Dancing is one of those things men are of two minds about: On the one hand, it is far too easy to seem effeminate or foolish when dancing in the eyes of your peers. On the other hand, it’s fun, and it lets you get close to women. It seems, then, that the pros outweigh the cons, as long as you do it right. You need to have self-confidence and own the situation. Men respect a guy who looks like he knows what he’s doing, and chicks dig confidence. Dancing, then, is a path to greater things, social acceptance, and a generally good time.
I’m probably one of the most uptight men of my generation. I had a rather Victorian upbringing, WASPish in its prudishness. I’ve fought against that for most of my adult life, but the results have been a mixed bag. That said, I would lay some small claim to being able to dance. A few weeks ago a female friend of mine –well into her cups– leaned across the table and slurred with great enthusiasm and sincerity, “You can dance, Geoff Micks! I mean, properly dance!”
I’ve been ruminating on that unlikely statement ever since, and now that I have it worked out into a narrative, I should probably put it up on this blog for you to enjoy.
I was first introduced to dancing at the age of five or six. My mother would put on a cassette of the Beach Boys’ greatest hits, and I learned to box step around the kitchen floor. I imagine it was adorable. Those lessons, combined with children’s programming, led me to believe that dancing was about knowing the steps assigned to a given piece of music. It was a simple mistake, and a hard truth I still begrudge the present: People don’t care about formal dancing the way they used to.
My first experience dancing with a girl of my own age came around the fifth or sixth grade. My public school arranged dances, and I loved them. Two or three times a year from the fifth through eight grades, you dressed up nice, and your Friday afternoon was spent in the gymnasium with your classmates with the lights down low, and music making it almost impossible to speak. Politics and demographics played a huge role back then. Most of the music catered to the chaperones: The baby boomer teachers wanted to hear the Oldies, and that suited me fine. I was raised on the Oldies. I was in the Fourth Grade before I even knew Generation X produced music of its own. Anyway, that’s a story for another time. Let’s just say a working knowledge of the music at hand gave me a small advantage over my male classmates.
Another boon for me in those early days was my class: There were forty of us. Only eight were boys, and three of those were from families whose religious affiliations discouraged dancing with non-believers. Even as lowest ranking boy in my grade, I had my pick of the second string of girls, and the first string from the grade below me. Just as an aside, there was nothing wrong with the ‘second string’ of girls: I use the term only to divide the girls who were ‘cool enough’ to play sports with the boys at recess from the rest. Early bloomers and athletes were in the first string, and out of my league. I could ask anyone else to dance without fear of rejection. My dance card was always full. Boys in my class never got a chance to play the wall flower.
It was something of a disappointment, then, when I learned that my generation’s early take on dance was one of slow, lazy circles. Girls put their hands on your shoulders, and yours rested on either their waists or upper hips. If you were in the darkest corner of the gym and you were ‘dating’ –for whatever that’s worth at twelve years old- you might be able to sneak your hands around to the small of the girl’s back or even a little further down, but that was generally frowned upon. You also stood apart at all times except on the last slow song of the dance. Roughly six inches –‘For Jesus’ the joke went—was considered the appropriate distance.
School dances in those days were a fun diversion, and a good chance to maneuver through the confusing minefield of the social hierarchy, but aside from the occasional Twist Again Like We Did Last Summer or Macarena, all I really learned was to control how quickly or slowly a couple drifts around a dance floor.
High School & the Air Cadets
High School was actually something of a step back from grade school dances, in my opinion. My school didn’t have many of them because they were generally poorly attended. From a student body of sixteen hundred, less than two hundred showed up to any given dance. I think I went to two in five years, and I actually enjoy dancing. Not that there was a lot of dancing going on. Grunge and Alternative are for listening to, not dancing. You could return to the couples’ lazy circling of grade school if you had a girl friend, but I was single throughout secondary school. Still, there’s music playing, and a group of people, and thus I was introduced to that horror of single men: Dancing in a circle.
