Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Can America’s Problems Be Fixed With More Dancing?

Pundits and commentators are always looking for signs of America’s decline. They will often point to increases in crime and poverty or decrease in literacy or political engagement. There’s one changing aspect of society I believe has been missed by the major critics. I believe an acute sign of moral decay and spiritual decline in America is the general inability of American men to dance.

The idea of social dancing seems irrelevant now, which is kind of the point. There was a time in U.S. history when a man was expected to know how to dance. You weren’t really “social” (i.e. a member of society) until you learned a few steps that you could execute with some kind of skill in group gatherings. This idea goes all the way back to the Middle Ages, where having knowledge of current dances and the ability to do them was required of a young nobleman who wanted to become a knight.

From the earliest days of America’s founding, if you wanted to make a good impression, you had to know how to dance. Nothing overly complicated, just the current fads of the time (The Lindy Hop, The Charleston, The Twist, The Electric Slide), or at least the basic moves involved in leading a partner across the floor in a couples dance.

For decades in America, some of the most famous male celebrities were dancers, from Fred Estaire to James Brown, Bojangles to Baryshnikov, Chubby Checker to Michael Jackson. Dancing wasn’t stupid, or ironic, or embarrassing, or a sign of weakness. But something happened in American society between the height of Disco in the 1970s and now.

Today, at least in the public sphere and its current bourgeois world of mass-market entertainment. Dancing is effectively verboten. I’m not talking about the few seconds of uncoordinated spasms that someone does when they hear their favorite song on the radio. An occasional Super Bowl halftime show by Bruno Mars notwithstanding, the act of dancing because something moves you, or you like to do it, is effectively non-existent.

In the private sphere, at least in my experience over the past years, it’s only something you do when you’re really drunk, like a wedding reception. Women still have a more leeway when it comes to this activity, but the nature of dancing has changed for them too, i.e. it’s more a precursor to sex than anything else.

Several movements over time can be blamed for helping contribute to the decline of social dancing. As the years have gone by, popular music has changed, such as in the ‘50s when Be-Bop replaced Swing music as the primary Jazz genre. There was the ‘70s backlash against Disco that took the dance club, once one of the most popular places for socializing and fun, and drove it underground and into the narrower worlds of House Music and EDM. The Punk, Hard Rock, and Hardcore scenes of the ‘70s-’90s favored movements made up of violent spasms and simulated fighting (e.g. the mosh pit) instead of coordinated steps and routines. There’s also the rise of Hip-Hop that emphasized posturing and menacing glares over the smooth moves of R&B and early Rap music.

And starting in the 1980s, an era of puritanical right-wing masculine swagger (framed by the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush) downplayed both knowledge of music and the ability to move to it. The combination of religious modesty, gay panic (dancing in clubs something only the “queers” do), and a uniquely American form of critical self-consciousness conspired to make the creative and personal act of dancing something one doesn’t do in public, unless one is getting paid to do it.

Today we live in a society full of heart disease, isolation, anger, and spiritual malaise. Imagine if some activity could peacefully channel some of that blocked-up energy into productive use. Dancing burns calories, improves agility and coordination, and connects the body to the soul. It would be nice if we as a country could move back to an era and attitude that allowed for more forms of social dancing, where citizens could blow off steam, get healthier, and meet with their neighbors. There are small pockets of places where one can go to learn the Cha-Cha, tip your hat in country line dance, etc. What’s needed though, is a movement. A movement to move.

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