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Are You Dancing Yet? Part 1

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012: Dance, Musings.

Do you dance? Does your family dance? Does your community dance?

Last year, when I was interviewed by a music industry marketing consultant, I mentioned that most of my music is dance music, and he laughed sarcastically. I knew exactly what he meant. In the contemporary youth-dominated music industry, dance music means club music, otherwise known as electronic dance music (EDM), and nothing else.

But I’ve grown up with dance music and I know better.

The stress of my adolescence was mitigated by social dancing at a teen canteen called The Peppermint Cave, where we danced to The Beach Boys and The Kingsmen, just like the kids in the Beach Party movies. Unbeknownst to us, all of our dances, like The Twist and The Watusi, had roots in West Africa. We also partner-danced to slow tunes with girls, but the important dances were detached movements that could be done individually, in partnership, or with a group. Those were the dances that physically manifested our social relationships and allowed us to actively negotiate our own roles.

After that, I was deprived of social dancing for more than a decade, and suffered without knowing I was suffering. This was the era of Joni Mitchell, The Eagles and Steely Dan. Dancing meant disco and was the culture of poor ethnic urbanites. It wasn’t until the advent of punk music that I had an opportunity to dance again with my friends, and it was like salvation on the brink of cultural death.

Dancing to punk music was largely a boy’s club, and looked like a riot. We bounced up and down and shoved and slammed into each other, and sometimes the lead singer or audience member took a dive from the stage into the crowd. But the girls could dance to the new wave and post-punk music that emerged shortly after punk. From then on, almost all the music we liked was dance music – Psychedelic Furs in the mix at CalArts parties, X live at LA’s Whisky-A-Go-Go (where a tiny butch dyke worked her way through the surging mass of guys, punching each of them in the groin), Jello Biafra shirtless and drenched in sweat shouting out a punk version of the Rawhide TV theme song to a throbbing packed crowd in San Francisco’s Valencia Tool & Die art space, the same Jello Biafra pogoing to the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen with me and friends afterward in the notorious after-hours club the A-Hole. Within a couple of years, post-punk and disco had merged in the club scene, where my girlfriend and I made up our own stylish moves to both Michael Jackson and Gang of Four, literally dancing ’til dawn in New York’s multi-level Danceteria.

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Are You Dancing Yet? Part 2

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012: Dance, Musings.

The 80s was when, in the industry, dance music came to mean club music, and electronic instruments and samples began to dominate it. But because the post-punk scene also embraced world music, my friends and I began dancing to African music at the same time. And at home, in my San Francisco loft, my artist roommates and I danced to everything, at any time – The Smiths, The Replacements, U2, REM, UB40, Black Uhuru. Again, not partner dancing, but African-style dancing, creative, free-form movements that were rhythmic but integrated with domestic chores like cooking and cleaning house. We had massive parties where musicians from North and West Africa jammed with players from South America. And we repeatedly went together as a group to touring shows by Nigerian juju superstar King Sunny Ade, who provided the best dance music any of us had experienced, music you could literally dance to all night and still feel energized.

In Oakland one year, I took a new girlfriend to a Nigerian Afro-Beat New Year’s party headlined by my friend Orlando Julius Ekemode. I always loved to watch the Nigerians dance, especially the backup singers in the band, who alternated comic pranks with restrained, elegant traditional movements. My girlfriend interrupted me with an “Oh my god, look at her!” pointing to a Nigerian woman in the crowd dancing with her black leather purse on her head, in perfect balance. It was the first thing that night that really impressed my girl.

The same girlfriend later took me to a hip-hop show where I had fun dancing until she told me I was embarrassing her because I was dancing like an African, and I was facing her instead of facing the stage in the accepted way like everyone else.

We were lucky in the Bay Area to have a wonderful all-ages dance club called Ashkenaz, a wood-frame building with high arched ceiling, a beautiful wood dance floor, and a clear, balanced sound system. My band played there once, but I also got to dance there to the father of modern juju music, accordionist I. K. Dairo, during his final tour. The crowd was a great mix of hippies, yuppies, Berkeley High students, black professionals, European, Middle Eastern and African expatriates, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, professional artists and musicians, university professors – typical Bay Area!

In its most successful incarnation, my 80s band Terra Incognita incorporated rhythms inspired by Nigerian music. But we were an electric string trio, what would later be called chamber folk – the absolute last thing my marketing expert would ever accept as dance music. But our most devoted fans first showed up dancing happily in front of the stage.

