That Old Devil Called Dance

After catching two of the best gigs of the spring season at the splendid and still quite new Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, the home now of the world famous Halle Orchestra, I was prompted to think about dance and dancing and its present status in England, specifically, but in the Anglo-Saxon West, more generally. I had not been attending a symphonic concert on either occasion, but rather, performances of quite a different sort.

The first visit to the venue saw one-time Talking Head David Byrne unravel his quixotic, world rock: angular sounds wrought from New York and South America, Italy and North Africa. A little while after, Joe Zawinul, the keyboard giant who once co-led the magnificent Weather Report, unveiled a similarly eclectic evening of pleasures: Congolese chants, Indian ragas, and mariachi horns melded in an extraordinary collage of prog funk.

You can sense that both Byrne and Zawinul’s repertoires were riddled with the rhythms of possibility: infectious intersections of beat and swing. And, at the Byrne event, after a handful of numbers, the fans in the stalls began to filter forward, moving and grooving to the band. Efforts to restore the dancers to their seats, first by gentle request and then via the more threatening presence of a muscular bouncer, proved impotent. One and two were quickly joined by 10 and 20, and the audience were speedily on their feet around the hall.

A couple of weeks later the Joe Zawinul Syndicate took only minutes to find a similar pulse: a six-piece ensemble recruited from the five continents of the globe locked into rolling polyrhythms. Yet, this being jazz, a different social code prevailed. Not one punter rose from his seat; not one observer made that challenging move to bridge the gap between performer and audience and provide a physical response to these captivating sounds. The security staff was able to enjoy a quiet night.

Such examples provide a useful insight into the symbolic nature of dance: that loosening of the limbs, that ritual of courtship, that emblem of the libido, is still barely acceptable in most social situations. Okay, a wedding celebration might see a trans-generational melange of old and young moving in drink-tinged revelry. But dancing, in so many situations, still represents something that is threatening, in some way, to civilisation’s natural order: the uncoiling of our trussed-up desires played out in public, a triumph of the visceral over the cerebral, the unwelcomed victory of the hip over the head.

This curious state of affairs, the ongoing Puritan hegemony, this WASP-ish legacy, is perhaps why dance culture in the 20th century was continually a target of social outrage. From the Jazz Age to swing, from rock’n’roll to the discotheque, from hippie freaks to pogoing punks, from the b-boys and rave clubs to the moshpit of the grunge generation, the ways in which the young have moved to the sounds they embrace have all too frequently raised the temperature of the moral arbiters.

Of course, there have been dance forms that the Establishment has granted cultural capital. By the end of the 19th century, the waltz and the foxtrot, then the quickstep and the military two-step, had become the currency of social exchange between respectable men and women. While these styles permitted physical contact between the participants, their rigid, restrained and passionless forms neutered any notion of the sexual.

But there were some extraordinary explosions of expression around the Western world, as the Victorian age stumbled into the era of modernity. In the couple of decades after 1900, a number of crucibles of creativity rejected the older formalities. In the cities of New Orleans, Buenos Aries, Lisbon and Athens, remarkably vibrant scenes emerged quite independently, spawning novel brands of music and dance.

These urban hotbeds, breeding jazz and tango, fado and rebetiko, were the product of various shared influences. All seaports, these bustling communities exhibited a richness of race and tradition where artistic inter-marriage spawned hybrid musicality. The African Diaspora, what academic Paul Gilroy has dubbed “the Black Atlantic”, was crucial to the emerging practices of those US, Argentinean and Portuguese centres; for the Greek eruption we could look to a Middle Eastern influx, too.

The seeds of these challenges to the socio-cultural orthodoxy were all fertilised in the back streets, bars, brothels and bodegas of young cities coming to terms with a genuinely new world: the rise of mass industry, growing populations, the phonograph, the cinema, the popular cabaret, and so on. Changing times brought radically altered responses: the older order of a controlling church and state was under assault and would decline dramatically in the era that followed.

