I always feel slightly cowed when I hear a wise or inspired person invoke dance metaphors to describe the essence of life well-lived, because basically, my feet usually feel like lead. Barbara, my wife, is kind to praise the way I move, on the rare occasions when we find ourselves on a dance floor. But that’s just the thing. They are rare occasions.
I’m probably the reason for that. Barbara moves with a natural grace. She started learning steps from her father as a girl. She knows the difference between a samba, a mambo and a rumba.
I, on the other hand, don’t remember seeing my parents dance, even once. I got farmed out to Aunt Irene to learn rudimentary jitterbug for a junior high sock hop. I sat through the suburban social ritual of “Fortnightlies” at a formal dance studio when I was around thirteen. Having been dragged against my will and having fantasized flight the whole time there, however, I’m unable to remember a single thing my feet were shown during those evenings.
Fortunately for us dance-challenged people, the 1960s, coinciding with my own coming of age, brought easy dancing of two kinds. First, there was a kind of slow dancing you could call “make-out dancing,” usually done to Johnny Mathis records in the basement of a friend’s home. Standing up and leaning on each other to make out was an enjoyable way to vary, every once in awhile, sitting on a sofa and making out. There was nothing to learn.
Second, there was the completely impersonal shaking of your body to loud music, without the necessity of even relating to your partner. Nothing to learn here, either. I never knew what to call this kind of dancing. I knew names like “the Mashed Potato,” “the Swim” and “the Bugalloo,” but I rarely knew which was which. When I read in junior high that Lucy Baines Johnson liked to do the “frug” at White House parties, part of me, prematurely senescent, thought, “What’s the world coming to?”
Whatever the world was coming to, it was bringing me there, too, year by year. I remember seeing one of the most beautiful and talented girls in our high school doing the Dirty Dog at a Homecoming Dance, and while I enjoyed watching her and the year-older boy she was with, my own way of moving more resembled an asexual seizure.
As time went on, the tamer rock n’ roll or “soul music” of our high school years started morphing into music that could make you say “How do you dance to that?” By ’67 or ’68, music had emptied into an Ocean of sound.
But so had life. Away at college, I had no clue about any kind of behaviour any more, things were changing so fast. I just had to start learning from scratch, by trial and sometimes-calamitous error. Suddenly Dance was one of the more stable cultural forms. Anywhere in the Western world, at least, you could march onto a dance floor with loud music and strobe lights or a crystal globe, ask someone to dance, and have a fair chance the person would accept. The two of you would proceed to gyrate with the completely impersonal movements that continued to reign as the prevailing style, and if anything, had gotten more antiseptic of human emotion as the drum beat had grown louder and the bass more driving. Then you—or at least I— could walk away saying to yourself, “Well, I danced with someone,” and wondering, “Did I really?”
By the mid-‘60s, the continuing development of music, culture, and pharmaceuticals led—although typically for my backwater upbringing, I never heard about it until the late ‘60s—to the appearance on both coasts of large, cavernous halls where loud electric rock, light-show technology, and large numbers of flailing, often drug-filled bodies could come together and, as the leader of one band, the MC (Motor City) 5 used to say, “kick out all the jams.”
I was twenty years old the first time I set foot in the Fillmore East, in the East Village of New York City, on a night featuring Country Joe and the Fish, with their famously naughty “Fish Cheer”; the aforementioned MC (Motor City) 5; and one or two other bands whose names haven’t survived in my memory.
I didn’t actually dance that night, but you couldn’t be in that environment without feeling something was happening to you. Media operating on the various senses combined to create a sense of something primitive happening! Hippies often spoke of “my tribe” and the famous media philosopher of the day, Marshall McLuhan, had come up with the phrase “Global Village” to describe the contemporary world.
And I felt it, I felt it! I came back to my college in Florida after my month-long Independent Study period in New York City, during a period of my life when I was struggling to come to terms with emotions, and was realizing that during my upbringing I had retreated a great deal into my head. I believed that in New York, I may have discovered the means by which we human beings could Re-charge. These “primitive contemporary” rituals, like dancing to the Doors or the Jefferson Airplane, could reconnect us with our true selves, or at least something beyond the intellect. I envisioned a kind of Baptism in music and lights, in this transformative environment!
I envisioned a lot of things in those days. It took time to test them out, and there were a lot of detours, partly because I also began discovering the “hidden” element that was the foundation for much that was going on, LSD. And that, in my case, led to a big detour.
On the way back from that big detour, I pretty much forgot about the things I’d been envisioning as the ‘60s became the ‘70s. I was practically a new plant growing in new soil, much richer soil, conducive to people, and the old new ideas had become irrelevant.
And somehow not only the decade turned, but the millennium, and it became 2011. And two nights ago I attended the wedding party of my niece, Barbara’s by blood and mine by being her husband. We had just attended the extremely moving ceremony, out of doors at a resort in Ventura, California, and the love the bride and groom had for one another had likely left no eye in the house dry.
And then we were indoors, in a large banquet room, at a table with people we didn’t know and, except for one, didn’t seem to have that much to talk about with. And I couldn’t hear anyways, except when the room quieted somewhat for the toasts. I began feeling very remote and depersonalized, as if the people at the table and in the room were just pictures of people. Inwardly, I began to despair of being able to connect at this post-wedding event.
