Why Not Dance?

I've been thinking more about the Chesterton post, inspired by AVI's generous gift, and the question of why dancing seems to have dropped away from the repertoire of normal things a man ought to be able to do. I know plenty of men who can dance, of course, but it is no longer one of the basic skills of manhood: my father didn't dance either, and nor did my uncle, and nor did many of the best young men I knew when I was a young man myself.

Here are two videos that I think may explain the shift. The first one is from Fort Apache, starring Henry Fonda and John Wayne. In this scene the fort commander is being asked to dance with the Sergeant Major's wife, having just given grave insult to the Sergeant Major's family. It is a moment in which the formal and ritual come to the rescue of the society when it is endangered by passionate emotions. The commanding officer looks askance at the request, but recognizes his duty and carries it out with vigor. Watch the Sergeant Major, too, dancing with the daughter of his commanding officer (played by Shirley Temple). Look how far apart they dance, but how pleasantly. Though she is a much younger woman, and he a married man, there is no danger of this action being misinterpreted as otherwise than joyous and appropriate. The dancing is, however, quite stiff by our contemporary standards.

The second scene is a really artful piece from A Knight's Tale. What I like about this scene is that it smoothly morphs about halfway through the dance from the Medieval formal dance to a contemporary sort of dancing. The director intends you to see that the formality, which might look alien and weird to a contemporary American, is really carrying the same sort of eroticism and pleasure that we expect from dances today. Yet you can't avoid the contrast, either, between the dance with steps and elaborate forms and the dance without either. The transition is really a transition, even though the director is quite right to say that dancing was also an erotic activity for the young even when it was formalized.

I think there may be something here to do with the loss of the form. Speaking for myself, I was taught to waltz, but none of the young women I knew wanted to waltz. Their favorite dances were more like the second dance of the second video. But the advantage to a formal dance is that you can know you're doing it correctly, which avoids embarrassment and public shame. The same spirited young men who are most interested in honor -- what I called "the best young men I knew" -- are also most driven to avoid shame. The new dances put them at grave risk of having their intentions toward the lady misinterpreted or misrepresented, of physical error and looking a fool, or of banging into someone else and thereby giving offense.

So dancing gets dropped from the repertoire of the young gentleman. There's no point in dancing without the ladies, and the ladies want to do a sort of dancing that he can't do without risking shame. That is too bad because, as the first video shows, it was a form capable both of giving pleasure and easing social interactions. Done correctly, that is -- but that means there has to be a correct way to do it. The informality is the enemy of those goods.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would love to learn to waltz. But time constraints, and a lack of a partner, tend to get in the way. I used to do cailigh dancing (aka Irish aerobics) when I lived in the Atlanta area. You can see where American contra-dancing and square-dance got some of their start.