No, no, no, I don’t mean that teevee show. I don’t mean do you think you can dance if you’re some sort of third-string celebrity involved in some sort of silly competition. I don’t mean you have a dancing coach for a partner and you have to memorize some floppy choreographed routine set to some flashy neo-disco music and your mission, should you chose to accept it—which you undoubtedly will because your celebrity star has been fading like the Bates Motel and you would do any damn thing it takes to get your face back on television for a few weeks, no matter how silly your assignment is—is to get through three minutes a week without tripping over your own feet and falling on your ass.
No, I don’t mean that
kind of dancing.
I mean the kind of dancing that breaks out spontaneously on the street outside the home—and the death bed—of someone you adore and spreads throughout your country like a fire along with the news that he is gone. I mean the kind of dancing where you make your own music with your own voice and you cannot help but move to it, any more than you can help but sing it. Where all the people around you join in, singing the one song and swinging in unison as though a wind is blowing through the gathering crowd and the only response to such grief, or joy, or whatever makes that wind blow, is to dance it off. To dance together like your nation has been doing since before time was counted. To dance together as naturally and as synchronized as leaves in a baobab tree or spears of grass on an open veldt.
Does your dance even have a name? Did someone say, “Let’s do the Madiba’s Dead
dance, like we rehearsed it?” And if so, how did the 90,000 who crammed into that memorial all get so good at it in so short a time. Five measly days into the mourning and tens of thousands of people—not counting the throngs out on the street—were as tight as the Rockets. The fat people looked as good as the skinny people. The kids are as good as the old pros. How in the hell can they do that?
And what must it be like to live in a place where the people let their bodies speak so eloquently for what is in their hearts?
I have been trying to imagine what America would be like if our people danced more, rather than sitting in the barcalounger watching others dance. That’s what we are, you know... dance voyeurs. A few of us actually do the moves, and the rest stand on the sidelines and watch. I suspect that was why American Bandstand
and Soul Train
were on the air for so long. It wasn’t the music we tuned into so much as it was the opportunity to watch better dancers than we knew we could ever be, and dream about how cool it would be to be as good as them.
Saturday Night Fever
, Urban Cowboy
, Pulp Fiction
... You probably don’t know this, but John Travolta was our national Dancer Laureate for a good two decades. You should also know that a side effect of having a Dancer Laureate is to convince schlubbs such as myself that we can never look as good as the guy in the white suit, so why try?
Bob Fosse didn’t help. And the cast of Cats
. All of Broadway, in fact, from West Side Story
on, conspired to keep people like me off the dance floors. And the directions dance music has taken have made matters even worse. The dance floors have turned into reserved seating and mosh pits.
No, I don’t suppose we could ever become a nation of dancers. It’s either just not in us—one of the many things the Pilgrims did not bring with them from Europe—or we have sluffed it off, embarrassed that we ever tried even when we were younger. It probably would have never become so obvious what a non-dancing people Americans have become, had not all those cameras been focused on South Africa for a week. And didn’t it look good and healthy and healing, to watch a whole nation of people come to grips with something so fundamentally tragic with the help of something so fundamentally joyous?
But it could never work here, I guess. Could we have danced away the pain of 9/11? Might we have let our arms and feet and hips pull us out the blues of Katrina? Columbine and Sandy Hook? We’ll never know.
Still, don’t you have to wonder how it might have been had Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris and Adam Lanza been out collecting groovy moves instead of assault guns? Or if we would have millions of Americans rotting away in prisons if the streets of America were a stage for spontaneous conga lines rather than hot beds for despair and gangs?
And would there even be a Tea Party if those same, stiff, repressed, frantic people—instead of marching in lock-step to the sound of their own shrieking—were out boogalooing to the rhythm of their own hearts?