My relationship with dancing has gone through a series of deaths and rebirths. Always on the move. Now that I think about it, my earliest memory of dance is watching my brother dancing around to a Peter, Paul, and Mary record at a relative’s apartment. We were probably five years old. And I remember the sound of her sing-song-proper voice telling my mom, “What a wonderful dancer Michael was.” He was half joking around, but he was definitely feeling it.
In about second grade, I dressed up like a cross between a white Michael Jackson and a black George Michael and did the worm at our daycamp talent show. (If I recall correctly, my nickname was Slick, probably because of the copious amounts of hair gel.) In fifth grade, I kind of danced on stage in a white silk Elvis jumper, but it was mostly just nervous twitches. The funny thing is that dance might have actually evolved from exactly that—nervous twitches.
Ellen Dissanayake talks about dromena. In situations perceived as threatening or uncertain, humans have a tendency to not just fight or flee or wait, like other animals, but to do something. Faced with impatience, boredom, or anxiety, we rhythmically tap toes, drum fingers, and wiggle our knees. Somehow this rhythmic movement comforts us. You can observe this kind of repetitive movement in animals; the anxiety or despair of caged animals is expressed by repetitive and formalized obsessional movements. In another way, male chimpanzees may rhythmically run about, slap the ground, and vocalize in thunderstorms.
I did not slap the ground, but I did dance with some girls at a sweet sixteen at a Mexican restaurant in eight grade. In high school I was terrified of it. I didn’t even dance with my girlfriend at our prom. I didn’t even get close to the dance floor. She was pissed. I’d be, too. The fear of looking stupid can be paralyzing. It cuts you off from life’s bounty of pleasures. Freshman year in college, certain colorful aspects in my environment made me want to dance to electronic music. At first I loved jungle. It was the thing that really got me rocking. Then breaks. It took a while, but years later my body figured out techno, too. And so on.
After a fateful night of seeing one of my best friends doing liquid in the street while I held a boom box playing Adam X, I became obsessed with popping. He and one of my other best friends from home were my inspirations. For a year I obsessively watched popping videos and stood in front of mirrors tweaking my waves, strobes, ticks, tuts, walks, slides and glides. Alien- squid-robot kind of shit. This all gave me a thereto unexperienced comfort and confidence with my body. It boils down to self control. As a species, we’re control freaks. We get high off it and come up with all kinds of ways to make ourselves feel like we got it. Lewis Wolpert reminds us that our brains evolved from collective structures of nerves that evolved to control our muscles and ultimately to move us. Our brains are still muscle controllers, mutating new variants of control algorithms. It is in our interest to be rewarded for methods of control.
I hung with breakers for a while, but never clicked. Dancing fulfilled a different purpose for me. It was this other place I could go, often escape, to. Dance was my means of transfiguration to an altered state. It gave me a sharpened sense of my individual human presence. I’ve had many a sweaty night of transfiguration. A few years later, Emily arrived and showed me just how deep the dance hole goes. My girlfriend Emily is a modern dancer and a choreographer. I was just an acquaintance with dance when we met. Now, with her guidance, dance and I are starting to get to know one another.
That brings me to nowadays. Nowadays, if I’m out at the club, I can’t bring myself to dance to music that doesn’t move me. In a deeply subjectively way, to me, it’s bad music. I used to just step up and wiggle in the name of having fun with friends. Nowadays, if I make myself dance to bad music, I feel like a slut. Let’s just say that when you’ve had a real orgasm on the dance floor, faking it becomes shameful, pretty much out of the question.
When I am moved by a beat, I am seriously moved. I’m instantly a puppet. I can be dead tired, slumped in my seat, or feeling shy as a badger, but if that beat comes on, I’m up on my feet. It’s the closest one can feel, I believe, to possession. This is what Adam Smith really meant. The invisible hand rocks the body. Lewis Wolpert writes that ultimately, there is no human or animal emotion that is not ultimately expressed as movement. Sound has caused moved us - well, our earlier versions - for hundreds of millions of years. The acoustic startle reflex is the response of mind and body to a sudden unexpected loud noise. Automatic movement in response to sudden loud sounds was a serious evolutionary adaptation. Now imagine this automatic movement response to sound, elaborated upon by thousands and thousands of generations of both gene and culture evolution.
The specificity with which animals display this response to sound is astounding. There are breeds of frogs whose eggs will automatically induce an early birth in response to very specific patterns of vibration indicating a nearby snake. In a similar way, humans are very specific about the music that moves them. One song will do it, the next will not. This is part of what we call taste. The particular circuits of each brain gives it a set of resonant frequencies, with harmonics upon harmonics upon harmonics. At a nightclub, there is lots of overlap in these sets. After all, they are self selecting, self-assembling even.
These bass laden beats were designed to move us. Through sound and touch, they were made to tickle our most innate responses. A human body stood in front of this music, toiling away until it moved itself. It was music and dance’s ability to literally move us that made the rituals in which it was used so efficient and adaptive.
In this vein the DJ is the contemporary ritual conductor. It’s his responsibility to maximize music/body resonance at all times. In a real intimate club in London, I watched A Guy Called Gerald DJ a dance set. I’d never seen anything like it before. He scanned the floor like a cat on the hunt, feeding back upon himself, always adding back the body motion output to his musical inputs.
In a way, the DJ is charged with breaking down the walls of selves between tribe members. According to Dissanayake, our old obsessional or soothing actions became transformed - through elaboration and shaping by the creative conscious mind - into movements, chants, and the gestures of ritual ceremonies. When elaborated and shaped by the creative conscious mind of the human, the comfort movements provoked by personal uncertainty could become a group response. Through synchronization, the tribe momentarily becomes a more complex life form. I’ve looked out over many a dance floor and seen a large quivering beast, hand-like hairs shaking in synchrony.
Every dance floor has that one crazy dude, though, who is flailing about, lost in the music. (You tend to stay away for fear of association or getting your drink knocked out of your hand.) Now that’s dancing. I’ve grown to love that guy (or girl, but let’s be honest it’s usually a guy). He’s being honest. A body left to act on its own, without the meddling of self-consciousness.
So nowadays, as casual sex is to us and our sexual response, dance music is the plucking of pleasure strings stretched by the twisted evolution of ritual and art. Although one might argue that we still benefit from the intensified feeling of closeness felt after a night of dancing with friends. Not only do we lose ourselves in a circle of friends on the dancefloor, but we often feel closer to them afterwards.
Music still works to move us through our lives in other ways. For example, the pscyhe-up mix tape that we listened to on the bus on the way to soccer games. I don’t know that it ever brought us a win, but it sure did get us riled up as we stepped out of the bus for away games. Eye of the Tiger, a healthy serving of Beastie Boys, Dirty Rotten Imbiciles, etc. I revisited this process recently when I rediscovered exercising with earphones. My body performed small personal feats of strenght and endurance on the treadmill. When I discovered the jungle mix that I could run on beat with, it really got crazy.
That’s what the music/dance cocktail did for our ancestors before the hunt, before the war, and in times of celebration. It gave them superhuman resolve, strength, and focus. It wasn’t until I got on the treadmill with pounding beats in my earphones that I truly comprehended this.