Dancing in a circle is the foundation of modern dance. I would estimate three quarters of all dancing going on in non-Latin clubs today is dancing in a circle. Women think it’s a great idea: All your friends face each other in a ring and move to the music. You aren’t dancing with anyone. You’re dancing with everyone! It’s non-threatening, active, fun. Men hate dancing in a circle. You’re not dancing with anyone. You’re dancing by yourself, and the circle seems to watch you as you do it. You feel self-conscious. Are you moving too much? Too little? How can you draw the eye of the woman across from you that you seek to impress? It took me a long time to figure out some ground rules to it, and I will tell them in their place. For the time being let me just say High School was a low point when it comes to dancing, with two exceptions.
The first was an experience I had through the Air Cadets. I was in the Air Cadets for seven years, and they had a couple of dances during that time with middling success. It was nice to interact with everyone out of uniform, but the whole thing was still largely a victim of the same forces at work in high school dances. Plus, there was at least a two to one guy to girl ratio in the cadets, and I wasn’t the outgoing, popular fellow I eventually became. I can’t recall learning too much at the local squadron functions.
No, my fondest experience of dancing until I went to university comes from my time at the six-week Senior Leadership Course in Cold Lake, Alberta. We worked excruciatingly long and hard all week, and on Friday nights –provided we had no demerits and hadn’t fallen out of formation for something as paltry as heat stroke—we were allowed three precious hours of free time in civilian clothes (civvies) to attend a dance at the Canadian Forces base’s club. Six hundred kids (less the penalized and weak) packed onto a dance floor big enough for perhaps half that number and tried to squeeze every iota of fun out of every second of it. You didn’t get a chance to dance in a circle. The crush was too great. This was also my first introduction to break dancing: Something I recommend to no one. Those who are great at it don’t need to hear anything from me. Those who would seek to imitate them… I saw a guy try to do the worm and spend a week on crutches. He’s lucky he wasn’t sent home on a RTU (Return to Unit) as unfit. In the cadets that was derisively called RTM (Return to Momma). Break dancing is not for the majority of humanity. It’s a spectator sport, and I have nothing to contribute to it in this blog.
Still, I was talking about the triumph of the SLC’s dances, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention their crowning glory: When we graduated in August of 1999 we were taught the SLC Shuffle, a frenetic form of line dancing done to the Stars on 45 Beatles Medley, taught to every graduating class for decades that binds all Alumni together:
We shuffled for hours. We shuffled with the kind of perfect synchronization only hundreds of kids trained for weeks in grueling precision drill and iron discipline could possibly shuffle. The SLC shuffle takes each participant back and forth through a path two feet wide and fifteen long, then the whole thing changes orientation and repeats ad-glorious-nauseum. It must have been a sight to behold for the DJ, like a flock of starlings swirling up out of the cornfields at sundown. I felt a thousand feet tall. It was the happiest day of my life up to that point.
The second high point of dancing in my teens was Prom. Prom was the only high school dance I ever heard of that was attended by people who showed up eager to get on the dance floor. It helped that most of them were there as couples. Hell, I even managed a date –Two, if you count a friend of mine who flew in from British Columbia and poached me off the girl I was escorting. One of the lessons I took away from Prom is that if you dress for the occasion, you get into the spirit of things. The second lesson, which I firmed up once I got to university, is that women are as eager to dance with men as men are to dance with women. Circle dancing is something that happens among people who haven’t arranged anything ahead of time. Couples are the natural way of things when you go to a dance with the intention of actually enjoying yourself.
The two important things I’ve really learned about dancing by this point are that you have to do it with enthusiasm, and you have to do it with self-confidence. Everything falls into place with those attitudes as your foundation.
When I got to university I decided to shed my introverted persona. It wasn’t doing me any favours, after all. A big part of that transformation was going to dances, and I was pleased to find they weren’t nearly as bad as high school. My university did an annual dance at the beginning and end of each semester, along with one or two more per semester for some special occasion. Plus, once you demonstrated your willingness to go dancing, a lot of people’s birthday parties included a pilgrimage to Toronto’s many and varied clubs. Every dance I went to sold out. Every dance I went to was attended with enthusiasm and self-confidence.
