Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Dancing Around The World

When I was eight, we had to do square dancing in P.E. and it was sheer torture. All the boys I got partnered with had sweaty hands and irritating smirks. None of the halfway decent ones were available. Inevitably, I found myself stuck with some awful boy with slicked-back hair and a goofy expression, or a lumbering idiot who liked telling jokes about poos, who clowned around at lunchtime by drinking his milk through his nose. I was terrible at dancing myself: I could never remember when to do what or where to put my feet.

At university, my friends danced while I sat and watched, struggling to work up the courage to join them. They did the Latin hustle, the bump and the funky chicken; they waved their arms around, they dipped and bobbed and gyrated and danced stiff-legged while I chewed my lip and studied them. A few times, I actually went out onto the dance floor myself. I did my best to copy my friends, but it was tough going: I never knew how to hold my body, where to put my feet.

I took an African dance class when I was twenty, but the minute I caught the teacher smiling at me, I stopped dancing. I suspected that her smile was not one of encouragement. A few years later, I signed up for a jitterbug class with a friend. She was great; I wasn't.

During the summer in Japan, I watched as people did bon-odori, special folk dances the whole community takes part in. Old men and women in their street clothes or kimono, girls in yukata, everyone danced, moving their bodies gracefully. Every dance was different. One step forward, two steps back, spin, arms held up to the sky, arms sweeping down to the ground, two steps forward, turn around... Egged on by friends, I tried bon-odori a few times. Surprisingly, it was a lot of fun. I was awful at it, though: I could never tell when to do what.

Ballet was easier than bon-odori, though more physically demanding. When my youngest daughter was old enough to start ballet, I asked the teacher if I could join in to encourage her. I was awful at ballet, but the teacher liked me: she asked my husband and me to play the king and queen during the class dance recital. We still have the videotape somewhere: you can see me resplendent in crimson gown and silver tiara, engaged in a discrete tug-of-war with my husband as I set off towards the wrong exit.

In Scotland, I went to ceilidhs. These are traditional Gaelic social dances where you dance to live music, generally featuring fiddles, tin whistles and accordions. In our town, ceilidhs were generally held at the Catholic and Presbyterian churches.

The Catholic ceilidh was wonderful. Some dancers were good and some were not, but it really didn't matter. Everyone danced with everyone else. Grandmothers danced with their grandsons, sisters danced with brothers, strangers grabbed the hands of strangers and pulled them onto the dance floor. I got pulled onto the dance floor too. I was awful, but nobody really cared, so I didn't either.

The Presbyterian ceilidh was not a success. Too many people were good dancers, and the atmosphere was all wrong. I sat in a corner and watched everyone until a friend finally persuaded me to join. I was awful and I know for a fact that everybody noticed. I'm not a Catholic, but I made it a point to go to their ceilidhs after that. Catholics in Scotland know how to have fun. And they definitely know how to show other people a good time.

Turks love dancing. When I come back to class after the break, my students have Arabesque music blasting out of my CD player; a few of them are dancing, eyes closed, hips swaying, arms held overhead.

The other evening, I went to a party at work, taking my youngest daughter along. We sat and watched as girls in shimmery costumes belly danced, rotating their pelvises, swiveling their hips, shimmying their shoulders. They tossed their hair about a lot too, and flashed their eyes. The music was so loud you could hardly hear yourself think.

After a while, the belly dancers left and the band got even louder. Colleagues stood up and wandered out to the dance floor until it was standing room only out there. But the dancers didn't care: they swayed and shimmied and gyrated and flashed their eyes. Turks dance with their arms held high overhead, hands and fingers very much a part of the whole process. It wasn't just the young and fit who were dancing either. Middle-aged men were out there, grinding their hips and grinning away; full-figured women in their fifties were moving on the floor, eyes closed in rapture, fleshy arms held high overhead, wrists rotating, hands twitching like small birds, fingers waving.

I watched carefully, trying to figure out how they did it. "That looks like fun," I had to admit as a woman my age twirled around, arms held high, hips swiveling, an expression of rapture on her face. My daughter turned to look at me. "Mom!" There was such desperation in her eyes, I had to smile. And I almost wished I'd had more to drink.

Next time I go to a place where there's dancing, I believe I'll leave my daughter at home.


Bish Denham said...

Oh I hope you do go again and get out there. It sounds like when the Puerto Ricans get together. Young, old, fit, not so fit, it doesn't matter, everyone's out there dancing in whatever way they can.

As for me I've always liked to dance. I took 8 years of it. 4 ballet and 4 tap.

Helen said...

Mary - I think the inability to dance goes hand in hand with the nerd status. I cannot dance - I have watched (painfully) others who also cannot dance and vowed never to do it in public. And then I read that little quote "Sing like no-one is listening, love like your heart won't break, dance like no-one is watching" etc. (or something like that) and went "yeah, why should all the co-ordinated slick people have all the fun". So go to the next party (without your daughter) and go for it. Arms in the air and all! Also, I believe some alcohol helps......

Miss Footloose said...


I'm not sure if I actually know how to dance, I just do. They dance differently everywhere and I just go along and make an idiot of myself, but I don't care.

