»  National Review

October 26, 1998

  Shall We Dance?

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I confess I was prejudiced against ballroom dancing. In my mind it came under the scope of that that very useful British adjective naff: faded, dated and slightly cheesy, lacking any proper postmodern self-consciousness, any irony. The overgroomed men; the women loaded down with tulle and costume jewelry; those rigid cabin-attendant smiles … No, not something any self-respecting boomer would want to be associated with — much more Paula Jones than Hillary Clinton.

I think what got, and held, my attention was the unexpected difficulty of it. My wife and I had done a three week crash course in preparation for the Petroushka Ball, an annual charity affair given by the New York Russian community. In the event, our three weeks of application left us with only minimal skills. Much more often than not we didn't even know which step we should be doing. The only thing I felt sure of in this area was that a waltz goes boom-cha-cha; but a dismaying number of other tunes seemed to go boom-cha-cha, yet we found we couldn't waltz to them.

And there were some real dancers in the Plaza hotel that night. They were older types, mostly — children of Russian aristocrats who had fled the Bolsheviks. Nobody of our own generation seemed to know how to dance; but these elderly Tsarists were flying round the floor in a way that was undeniably impressive. You couldn't help thinking — we could see our coevals thinking — Hey, I wish I could do that.

We went back to our local studio and signed up for a full course of instruction. For the private lessons we were back in the hands of Charlie Wood, who had coached us for the ball. Charlie soon proved a gifted and imaginative teacher, with a stock of jokes, anecdotes, mnemonics, props and tricks that make every lesson an entertainment as well as a workout. Under Charlie's unblinking eye we have tackled ballroom in earnest: the gravity of the waltz, the cheery insouciance of the foxtrot, the campy flamboyance of the tango, the odd erotic sparkle of the merengue. Each dance has its own personality, its own particular appeal to the spirit.

And none of them is merely a matter of steps. Ballroom is a whole-body activity, and is judged as such. In competitive dancing, when several couples are on a small floor — as at our first competition last weekend — the judges may not even be able to see your feet. They mark on concepts like "form," "frame," and "connection." Charlie hammers away relentlessly at these abstractions, striving to make the intangible real. For "connection" he has us facing each other across a broomstick, holding it with our hands, trying to keep it still as we move. At times the skills he is imparting seem to have a metaphysical quality, as if part of some oriental religious discipline. "Arms firm, head up, shoulders back, knees slightly bent. Good: now get ready to move your center of gravity. Five, six, seven and …"

Ballroom dancing is, in fact, quite cerebral. Probably the best attribute a dancer can have — other than an appetite for endless repetitive practice — is a keen intuitive grasp of Newtonian mechanics: how objects move in space under the action of forces. Our Charlie is something of a specialist here, and is not shy of using terms like "vector" and "angular momentum" when describing a movement. After six months of this, I was not very surprised to find that a chance acquaintance in the competitors' changing room last weekend was the professor of theoretical physics at Stony Brook University. He danced a mean samba.

The presence of that professor points up another aspect of ballroom that confounded my prejudices: its social inclusiveness. George Smith, the franchisee of our local studio — it is licensed by the Arthur Murray organization — had a distinguished career in the corporate world before returning to ballroom dancing, his first love (he comes from a family of ballroom champions, and was a teenage champion himself). The racial composition of ballroom is more puzzling. Black faces are rare at the studio; yet there are plenty in the congregation of my church, three blocks away. Even odder is the absence of Hispanics, though there is a large community nearby, and half the dances we learn have South or Central American origins.

George told me this last year has been the studio's best ever. The Wednesday beginner's class is so crowded there is hardly room to do a box step. The most obvious explanation is the one offered by George himself: interest aroused by the inclusion of ballroom dancing in the 2000 Olympics (with a boost, I would like to think, from Masayuki Suo's beautiful movie Shall We Dance). I believe there is something else going on, though.

To me, as to most who came of age in the sixties and seventies, "dancing" meant aimless solitary jiggling — the physiodynamic equivalent of free verse. ("Free verse?" muttered G.K. Chesterton. "You may as well call sleeping in a ditch 'free architecture'.") Such incoherence cannot satisfy the human spirit for long. There is, I think, a growing hunger for form and formality, for difficulty, for discipline, for structure. Similarly, I think a generation that grew up watching videos or hunched over computer screens feels a pull toward the leisured company of their fellow men. Such company must always be centered on some common activity — dining, drinking, gambling. Of all the available possibilities, dancing is the most healthful, the most fun to watch, and the most conducive to cheerful socializing and the mingling of the sexes. It is no accident that half the key scenes in the great nineteenth-century social novels, from Jane Austen to Tolstoy, are set in ballrooms.

Whether ballroom dancing is really coming back for good, I do not know; but if it does not, a great many people will have missed out on a great deal of harmless fun, and civilization will have lost another small battle to barbarism.