Can’t dance, won’t dance

Among the fragments of school history left in my brain is the phenomenon of St Vitus's Dance. At various times during the Middle Ages, groups of people succumbed to what is now called choreomania - the overwhelming desire to dance. By all accounts, the craze is best explained as a physiological response to hardship, bound up with the different religious and superstitious assumptions of days gone by. In other words, it could never happen again.

And yet it has. A visitor to earth studying television schedules would almost certainly conclude that dancing was the single most important human activity. There's Strictly Come Dancing and Dancing on Ice. Meanwhile, the BBC has made a show where members of the public compete to be Britain's best dancer, while on Sky 1 other members of the public compete to be, er, Britain's best dancer.

The nation is in the grip of the most widespread and inexplicable dancing mania in at least 400 years. For a confirmed non-dancer like myself, this is all very alarming. Don't get me wrong, it's not a case of snobbery towards reality TV: I'm as fond as anyone of a minor-celebrities-trying-to-become-actual-celebrities showdown. (I owed my own appearance on Mastermind to an unusually generous interpretation of the word "celebrity".) But the seriousness of it all is peculiar and alarming. The judges glower at the dancers as if they were a jury asked to weigh up a murder case. They deliver crushing verdicts: "You don't have any Latin flair at all"; "Your hands are all over the place."

At what point did dancing earn the right to be presented as a matter of such importance? And how come I missed the meeting?

That's the crux of the matter for me: self-preservation. To put it politely, I can't dance - and not in the sneaky, disingenuous, suddenly-realised-I'm-quite-good-at-this way of the people who appear on Strictly Come Dancing. I mean I literally can't, and won't, dance. The few bits of dancing I've ever attempted have been so bad that my wife has prohibited me from ever trying it again.

There is no place for me in the dance-oriented new world order. In the coming survival of the funkiest, I'll be picked off straight away, no doubt with an uptight lady making disparaging remarks about my foxtrot.

So this is a plea for sense. Let's demote dancing from the position it's managed to occupy, back to the "very occasionally and only when drunk" box where it belongs (along with other regrettable, alcohol-fuelled habits such as kebab-eating and making unsubstantiated claims of sexual prowess). If we carry on like this, it'll be the 16th century all over again. You know what they say: those who do not learn from history are destined to do the paso doble. I can't issue a direr warning than that.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.