In Armenia I was pulled onto the dance floor at our welcome party, having just arrived, and I had no choice or be a spoil sport and refuse. So I danced, watching how the woman gyrated and had their hands in the air.

Someone told me the way you move your hands and wrists is just like "screwing in light bulbs." So I just gyrated along and screwed in light bulbs, knowing I looked really dumb. I passed the test by being a good sport, but they were all laughing!

I've decided that one of the benefits of getting older is that you don't care so much about your "image," anymore.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Oh my, I shared your disdain for square and folk dancing in junior high. I too was always too self conscious to be able to dance, afraid I would be laughed at. My wife wanted to do swing dance, but I would trip and turn incorrectly, it was always a disaster. I think it is a natural talent, one I don't have.

But I found this video of a dancing dog on YouTube. You know, it may even be a Turkish dancing dog. See for yourself:

laura said...

I never thought I could dance. My (ex) husband wouldn't dance so I wouldn't either. When women friends mangaged to drag me onto the floor it was agony! And then something happened. I was in my late 30's, single, and some friends dragged me to a hole in the wall bar where I didn't care who saw me, and I danced. I swear I'm now the dancing queen and just try to stop me. The nicest(?) compliment I ever received was from a woman who asked me if I was a stripper!
You definitely have to give it another shot!

Mary Witzl said...

Bish -- Not liking to dance isn't the problem! I've had jitterbug lessons, African dance, modern dance, and ballet, and there wasn't much the teachers could do for me.

But next time, I'm definitely going to get out there and embarrass myself. Life's too short.

Helen -- I always suspected the nerd/no-dance-ability connection myself, but I have friends who are actually dance nerds, so that knocks that theory on the head.

I've read that quote too, and it's a good one. You're so right: why should all the coordinated dancing queens have all the fun? Once we're middle-aged, we all look pretty much the same anyway, so what if I can't dance? You're dead right about alcohol helping. Not having a horrified teenager with me wil be a big help too.

Miss Footloose -- I stopped caring about my image way back when, and what a big relief that was! I still care enough to wash my face, comb my hair, and put on clothes without holes, but that's about it. Compared to a teenager, I'm right off the charts: I can leave the house without ironing my hair, sans lipstick, in socks that don't match. Catch my kids doing even one of those things.

Screwing in light bulbs -- is that the secret? That's what I'm going to do the next time I'm among dancing Turks and Cypriots!

Robert -- Wasn't square dancing in fourth grade just the worst thing? The odd thing is that the ceilidh dances are almost exactly the same, but they are a lot of fun. Both my kids can do almost all the Scottish country dances or improvise the ones they can't do, and better yet, they enjoy it. It's all in the teaching, I think. If you ever get a chance to go to a ceilidh, go. And have three beers first.

Laura -- Having an unwilling partner is no help at all. Having women friends who encourage you really makes up for that.

In my own house with all the curtains down, I'm the dancing queen. But I'm going to try Miss Footloose's light bulb screwing in trick the next time I go out. And before I do, I'll make sure to have a tequila or two to help with the inhibitions.

Library girl said...

Oh yes, I can recommend the tequila (although be careful ... it's one tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor). I dance like a goddess on that stuff. Without it ... more like a not-so-funky chicken :)

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm not really sure I understand organized dancing. Its such a social thing in many ways, and I'm not a bit social person.

Falak said...

Please don't hold yourself back! I learned classical dance for 6 long years and gave up after I completed my course because I couldn't bear to be seen dancing. My family found it weird that I wouldn't comply to requests of dancing during family functions. And then last year a friend held a party and after being a spoil sport nursing a coke in a corner I decided to give it a try..... I had a blast. We were having fun dancing in groups made up of total strangers and I really did'nt care if anyone though I looked crazy or not. There were people who were worse than me!

Mary Witzl said...

Library Girl -- I have a high-ish tequila tolerance, for some reason, and I know just when to stop drinking before I'm drunk enough to drop. Wine brings out my Flashdance potential too.

Charles -- Neither am I, but at ceilidhs, even nerds with only left feet can happily join in and enjoy themselves. My youngest daughter isn't very social, but even she admitted that ceilidh dancing was a lot of fun. If you're ever in Scotland or Ireland, give it a go -- you'll be surprised. Everybody just takes it as a given and pitches right in.

Falak -- I won't give up!

The thing about dancing is that it is no fun at all until you can see the joy in it. I think it also helps to be older, and able to see the ridiculous side of things too, and to be able to laugh at yourself sometimes. That way it doesn't hurt so much when others beat you to it.

Anne Spollen said...

I think it's great to dance; in every way it's great. It's so celebratory.

I used to like to dance, then middle school happened and well, you know how that goes...

Vijaya said...

Dancing is so much fun ... I could've danced except I was forbidden to as a child (only bad women did that). Years and years later, I took jazz and ballet and loved it. Went folkdancing ... and loved it. But I haven't been dancing in years since we had our kiddos and I miss it. Methinks it's time to find a folkdance group nearby ... and I hope you continue dancing throughout the world. Come visit me and we'll be bad together.

Kim Ayres said...