My first real experience with dancing as a university social institution came during my first year’s Snowball. I went stag, but I chatted up a Japanese student with the fifteen or twenty polite conversation pieces I’d learned phonetically from James Clavell’s opus, Shogun. When she tried to carry on a conversation in her own language I would just shake my head and say, “Wakerimasen.” “I don’t understand.” She would clap her hands in delight. It turns out her high school back in Japan was an all girls’ school, and she desperately wanted to dance with a tall white boy who knew how to say please, thank you, and sorry in her native tongue. When the music started she pulled me by the hand out onto the dance floor, and she never let me sit down. I was wearing a pair of my father’s shoes, two sizes too small, and I found out a few months later that I actually broke a bone along the top of my foot. It was worth it, though. Some memories are worth a little bit of discomfort.
Over the next few years I learned several important things about dancing that have kept me in good stead to this day.
First, on circle dancing:
You only look like an idiot if you feel like an idiot. Don’t do anything that makes you feel silly. Keep your hands below elbow level, but not stiff at your sides. You can put them in the air on the chorus if the spirit takes you. Listen to the music. Find the base line. If you move one heel or toe up and down to that beat, the rest of your body is moving in time naturally. Use your other foot to do the same two or three movements rhythmically, never actually moving the foot more than five or six inches from its starting point. Every half-dozen repetitions, throw in an aberrant movement from knee, hip, hand or shoulder, in-synch to a high or low point in the song. Every time a song goes to a bridge, switch feet to avoid stiffening up. Move your head either forward and backwards or side to side in time with the beat of your base line foot while keeping your chin roughly level. That’s important: You’re not nodding or shaking your head. That’s a totally different motion.
Most important of all, smile like you’re enjoying yourself.
If you do all these things, you are dancing as well as any white man without formal training can in a circle. Not only do you not draw negative attention to yourself, but the more awkward of your peers will try to figure out how you look so natural. I’ve actually been asked how I do it. It may sound complicated, but it’s also fairly mindless. Once you start, it comes very naturally. You’re moving in all the right ways without effort. It’s much more relaxed that just standing there while everyone else dances, and it’s much less embarrassing than when you try to stand out by trying to reinvent the wheel. The steady participation also insures your place in the circle. Men, we’ve all been there: The circle shifts, and now not only are you dancing by yourself, but you’re dancing towards the backs of your friends. How did this happen? Because you weren’t an integral part of the circle. Circle dancing is not ideal, but if you do it right it’s easy and fun. Try it.
Second, on grinding:
Grinding isn’t my particular scene, but it happens a lot in a club atmosphere, and I’ve done it often enough to know some dos and don’ts. The primary rule is that grinding is all about self-confidence. You have to initiate it, and you have to do it without thinking for one moment that this is going to end in rejection. Start with eye contact, and move in from over her shoulder. Start at the hip, but once you’re in, you can go anywhere with it. She only has the first moments of contact to withdraw and reject you, after that you’re grinding. Honestly, women do not view grinding in the same sense men do. To a man, it borders very much on a vertical, musically accompanied version of making out on a couch. Once you’re in, you can put your hands pretty much anywhere without too much fuss. Always make sure some part of you between the waist and the knee is in contact with her, and you’re good. At some point before the end of the song you must decide to disengage, or go in for a dance-floor make out session. If you figure out how to make that fly, blog about it. I have no idea. Grinding done well has no greater repercussions on a male-female friendship than waltzing. Women somehow view it as an acceptable thing done in the moment. The one rule, though, always, is self-confidence. Know it’s going to happen, and go for it. The other rule, of course, is if you try it and find yourself rejected, for the love of God stop. That’s the point where her friends are allowed to pull you off her, and then you deserve everything that’s coming to you before the bouncer pitches them in righteous indignation out onto the street.
