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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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