Mark Watson’s most recent New Statesman column describes his angst at how suddenly everyone, everywhere, seems to be dancing — with Strictly Come Dancing, Dancing on Ice, and the new competitive shows on the BBC and Sky that are seeking out “Britain’s best dancer”:
At what point did dancing earn the right to be presented as a matter of such importance? And how come I missed the meeting?
Oh, Mark — you missed the meeting by several thousand years! I do hope you at least sent your apologies. Some minutes were taken by Hieron, the 6th-century BC painter, mostly in the form of ceramic vases.
Watson is half right when he says we’re in the midst of “the most widespread and inexplicable dancing mania in at least 400 years” — but what’s wrong with that sentence is the word “inexplicable”.
As Barbara Ehrenreich explains in her wonderful book Dancing in the Streets, dancing, music-making, dressing up (“costuming”) and taking narcotics with others are hard-wired into the human DNA.
It’s an evolutionary necessity for human beings, prefiguring speech as an agency of social interaction. In order to avoid being viciously mauled by that inconsiderate sabre-toothed tiger down the road, our ancestors had to assemble in groups larger than just the family unit, typically groups of ten to 15 people. To do this, they had to learn to get along with people they didn’t share DNA with. And so, to help them become social animals, human beings learned to dance.
In strictly Darwinian terms: dancers survived and wallflowers got EATEN BY TIGERS. (Do stop me if the science is getting too technical.)
After we learned to dance together, we learned to speak; and as time passed, we started to construct civilisations. We built roads and sanitation systems, created hierarchies and governments. Eventually, we invented glow sticks, superclubs and Bruce Forsyth.
Make it funky
The impulse to dance is ever-present in human history, lying dormant for periods and then flaring up at points when alienation from power elites becomes more acute.
In this context, the dance mania of 2010 makes perfect sense: it is literally a knee-jerk response to the sedentary shackles of our “spectacular” culture of passivity. It’s true that all of Mark Watson’s examples of dance manias are TV programmes — but we must hope this leads to more than just people wiggling their toes from the comfort of the sofa.
Certainly UK Funky, the genre-tag for some of the most exciting dance music being made in Britain right now, has become defined by its “skank” culture: this is a grass-roots movement to create and disseminate simple, choreographed manoeuvres that yell out, “For God’s sake, do try this at home!” But not just at home: in IKEA, at KFC, in clubs — at any rate, in public.
A generation of urban youth alienated from public spaces by privatisation, Asbo culture and de facto gated communities in their own backyards are now striking back. And they’re doing it feet-first.