Call It a Dance


I do my best not to snap and flap.

I’ve been thinking lately about the degradation of dance. Not how we are degraded by it, although some of us certainly look foolish. I mean how we have degraded it. When was dance reduced to rhythmic flopping?

What occasioned these reflections on dance is “Caro, Diario,” the 1993 Nanni Moretti film I watched again recently. In the opening minutes, in a section called “Vespa,” Moretti tours Rome on his motorino, talking about what he loves: the emptiness of Rome during the summer, the houses and neighborhoods. He provides wry commentary along the way, on social class and politics and contemporary life. He feels separate from the majority of people, he says. He feels disconnected.

Then, rounding a curve, with the sound of music rising in the soundtrack, he adds, “In realtà il mio sogno è sempre stato quello di saper ballare bene. Flashdance si chiamava quel film che mi ha cambiato definitivamente la vita.” My dream has always been to dance. Flashdance changed my life.

In the next moment he comes to a stop on his Vespa at the edge of an outdoor dance party. A live band is playing. Dozens of couples are dancing the merengue.

The music and movement are infectious, irresistibly so. You can’t look on and not want to do that. And yet, Moretti, like those watching the film, is little more than a spectator. He says, “E invece alla fine mi riduco sempre a guardare, che è anche bello, però è tutt’un’altra cosa.” In the end, all I can do is watch, which is great, but not at all the same thing.


In the mid 60’s, I learned one basic dance step. This was junior high school. A couple days a week we had lunch hour a-go-go. Kids brought their 45’s to school. Danny Leman or Ron Fritz checked out a record player from the AV room. There was 10-15 minutes before classes resumed. In a back corner of the cafetorium, girls danced, some of them in white go-go boots. They danced the pony, the jerk, the mashed potato, there was a little bit of shimmy, an occasional hitchhike. And all the while, the boys sat and watched, mildly terrified, waiting for the slow song.

There were plenty of slow songs: baby slow songs—“Be My Baby,” “Ooo Baby Baby”; sad slow songs—“Only Love Can Break a Heart,” “A Town Without Pity,” “Don’t Let the Sun See You Crying”; and young tragic death slow songs—“The Leader of the Pack,” “Tell Laura I Love Her,” “Where Oh Where Can My Baby Be.” Slow dancing contained all the awkwardness and terror of adolescence, yet in terms of performance, it was relatively safe. If nothing else, you could just slowly rock from side to side and call that a dance. Somehow, in seventh or eighth grade I learned to do a box step. When someone decided to slow things down, I could just follow my feet.


High school was much the same: girls doing the fast dances (pony, jerk, potato), boys on the sidelines, still terrified, cautiously waiting for the slow dance.

Leaving aside the obvious gender divide, if you asked someone, they would probably say some people can dance, some can’t. Most can’t. It’s sort of like math.


Plato said we should get up and bust a move (though not exactly in those words).

For him, an uneducated person was “danceless.” Graham Pont, a historical musicologist, explores the centrality of dance in Plato’s ideas about education. Pont observes, “Through dance (which included posture, deportment, gesture, facial expression, and other bodily movement) the young Greek learned not only to be quick, strong, agile, dexterous, and graceful but (most importantly) to imitate and internalize the characteristic rhythms, movements, and attitude of the ideally noble Hellene.” Dance, furthermore, did in fact have a mathematical component, the Pythagorean attempt to relate the musical scale to the alignment of the planets, what came to be known as “the harmony of the spheres.”


If you were young and Greek, and wanted to understand the cosmos, math and dance were in your future.

Our response to music and the deep pleasure we take in rhythmic movement seem to be innate. According the Psychology Today, there is a “natural desire known in the scientific literature as ‘entrainment.’ Entrainment occurs when resonant fields rhythmically synchronize together, such as brain waves, circadian rhythms, lunar and solar cycles, breathing, circulation, and rhythms found in the nervous system. It is a way the body experiences the sensation of feeling understood, seen, and not alone.” That happens when you dance, provided you figure out what to do with your arms and legs, feet and hands, hips and head. All that has to be synchronized as well.

The problem is developing and sustaining these feelings, this powerful longing to be in sync, to be connected to and vibing to music with other people. A recent study presented in Scientific American reveals what happens to children and their desire to dance as they grow older. In a controlled experiment, kids age 11 or 12 were 75 percent more likely to avoid singing and dancing than children age 3-4. The researchers attribute this difference to “terror of performance.”


Yes, terror.  Or at minimum, anxiety.

“So,” my son says to me, “you’ve still got that chicken thing going.”

We’re at a niece’s wedding reception. The tables have been cleared, the lights lowered. The DJ has cranked the volume on his sound system. My wife and I are coming off the dance floor, where we just danced to two Motowns in a row.

“Chicken?” I say.

He folds his arms into wings, gives them a couple flaps.

“You do do that,” my wife says to me, “when you dance.”

“Yeah, so?” I look from her to my son, who nods in agreement. Like, It’s something you need to work on. Like, No more walking around the house in your underwear. No more mixed drinks in the morning.

“Mick Jagger,” he says.

Right, I think. Mick Jagger does that. “So?”

Another nod, both of them in sync. So I’m not Mick Jagger.

The DJ cues up “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” a song I really like, a great dance number. With any luck, there will be no idiot dances tonight, no Macarena, no chicken dance. I pull at my wife. If this guy is like other wedding DJ’s, he’ll play old stuff early in the evening, then transition to the new music I don’t know, don’t understand, and don’t really like. We’re approaching the tipping point. One feels a sense of urgency.

“You also snap your fingers when you dance,” my wife says. “A lot.” She glances at my son. He gives me his gentle judgmental nod.

“You do do that,” he says. “A lot.”

I tell my wife to hurry up. My son and his girl friend join us on the floor. At some point I look around. They’re doing a dance together that involves him spazzing rhythmically and her giving him chest compressions. Near them a couple is doing a dance that calls to mind synchronized lawn sprinklers. And of course, everywhere there is a lot of generalized flopping. My wife, a good dancer, returns to her Soul Train roots. I sort of imitate her, but not very well. I do my best not to flap and snap.

We’re supposed to dance like there’s no one watching. It ain’t easy.

But it’s definitely worth it.

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