And the new entertainments, with their links to black or native influences connoting the primitive and the tribal, the earthy and the sexual, would quickly become signifiers of this unfolding revolution. In the US, exotic musical voices — jazz, ragtime, the Blues — sired exuberant dances such as the Charleston and the turkey trot, as both whites and blacks, though hardly together, stepped out to a plethora of unusual syncopations. Nor was it only in the ports we have mentioned was the catalyst of change firing: by the 1920s, New York and London and most notably in Paris, where negritude became a cult, saw even the greatest cities falling to the lure of this unrestrained pulse, thrilling its participants and shocking its critics.

My friend and colleague Vic Gammon drew recent attention to the vigour with which Cecil Sharp, the renowned British folklorist, critiqued the emergence of this new wave. “These dances, popularly and collectively known as jazz, came to us heavily charged with Negroid characteristics, presumably contracted in the Southern States of North America, and associated with a very distinctive type of syncopated, or rag-time music,” he said, “The sawing movements of the arms, the restless, vibratory shakings of the shoulders and the close embrace, the merciless tom-tom rhythm and the clatter of the music, all of which may be traced to Negro influence . . . ” (C. Sharp and A P Oppé 1924 The Dance: An Historical Survey of Dancing in Europe British Academy Fellows Archive, 1924)

“Had it not been for the unsettlement of mind, manners and habits, which followed in the train of the Great War, and the fact that at the moment this was the only available dance with which to satisfy the craze for dancing, which set in after the Armistice, it is permissible to doubt whether a dance of so inferior, and in its early forms so objectionable a type, would have gained a foothold in this country,” was Sharp’s cutting take in 1924.

Zooming forward, little has changed: the moves may adapt to the modes of the day but the same battle lines of exuberance and horror are drawn. In the last two decades, the very act of dance has taken on a particular significance, a special place in the mythology of adolescent life. It has, in simple terms, become more than just leisure pursuit and re-emerged as a subcultural practice in its own right.

In fact, dance, since the mid-1980s, has been frequently encoded with the transgressive tendencies that might once have haunted early jazz, the first sightings of rock ‘n’ roll and certainly the feverish flowerings of punk. With its own network of scenes, fashions, drugs, and musical heroes who merely spin records, this world has broken ranks from pop and rock as we know it. It is subversive in the sense that it rejects the usual notions of artistry and superstardom, which makes it difficult for the major labels’ star-making machinery to control it. Cult DJs and producers call the shots rather than A&R men; performers lurk in the shadows, switching identity from disc to disc and therefore sustaining an air of mystery even anonymity. The music, rather than megalomania, still appears to be at the core of this activity.

Disco, club culture’s ageing stepfather, began with similar subterranean tendencies. In the early ’70s, blacks, gays and women, disenfranchised by the white, phallocentric rampaging of progressive rock, created underground clubs by the dozen in Manhattan where moving on the dance-floor was the principal obsession. Without the movie Saturday Night Fever, disco may not have become a global epidemic — white boys, in the shape of the Bee Gees, appropriating black sounds, in an oft-repeated pattern, and transmuting them into pure platinum. Yet the club culture that followed — embracing house and techno and the tougher Hi-NRG of the gay circuit — has largely kept the mainstream at arm’s length.

From Detroit and Chicago via London and Manchester, Berlin and the Balearics, the dancers of today leap to a hundred different sub-genres: ambient, acid house, drum’n’bass, jungle, handbag, hardbag, garage and so on. Only the imagination of the mixers and scratchers, movers and shakers limits the possibilities and for almost 20 years the hybrids have multiplied.

With this fragmented, many-headed movement has come the outrage that accompanied most of the other dance fads that riddled recent times and, I guess, when dancers rise out of their seats at a mainstream venue like the Bridgewater, there is a knee-jerk response and a fearful one: if the multitude gets to its feet, inhibitions are released and a riot, maybe insurrection, will follow. But I don’t envy the security team their task as summer arrives. The very same hall welcomes the two godheads of that irresistible form called funk in the coming weeks. And when James Brown and George Clinton strut their stuff, there will not, I’m certain, be a seated spectator in the house.