My mother likes dance, and she was sufficiently unconcerned by gender stereotypes, in the late 70s and early 80s when I was a kid, to believe that her son would also like dance if he was taken to see enough as a little boy. In general she was right, but there were a few occasions when being taken to the ballet was an inscrutable and tedious experience and I was restless enough in my seat to be snippishly shushed.
On the plus side of the dance ledger I got to see a lot of live ballet, contemporary and flamenco dancing when I was growing up. Some of it has stayed with me for thirty years. Nureyev has stayed with me, and Garth Fagan Bucket Dance, and Carlos Sauras’s Carmen, and Douglas Wright’s Gloria are the things that come to mind immediately. There were times when I thought I would like to do ballet, but this never amounted to anything, and I channelled my interest into watching Fame and Flashdance like many people my age in the 80s (mostly girls if I am honest).
For my twelfth birthday I went to see White Nights which is not a very well-known movie because it isn’t very good, but it does feature Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing long before he made a dick of himself in Sex in the City as a third rate Mr Big. The movie also featured Lionel Richie’s last really popular song Say You, Say Me. People (which people?) might disagree with this statement because the towering majesty of Dancing on the Ceiling lay ahead in 1986 but I am of the humble opinion that Dancing on the Ceiling is a horrendous piece of crap. Anyway, I loved White Nights because it had dancing in it, and good pop music (Lionel Richie and Phil Collins!), and it had the whole Cold War plot line. The Cold War, like the Rubik’s Cube, was very fashionable in the 80s.
Mainly because my mother probably hasn’t seen it, here is… well, this:
2. The Teenage Years
By the time I was at secondary school my mother and I lived in Raumati Beach. My mother worked in Wellington, 50kms down the coast, so I often had a window of time in the morning and after school when I was at home by myself. If my life had been a Hollywood movie I think I would have used this time to experiment with smoking, drugs, and alcohol, or to have a secret girlfriend, or to have parties. What I actually did, for quite a few years, was go down to the living room, turn on the stereo, put on an LP, and pretend I was on stage.
There were two phases in this period:
The Jarre Phase – If you’re going to pretend to be Jean Michel Jarre performing on stage you are essentially going to be standing in one place simulating stroking a variety of synthesiser keys or pushing sequencing buttons. I like to imagine now what I would have looked like if I had been a stranger standing on the front lawn where the music couldn’t be heard looking back through the living room window. Possibly like a boy pretending to play a synthesiser, but probably like a person performing some strange, repetitive hand dance to call the spirits of the carpet forth.
The Prince Phase – The advantage of pretending you are Prince over Jarre is that Prince plays the guitar and you can move around if you play the guitar so you actually end up dancing. You end up dancing with the strange prop of an imaginary guitar held in your hands, and weird interludes where you play epic air guitar solos (Let’s Go Crazy), but the rest of the time you can do some boogieing. It is a step forward.
The Air Guitar
I have spent hundreds of hours playing imaginary guitars and I can tell you it is undoubtedly satisfying to the addict. Something about knowing the notes ahead of time and being able to demonstrate your knowledge of this (that’s the show off music nerd component), and also being able to show how you feel about the music through a variety of facial grimaces is – and I don’t know why this would be – deeply pleasing. The only difficulty comes when you are at a party and people are dancing and you somehow end up on the dance floor and instead of doing what normal people call dancing you keep wanting to revert to the purity of the air guitar hand dancing of your youth. Girls come over briefly and look at you funny and move away because there really is no way you can dance with a dude in the middle of re-enacting the solo of Purple Rain (which is a freakin’ awesome song to air guitar to).