I later attended the wedding of one of those fans, and attempted a polka with his mother. She laughed harshly in contempt, shoving me off the floor, when I could neither lead nor follow. I admit that I’ve never mastered European-style partner dancing. I took a couple of salsa lessons after I moved to Silver City, and encountered the same snobbery. My partner barked at me and tried impatiently to jerk me into shape. Partner dancing is like horseback riding for me – something I like to watch but have never enjoyed doing. It’s a European tradition – I’m more comfortable with African and Native American dance traditions.

In North American and European urban society, insecure young men who want to be considered “hipsters” are notoriously reluctant to be seen dancing in public. Hence they typically wait to be drawn into the dance by young women. While living in Seattle a few years ago, I went to see a North-African-influenced San Francisco band at the world-music club Nectar. The crowd consisted mostly of young single men, and after the first few tunes, no one was dancing – so I went out there and got things started myself!

In the late 80s, my old friend and collaborator Cheb i Sabbah started doing DJ nights in popular SF clubs. He became one of the world’s premier “world music” DJs, and in between his national and European tours, he turned me on to Mali’s Salif Keita and Kasse Mady, Cuba’s Los Van Van, and the Gnawa music of Morocco. But whenever he played North African music, the local Moroccans converged in their robes, arms waving ecstatically above their heads, fingers snapping in unison to the beat.


Are You Dancing Yet? Part 3

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012: Dance, Musings.

Over a 30-year period, I spent hundreds and hundreds of nights dancing in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, but only a minority of those nights were spent dancing to what the industry calls dance music. I did discover house music at the beginning of the 90s, but the dominant sub-audible bass literally wore me out after a couple of hours, whereas I could easily dance to Cheb’s world music all night.

In the early 90s, my younger girlfriend was an avid Deadhead. I never actually attended a Grateful Dead show because during the 80s my crowd had looked on the Dead and their following with disdain and disgust. It was my own form of music snobbery, and my friends and I always looked down on “Dead dancers” or “hippie dancers” at clubs and events. But now, at a distance, I realize that the Dead provided a safe space for social dancing in a time of rapid technological change and uncertainty.

By the 2000s, the Dead were gone and club culture had spread to “raves,” which were often unofficial, underground parties using techno music. I was asked to DJ a party at my new girlfriend’s house, and I brought a huge library of CDs that I considered the world’s best contemporary dance music, everything from surf dance to Cuban and African big band music. The crowd consisted mostly of her young European friends, and they stood dejectedly around the edges of the room as I kept changing the program in hopes of getting them moving. Finally, one of her ex-boyfriends showed up with his own library of techno music and took over. The crowd instantly came to life, in within minutes they were moving in a trance to the only music they had ever been able to dance to.

Ironically, it was only after moving to New Mexico that I fell in love with techno. Artists like Underworld incorporated West African beats into their club tracks, along with hints of post-punk.

Cities are fragmented into ethnic subcultures and peer groups based on age and background. I was part of a small subculture of artists and musicians that enjoyed dancing at parties, clubs and festivals, but I became aware that my professional peers did not dance, and seemed to associate social dancing with teenagers, the working class, and obsolete indigenous cultures. Social dancing was frivolous and embarrassing.

For many of them, this was an unconscious holdover from their Protestant upbringing. Protestantism or Calvinism has been death on dancing for centuries. I think in the beginning it was part of the rebellion against the Southern European dominance and oppression of the Catholic Church.

Since the days of the pioneers, rural families in the American West have joined together weekly for a Saturday night dance. Initially that was a self-conscious way of binding together a precarious community in an unfamiliar land, far from their eastern roots.

Like all rural traditions, that one has been eroded by mass media and the consumer economy, but when I moved to Grant County, New Mexico, I immediately became a dance activist and began learning from the locals. At my first harvest festival dance, Anglo and Hispanic ranch families mingled on the floor with hippies, and mothers danced with babies in their arms. In the downtown bar and grill on Saturday night, a happy crowd of Latino miners and Anglo hospital workers danced together to a live local band playing cumbias, country rock, and the occasional 80s radio hit from Paul Simon or Talking Heads.

In Nigerian social dance, the singers praise members of the audience by name and use evocative metaphors and proverbs to reinforce traditional moral values. But, as in the days of the pioneers, social dance has implicit social, physical, mental and emotional benefits. Dancing actually makes you smarter! A study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that dancing was far more effective in preventing age-related dementia than any other activity, including the commonly-prescribed crossword puzzles.

Social dancing is arguably the most important role of music. Dancing is not an option, it’s essential to a healthy life. Are you dancing yet?

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