The coming of the food provided a temporary focus. After that Barbara had a bit of indigestion and we walked back to our room for a Tums. When we returned, her main course, which required a bit of special preparation because she’s allergic to pepper, had just arrived. Having already finished my dinner, I kept her company, but with nothing to do, once again began feeling withdrawn.
By now the DJs had started doing their thing. The loud music from their turntables, blaring through excellent Bose speakers, was penetrating every cell of every body, whether on the dance floor or not.
I realized I had a choice: I could either disappear completely, in reaction to all the stimuli…or I could ask someone to dance, and see whether that would get me more into the rhythm of the evening, which was after all a celebration in honour of the bride and groom, both of whom I cared about.
I decided to give this possibility a shot. While Barbara finished her dinner, I asked the minister, coincidentally from our home town and therefore placed next to us at the table, if she wanted to dance and she said yes. After that I went to the next table and asked Barbara’s dad’s second wife’s daughter (it’s complicated), who didn’t have a partner at the event. She came out and we moved together in the big mash of people, to the fast song, smiling at one another now and then.
Soon after that Barbara was finished with her food. Although she didn’t feel up to dancing when she was so full, we got out on the floor before long. After a few dances, I realized my body was energized, and all that isolation had vanished. Barbara and I continued to dance fast dances—I’m able to do a rudimentary jitterbug, as well as your generic shaking—and slow ones, to songs with slightly more tempo than the old “make-out” music.
A ways through the evening Barbara discovered her deceased dad’s second wife wandering around a bit lost, and put her focus on that part of the family, and I found myself alone again. I looked back over to the dance floor. By now, I realized, I felt loose enough to walk over there and just start dancing. The people whose backs I could see at the periphery of the floor were Barbara’s cousins and the idea of moving in proximity to them, joining in their energy of celebration, appealed to me. But it wasn’t until I walked over there and actually started dancing, that I saw what was really going on.
The little children—sons and daughters of family members, and ranging in age from two to seven—were in the middle of the circle, completely immersed in the music. One boy, whose dad later told me had seen breakdancers on a visit to San Francisco, was prone on the floor, wearing dark shades and spinning around like a bottle! He seemed to have some boundless source of energy as well as leverage! For the next two hours, and possibly an hour before I realized he was there, he continued his acrobatics without a pause!
His sister, a beautiful, precocious little girl now seven, stood in her white flower-girl’s dress, moving with uncanny poise, sometimes dancing with “everybody” and sometimes picking one or another of us to honour as her partner for a little while, gladdening our hearts.
A two year old in a red dress was being helped by her Auntie, and kept up the pace as well as anyone—as did the Auntie herself. And a little boy now four or five, who had been a bit slow to be social, was watching his cousins and thoroughly enjoying himself, completely fitting in and free of self-consciousness, as his mom and dad danced nearby. This boy’s sister, who is three or four now, was making her own independent moves. So was her great-grandma, standing and moving nearby until a concerned step-daughter (Barbara’s mom, the great-grandma, had fallen down and gotten stitches in her head two days before) had brought a chair, and after that she sat in our midst, moving her hands and arms in rhythm.
I don’t know if it was the presence of the small children, and the total, angelic absence of the sexual energy that is often a subtext in dance—or simply the spectrum of humanity from two to eighty-two dancing in the same circle—that was responsible, but I suddenly began to feel very free. I began, listening to the heavy beat and the back-beat, and sometimes closing my eyes, to move from inside myself to the heavy, primitive music, feeling completely free in my surroundings! Although I could not sing every word of every song the way teenagers and young adults around me were doing, I could put my body into it and be every bit as involved as they.
Spontaneously, I began doing moves I’d never done before. Often these were highly repetitive, almost mechanical…a shoulder twitched, an arm flung out, my neck and head shaking, for maybe fifty repetitions before I would change to something else. There was an impersonality to such movements, and yet, the energy did not feel dehumanized. I was entering the music, completely connected, and coming out the other side into a free space! As I looked around, it appeared that every other person, old or young, moving in his or her own unique way to these same sounds, was doing his or her own version of the same thing, and we all coexisted in the free place. Barbara came and joined me again, and we continued, all of us.
And that was when, at some point, I realized something, which moved gradually from somewhere dim inside my brain, towards full awareness. It came forward as I felt the lights flashing and moved with eyes closed and the beat of the bass and the drums in my blood.
I realized this was all something I’d been involved with before. This was the “primitive re-charge” that I’d envisioned when I’d visited the Fillmore East more than forty years ago! I had not quite found the release I’d looked for among the denizens of the East Village or in my own “expeditions” on psychedelics. I was finding it here, among these denizens of the suburbs, in the aftermath of a Jewish wedding! I was finding it among the aunts, cousins, nieces, grandmas, and others in the family I’d married into. Here was the place I finally became able to completely lose myself in Dance and Music!
My body continuing to move as the DJ announced the finale and Barbara and I joined with everyone in a mighty rendition of “Twist and Shout,” which I do know all the words to, I “disappeared” into it all, and became it all, one last communion with wife, relatives, friends, bride, groom, and Music. And I thought, “Yes, life is, it is, a dance!”
And then, recalling my life-long search through the byways of Bohemia to discover what was finally manifesting here at a Jewish wedding party, I laughed to myself, remembering it’s also a mighty—and mighty funny—joke!