Third, choice of company:
If you’re going out dancing, who you go with is key. There are (a very few) women who don’t like dancing. I took one of those to a formal dance once, and I spent the whole night at the table keeping her company. That evening was ended by the worst kiss of my young life, and she dumped me two days later by phone –on my birthday– while I was in a crowded room on a day where three essays came due. I’m not saying that happens every time you take a girl dancing who doesn’t like dancing, but grant me that once was enough for me to learn my lesson and caution you lest a similar fate befalls you.
The flip side of that is the girl who likes to dance too much. Oh, yes: They exist. In my last year of university I was involved in the residence student council. We arranged a campus Frosh, concluding with a dry pub dance night. At midnight my contract to not corrupt the first years expired, and I started going around asking how old they were. There was a bar just up the road, and it was karaoke night. I felt I was doing them a public service if they were of drinking age to take them to a better party. Anyway, I approach one well-endowed young woman in a low-cut blouse, and I asked her how old she was. “How old do you want me to be?” was her reply, as she leaned forward and shook her shoulders in a way that Newton’s laws of motion could work with. I remembered at that point a prior conversation during which she had professed her true age to me, and I ceased all activities that could be called encouraging.
Men can dance with an ulterior motive. Hell, men can drink a glass of water with an ulterior motive. We have women quite literally hard-wired into our brains. It’s the nature of our gender, and a woman of my generation has spent her life developing all the tools necessary to deal with all the elements of a man’s interest on the dance floor. On the other hand, women who use dance to achieve their own goals are dangerous, because they’re already pretty well equipped to achieve their aims before they place us in a situation that is outside our comfort zone. Don’t dance with a woman who wants you to do something you don’t want to do. That’s all I’m going to say on that point. That, and I’m too pretty to go to prison…
The middle ground of undesirable dancing companions lies among those who think they’re too cool to dance. They’ll come out with you onto the dance floor, but they’ll spend the entire time looking around with disdain and moving as little as possible. It is nearly impossible to cajole these people into looking like they’re having a good time, and that will reflect poorly upon you. These people are sometimes easily mistaken for the uninitiated. Ten minutes of encouragement is all anyone should get. If they’re still standing there with a proverbial rod up their nethers, cut them loose and find someone who likes to shake a tail feather.
Since graduation I have refined my understanding of modern dance somewhat. I’m not a kid anymore, and part of growing up is setting new rules upon the things you used to do for fun. Maybe that’s just my Victorian upbringing, but it feels right to me.
First, you are almost always dancing for a specific reason.
If you are on a date, you are there to dance as a couple. Whatever you do, don’t fall back on those days of lazy circling. Know a couple of steps, and, if you don’t, improvise. With fast music, always try to maintain at least hand contact. With slow music put one hand in the small of her back and hold her other hand just below her shoulder level. Dip and spin where appropriate, but not to excess. At all times, show your partner attention.
If, on the other hand, you’re there as part of a party, you are not encouraged to couple off. Birthday parties and the like are meant to be enjoyed in the group, and that means the circle. Dancing can also take a back seat to drinking. Take your cue from the host. Make no passes and grind on no one. Post-graduation, your circle of friends closes in. Don’t rock any boats with a college stunt unless you’re sure it’s that kind of party.
If you are at a social event that is outside your immediate social circle, try to pair off with a woman who has no escort. Chat her up first, and be polite. Avoid the circle if at all possible. If she joins one, face only her, and at the soonest opportunity take her hand and draw her close. Women expect a man to lead. Be careful of her feet, and know exactly where her hips are in relation to yours. If they line up at a distance of less than eighteen inches, she’s yours for the night unless you drop the ball.
That’s it. That’s what I’ve got at twenty-seven, and it’s not a bad collection of hard-learned lessons. Most important: Self-confidence and enthusiasm. Walk tall. Enjoy yourself. Smile. You’re there to have fun, and damned if you aren’t going to have it. Dancing really isn’t hard at all. When you’re doing it right, it’s effortless. If you learn nothing else from this long, rambling essay, you can muddle through with that lesson alone.