Thursday, 7 May 2009

Why I Don't Dance

I don't dance.

I'm inspired to write about this because yesterday I listened to a wonderful podcast by English comedian, actor and writer, Stephen Fry. It was an old episode, since I'm working my way back through his archives, entitled Bored of the Dance. It got me thinking about my own desperate aversion to dancing.

What was so encouraging about listening to Stephen Fry explore how much every fibre of his being loathes dancing is that it made me feel OK about the same trait in myself. I have decided, from this moment, to stop apologising for it and to stop accepting the criticism that this means there's something wrong with me. There isn't. And nor is there with you either, if you don't enjoy dancing. Anti-dancers unite! (Conversely, if you do love to dance, that's great. I'm not here to sneer.)

One of my favourite sob stories to drag out when the subject of why I don't dance comes up, dates back to a school dance in, I think, 1987. So I was fifteen.

Back then, I tried to be like everyone else. I wore a bubble skirt. I wore my hair as big as I could manage. I went along bursting with the kind of anticipation that only a school dance, when you have no other social life, can create. There was undoubtedly some gorgeous, unattainable guy I was hoping would notice me. There would have been a lot of Bon Jovi played that night and I would have loved every power-chord filled moment.

I danced. I am sure I did OK but I was awfully self conscious and no matter how much I loved whatever music was filling the school gym, I was excruciatingly aware of the fact that I could not possibly look as coordinated and rhythmically gifted as the girls who looked like they were born dancing, the girls who looked like they were actually having fun and not just pretending like I was.

Knowing what I know now, probably the gym was oozing discomfort, awkwardness and agonising self consciousness. Undoubtedly, I was surrounded by teenagers struggling with self doubts of their own. I didn't know this. I truly believed my awkwardness on the dance floor was obvious to everyone around me, that everyone was secretly sniggering at my aimless, jerky bopping and laughing. But I tried really hard to pretend it wasn't happening, striving instead for the appearance of ease and enjoyment. A little voice said to me, 'Really, you look fine. Just have fun.' I copied the others as much as I could.

It was all going ok. We were in a circle. We being the girls I loosely called friends, because I don't think I particularly liked them and I'm pretty sure they only tolerated me. That's a whole other story, but at least I had some sort of clan to call my own, even if there was actually no real friendship there. In truth, high school is all about appearances.

What happened next is one of those moments that stays with you forever. You never forget. I'm sure in my imagination there's a great big spotlight over me when I picture my fifteen year old self in a bubble skirt and teased hair.

Kylee was a girl in my group I did not like one bit. She was small and mean. She had a nasty habit of cutting people down, telling them what she really thought as if it was her God given right. You were expected to change whatever it was she deemed wrong. She was right near me and she called out, 'Helen, you dance like a penguin.'

Like a penguin. There's no way that could be meant kindly. She imitated me then, clapping her hands, as I must have been, somewhere in the vicinity of my pelvic region, and soon everyone was joining in and laughing. Public humiliation. I don't remember what happened after that. I may have passed out.

This story isn't the reason, per se, why I don't dance. It's not like I never went on to dance after that. I've tried. Many times. A few times when relatively drunk I've even had a moment or two of something approaching fun, but the moment has to be exactly right. It has to be a song that I simply adore; I have to be with people who I know won't laugh at me; I have to have had a minimum of two drinks. More is better.

But in the end, I just really don't like it. Mostly I dislike very much the kind of music that's played in venues where dancing is expected. I feel just a little bit silly jumping around inexpertly to good music; to music I don't like, it's even worse. It all just feels so pointless. Couldn't I just sit and listen to the music and have just as much of a good time? Yes, I could. And I usually do.

If you say you don't like dancing, people leap to conclusions that you're uptight and in possession of all manner of unappealing traits. Maybe it's true that I don't seem to be able to relax my body enough on a dance floor to it in a way that makes it an enjoyable thing. I probably lack the ability to relax my body enough to jump off a bridge headfirst into a canyon with a big piece of elastic attached to my feet too but I'm not going to lose sleep over it.

Nope. I get my kicks in other ways. I will happily spend the rest of my life appreciating music with my ears and my voice and the rush it gives me without making me feel any urge to tap my feet or wriggle around or gyrate in a way that makes me feel silly. Other people clearly get something happening physically that I don't. And I don't mind. Honest. I'm not missing out. I'm just not wired that way.

Stephen Fry doesn't think he's missing out either, and it sounds as if he loves music as passionately as I do. It's quite ok to love music with your ears and to enjoy the spine tingling and the thrill of a great voice, an amazing chord progression, or melody that stops you in your tracks. Just don't ask me to wriggle about on a darkened dance floor or suggest there's something wrong with me because I won't do it.