Did you not realise these eight year old boys must have fancied you rotten? Telling you poo jokes, and especially drinking milk through the nose, were major attempts to impress you!

Blythe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Blythe said...

I love to dance. I just have a tendency to do it "backwards." One of my belly dancing teachers pointed it out years ago. She said it wasn't bad, it was just strange--and I should dance in a place where I wasn't likely to bash into anyone doing it the more ordinary way. I'm on my left foot when everyone else is on the right, I'm making clockwise circles with my hips when everyone else is going counterclockwise. The only sort of social dancing I've ever managed was contre dancing. Come to think of it, I was solidly drunk during most of those dances...

Robin said...

You've sure seen a lot of dancing! My dream is to take ballroom dance lessons with my husband, but he has a genetic rhythm abnormality. You can even here it when he claps at a concert. Everyone else is clapping to the beat - and then there's Adam. It's just not gonna happen.

Mary Witzl said...

Anne -- Middle school is the start of a lot of awful things, isn't it? Spotty skin, overwhelming hormones, and truly nasty gym teachers are just the tip of the iceberg.

Dancing really is fun; just because I'm bad at it doesn't mean I never do it. And oh for the chance to do a celebratory dance of my own. I'm thinking maybe a jig.

Vijaya -- In our extended family, there were a number of things that only bad people did, including (but not limited to) drinking any kind of alcohol, smoking, most card playing, wearing bikinis, going out with members of the opposite sex unchaperoned, and staying up late to watch t.v. Maybe that had something to do with our never learning to dance. But I would love to go folk dancing with you (and no matter what your level, you'd be an expert near me...).

Kim -- My parents used to tell me that. I didn't buy it then and I'm not buying it now. Oddly, my girls have complained of the same thing -- boys that act obnoxious and do gross things. I tell them the boys are trying to impress them. They don't buy it either...

Blythe -- You could dance and be solidly drunk at the same time? After two glasses of wine, I'm reeling. At my nephew's wedding some years back, I had three glasses and my in-laws rememeber it still. Wish they wouldn't. I also wish my coordination problems were as simple as yours. Right and left confusion is just one tiny part of it.

Robin -- Your poor husband! I'm great on rhythm, it's just my coordination that sucks.

Up until I saw 'Shall We Dance?' (the Japanese original, not the American version which is no comparison), I thought ballroom dancing was trivial and the last thing I'd want to try. I really shouldn't have seen 'Shall We Dance?' -- yet another dream I'll never realize.

Kim Ayres said...

OK, think of it this way - would telling poo jokes and drinking milk through their nose impress an 8 year old boy's friends? Too bloody right it would - serious kudos.

So why on earth, to the 8 year old male mind, wouldn't the same thing impress a girl?

I mean, here you are, using up your funniest jokes and practicing nasal dexterity precisely to impress someone you fancy. You're not going to go to all that trouble for someone you don't like.

Face it Mary, you must have been one of the hottest girls in 3rd grade :)

Charlie said...

When we lived in Alexandria, VA, Martha and I took square dance lessons. I was fairly good at it, especially after 3 beers. Problem was, there were 10 women to every man and my dance card was filled to overflowing.

We quit because Martha never got to dance and I never got a break to drink.

Sad and pointless story, isn't it.

Marian said...

Have you seen the Seinfeld episode where Elaine dances? She's terrible, and the guys call it "full-body dry heaves set to music".

I'm not so bad, but I can't dance in any heels higher than an inch.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Your comment made me laugh out loud!

Me a hot 8-year-old? I have photographic evidence to the contrary, but who knows? Kids who thought it might be fun to ingest milk through their noses obviously see things in a different light. One boy pulverized his banana and tried to hoover that up nasally. I got up and left before the banana came back out, but I'm told it was pretty dramatic. Probably better I didn't know if he really was hitting on me.

Charlie -- Dance classes are always over-full of women and sadly lacking in men. Any straight guy anxious to meet women would do well to consider taking up dance -- any kind of dance.

Did Martha never get ANY chances to dance? In my case, that might have been better: at least I'd never have found out the truth. (CAN Martha dance? Because she sounds a lot like my sister with two left feet...)

Marian -- How pathetically out of it am I that I've never once watched an episode of Seinfeld? A 'full body dry heave set to music' is a good line though. Which makes me think the writing on Seinfeld must be good.

I had a fit once when my eldest daughter and I were going to a ceilidh together and she insisted on wearing 2 1/2-inch heels. If I'd worn high heels to dance, I'd have come back with a serious injury. Eldest claimed she could dance in heels just fine. And she was right: I watched her strip the willow in them, with grace and style. I was utterly gobsmacked.

Eryl Shields said...

I love dancing so much I think it's what I was born to do. If I could dance every day I probably wouldn't have to do all the other stuff like writing, for instance. That said, I cannot do dances with rules and proscribed steps, I'm a free-form dancer. But I never get to do it these days, it's not the same home alone.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- I'd like to tell myself that it's the rules and proscribed steps that make dance so tough for me, but it's really my coordination or lack thereof. In the privacy of my own room, though, I too am a free style dancer. I'm a free style singer, fiddler, and harmonica-player too.