So whatever my feelings about American Sniper there will always be a place in my heart for Bradley Cooper because of the performance below – a powerful insight into the mind of a certain kind of man – a kind of man that I am. The most satisfying thing for Bradley about this performance must be (I don’t actually know this, we haven’t talked about it, but I’m guessing) that it is actually a massive “in your face” to all those people who sneer at air guitarists for wasting their time. In these three minutes Bradley uses all those “wasted” hours to fulfill every adolescent air guitarist’s ultimate fantasy in which they are called on to use every ounce of their memory and passion and cool to entertain a hugely appreciative crowd with only their bare hands. This is the imaginary scenario all air guitarists one day hope to find themselves in. I am still waiting for mine.
At university I would sometimes go to parties and people would sometimes dance. I didn’t. I was too self-conscious. I didn’t dance at my school ball, and I didn’t dance at university parties. For the 20 something New Zealand male I think this was normal but sad. Being almost 42 now I think I would like to have come from a culture where men did dance; where dancing was as normal as having a conversation at a party. Men, in my experience, in the 90s in New Zealand, usually ended up standing around in the kitchen drinking and talking. If a “good” song came on in the other room there might be a burst of air guitar from one of the young men to which some of the other young men would nod appreciatively, but there would be no dancing. I would like to partly blame Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder. At least Rage Against the Machine encouraged you to thrash your head around until your brain trickled out your ears.
A handful of times during uni and afterwards I have ended up in dance clubs. In a different version of myself I would have been really, really into the club scene. The few times I have been to a club it has been hard for me to stop dancing, and I never feel the need to drink except for litres of water. Dancing makes you feel good all by its self. Being in a club also makes sense of a whole genre of music. Sometimes people play you dance or club music outside a club and for me the experience is always the same. The first minute sounds really cool, and then it becomes so repetitive that I get bored. The same song when you are at a club however is likely to be wonderful because instead of just sitting and paying silent homage to the production values you are able to respond with your whole body, and the repetition of the music enables your body to respond in an endless number of ways.
When I say a handful of times I mean it. Fewer then five times in my life have I danced at a club. Why? In my younger days I suppose it was the dreaded, debilitating self-consciousness, and now I suspect it is my age. No one wants to see a 40 something, bald, bespectacled man at a club. Clubs are for the young, but dance is for us all, at all ages, in all countries and all cultures. Through this particular time of not dancing I still have a whole set of movies that I remember primarily for a dance scene as if, after all the words, and speeches, and drama, the cleanest way to say something is through dance.
Now that I am in the middle of middle age my dancing is restricted to private dancing (not that kind, Tina), and dancing with my kids, because it must be almost universal that all kids love to dance. The fact that humanity is programmed to dance from infancy is quite wonderful. Picasso said something about all children being born artists and the difficulty of them not being taught out of it. The same can be said about dance I think. And drama. For some girls dance can be encouraged and nurtured because it is something “girls like to do” but for boys it remains a very, very rare pursuit. A boy who can survive adolescence with their identity as a dancer intact is unusual in our supposedly liberal-minded and tolerant society.
I’ve always been sensitive to this because I think I was brought up to like dance and I accepted liking dance as normal. My mother was a huge fan of Nureyev and I followed in her footsteps. To me it was not unusual to watch a man wearing not very much express the full range of emotions through dance. I quickly learned that commenting on this was “not done”. If I said that Nureyev, for example, was beautiful it was taken as an indication of homosexuality. I actually have had what you call confusing feelings about my sexuality, but not in the way that you might think. I have been confused by the idea that men can’t admire other men’s beauty, to the point that we even have to use another word: handsome. I have found that confusing. But this has all been handled with more intellectual rigour than I by Stewart, B. & Clement, J. in their seminal work Bret, You Got It Going On.
It’s a great thing to dance. It’s not something that I have ever really explored properly about my own identity, and I am unlikely to now I suppose (I dislike ballroom dancing so don’t suggest I take it up). I would love for my daughters to keep dancing, but who knows where life takes the interests of your childhood. One thing is true, it is very, very hard to keep dancing as you get out of childhood and enter your teenage years. There are too many other things. There are always too many other things. It’s true that you are very unlikely to get a job dancing even if you love dancing, but if you keep dancing, even a little bit, it might make you happy for the rest of your life.