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Less like a ball

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, October 27, 2005

In “The Big Sleep,” Humphrey Bogart says of one particularly flirtations character that “she tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up.” It’s a classic line from a time in Hollywood’s history when the writing was the special effects, but these days the comic absurdity of the image is undermined by the fact that Bogart’s line could serve as a fairly literal description of the sort of thing that goes on in dance clubs across the country.

In modern dance, as in modern music, skill matters, but attitude matters far more. It’s true that some people lack the coordination and sense of rhythm needed to impress on the dance floor, but it’s also true that the level of ability required is actually rather minimal. The secret of modern dancing is that it’s less about what you do with your body and more about what you do with your face; the real trick is to adopt a facial expression that effectively conveys the impression that you actually want to be there on the dance floor and not one that suggests you would rather be undergoing root canal surgery with a dentist who views his craft as an improvisational art.

A popular variation on this ruse is ironical dancing, which requires adopting some of the more outlandish dance moves in a way that puts them in quotation marks. This requires a lot of knowing looks and nods (in order to confirm that those around you have noticed the quotation marks) and while effective in the short term, ironical dancing is not really sustainable, and after a few songs most ironists will usually retreat to the bar.

Of course there are some people who actually do want to be on the dance floor. For reasons I don’t pretend to understand, most of them are women. It could be because women have a natural advantage with this sort of thing. To look like a natural on the dance floor it helps to move in a sensuous way that suggests that the song’s rhythms connect with you at a primal level. When men do that, it just looks creepy.

What is clear is that less people actually enjoy dancing than pretend to. If that were not the case, then dance clubs would not sell alcohol in anything remotely approaching the oceanic quantities that they actually do (which means that the business model of the average dance club depends upon its being less fun than it’s supposed to be).

You don’t need to be a particularly insightful student of human nature to realize that people who are actually enjoying themselves don’t typically drink themselves into oblivion. A dance club is a temple dedicated to fun, but an awful lot of the people inside are just going through the motions.

Modern dance is a fundamentally solitary activity. This isn’t immediately obvious, because there is a lot of conspicuous pairing up that takes place on the dance floor. Experienced clubbers can even tell from the DJs choice of song when the night’s festivities are drawing to a close, allowing those attuned to such signals to know that if they have not yet found someone with whom to bump and grind, then the time may have come to revise their selection criteria.

But even when men and women dance together in a club, there are no forms to be followed. The closest analogue in nature is the unceremonious dance that dogs in season have been performing with table legs, if not for as long as there have been dogs, then at least for as long as there have been tables.

Add to all this the undisputed fact that everyone over 30 looks ridiculous as soon as they set foot within a dance club, and it is hardly surprising that there is a quiet but significant revival of a range of traditional modes of dancing, from a variety of ballroom styles to salsa and swing. These are, of course, very different, but their differences are in a way less important than the fact that they all involve cooperation, requiring a partner who knows the steps.

Salsa and the tango are obviously very sexual styles, although their sexual charge depends on limits and boundaries, which is why their charm is lost on those who cannot tell the difference between flirtation and seduction. But all dances that require a partner are sexual in the sense that they register the sex of the participants.

The phrase “friends plus benefits,” while often employed by those who take immense pride in their laissez faire attitude to the sex lives of others, still captures the altogether too cool rationality of the arrangement it names. But if we think that the problem with such relationships would be fixed by adopting a formula along the lines of “friends plus benefits plus commitment” then we are still thinking along lines that are too rationalist.

There are permanent mysteries in the relations between the sexes. In the ’80s, this was the subject of stand-up comedy routines, in the ’90s of self-help manuals, but dancing is one way in which, since time immemorial, these mysteries have been not explained, but formally acknowledged.

In “Pride and Prejudice,” Miss Bingley asks, “Would not conversation be much more rational than dancing?” To which Mr. Bingley replies, correctly, “Much more rational, but much less like a ball.”

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the philosophy department. Some of his field notes from his time spent as an Englishman at Notre Dame are featured in the most recent edition of the Notre Dame Magazine. Peter can be contacted at pwicks@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.