically the average boy is going to feel like any dancing that doesn't involve a female is going to be pretty gay. I know, not exacty PC or caring or thoughtful but I'm revisiting teenage trauma, for want of a better phrase.

I will say that there have been a tiny handful of times when I have danced. I have a five-year old niece who likes to dance and because she likes to dance I sometimes dance with her. I might put on Stravinsky's Petrushka (see, I can connect this to my earlier post on Spectrum). Or I might play Stravinsky's awesome violin concerto. My dances are simple pogo jumping deals and my niece doesn't mind that simplicity.

ANd I can have fun doing it even though it's tiring and I don't think I'm great at it because the five year old girl isn't judging me by any preconceived criteria and it's not about some mandatory pairing off of guys and girls in some tacitly endorsed mandatory dating ritual or something like that.

In short, I dance with my niece because it is a form of expression that isn't tied to a social requirement imposed from the outside but because I care about my niece. THIS is what dance should be about, in my highly biased non-dancer opinion.

I've never been very good at sports ofteam activities. I never had the eyes for them, really. So I'll admit to being small-minded about the value of the two arts in which the body is most front and center--dance, and theater. In film and TV the body is still present and there is often dancing but the screen is a mediator. In a live setting something seems faintly silly about actors and dancers. It's as though the certainty of the ilusion cannot be revoked and the fourth wall is not the fourth wall so much as the very medium of perception. Mystery Science Theater 3000 is what it is because it produces at a meta-level the meta-entertainment of ripping into bad movies. Watching a TV show about puppets watching bad movies just drives the point home more forcefully.

Whereas in a theater production or a dance production the mediation, the barrier, isn't there. It's just you and the people up there on the stage. Where actors and dancers, it seems, sense some kind of sacred connection or interaction for me it merely amplifies and reinforces the distance. My eyes are bad, after all, so what I don't see are the various shades that actors and dancers may bring that for them carry the heaviest weight. And sometimes the acting is just laid on so thick to project from the stage that there is no subtlety to it. It is sometimes said that theater is life, film is art, and TV is furniture and I, as I must have said somewhere before, believe that distinction to be reversed. If you have the disposable time and money to go out of the house to see a dance or theater production you are buying a form of cultural furniture that proves you have some status as an intellectually-functioning being. It sounds really harsh, harsh than I actually mean it to be because film snobs and music snobs aren't any better and, believe me, I know I'm a music snob. I'm a cartoon snob, too!

I have tried over the years to appreciate every form of art and here is my rambling account of why in at least one medium of artistic expression that journey took a while because of some mundane but very trying and irritating formative expriences.

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