Tools for being Human, part four: Dancing


I’ve always had a complicated relationship with dancing. I don’t think there is anything I’ve ever felt so embarrassed doing, so many times, yet still felt a compulsion to repeat. Not even skateboarding. But I’m writing about a hundred things that help me feel human, not a hundred things I’m really good at. And there are times that moving to the rhythm, has a power to lift me beyond troubles, over hurdles, and beyond the reach of apathy. But there are other times that I stand on the edge of the dance floor and something inside me won’t allow my soul release.

I think key to understanding my schizophrenic response to the tempo is to map my rhythm-enthusiasm against my self-confidence. On the courageous evenings when my assurance is firm, my rhythmic libido is freely exposed. On the darker nights of the soul, during those long hours in which I suspect I was placed on this earth as a lesson to others, there’s no way this fool should be on the d-floor. No one should have to bear witness to an uncommitted dancer.

I guess I should take time to understand how I came to this perplexing state. Maybe it is time for a little journey through my history with dance.

The Waltz

Ballroom dancing lessons. Who the feck decided the best way to prepare me for the real world was to force me into such a blush summoning, sweaty handed, gender-based Mexican stand-off? Thirty eight boys along one wall, thirty-nine girls along the other. Acne, quavering voices, levels of anxiety off the emotional Richter scale. Ok, ok, within all that terror and unrequited adrenaline there are slivers of excitement. The slow building drums of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”, those few, thin moments in which a girl approaches me, just before hope gives way to suspicion she’s acting under the power of a dare.

But it was in these sessions that I learnt of the fragility of hope. And that my ego was equally delicate. And that people I barely knew had the ability to fracture either with a simple, uncaring rejection. Films and television had intimated that my first dance would a series of stuttering moments, mis-steps with a soundtrack of mutual giggles. My hand held gently against the fabric of the back of her dress, her eyes and mine sharing brief glances. Reality delivered a sweaty angst-fest that very nearly put me off The Dance forever. It is only in writing this that I realise hip hop might well have saved me.

The Backspin

This was it, the phenomenon that let me believe dancing might actually be a legit part of my existence. Break dancing had “cool” accessories: a slice of metre-square  linoleum, an aunty-crafted  set of purple MC Hammer pants, a hand decorated ghetto blaster. Practice sessions were held in friend’s garages, or their bedrooms, one of us trying to desperately to balance single-handed on a coke can, the other clapping encouragement. Encouragement!

Us white boys lived so far from the ghetto we get to dance to caterpillar to the Footloose soundtrack without fear of dance-related beatings. There were rumours that huge gangs of angry teens in New York settled issues with dance-offs, so in a distant-cousin kind of way we were by association gangster, fly, on the edge of something our parents couldn’t understand. Superhero moves, running up walls, flips, high-tops. And the robot. I’ll never forget the feeling of the clap circle as I twisted into the start of an epic windmill, only to collapse in giggles and be hauled to my feet by friends. The memories of enforced waltzes weren’t forgotten, but Grandmaster Flash gave dance a fighting chance.

The mosh pit

There’s dancing with partners, there’s dancing in the centre of the circle, and then there’s the mosh pit. It isn’t easy to describe the uneasy combination of high intensity thrashing and a pervasive awareness of each other’s well-being. As one person goes down, others draw them up. As I launch myself into a shoulder charge, I’m landing my shoulder into another, I’m inflicting only the gentlest of bruises as guitars wail and drums thunder.

The pit is an example of mob mentality with a positive modifier. As you’re drawn into the front-of-stage crowd you become a part of it. It exists as an outlet for expression through physicality, but for me it is also an opportunity to be physically one with others. The moves are barely articulate, pogoing, short runs, twists to free yourself of the centre, and ultimately stage dives. But for me it is a way to hold onto others amongst the music, to feel part of something that extends beyond my own body. And there is something unveiling in aiming to appear out of control, and yet being aware of every twisting spirit around me. Rebellion tempered with empathy. I think it’s that tension that I enjoy, and the feel of the arching floorboards throwing me higher than the beat.

The rave

The millennium, champagne, pills, lines, Vauxhall Bridge, Swedish twins DJing, my first crack at the turntables. My introduction to rave culture was a trial by toxicity, my guide an Australian chef. Within a few hours the music finds a place within me, rounds out my skull, trembles down my arms. The courtship of narcotics and tunes, the slow build, the breakbeat, the pause and release. Music that only makes sense when you dance it.

My relationship with drum and bass and garage and trance was brief and intense. Two, three years, chasing what in the dusk felt like humanity’s best chance for empathic union, and in the dawn felt like a plot to enslave a generation of addictive personalities. But there’s something about dancing towards the DJ, lasers lighting up smoke, water bottles in the air. Your focus is forward or inward. With no audience there’s less room for inhibition. Just you , the tunes and 5,000 megawatts of lasers.

And so…

Hmm, ok, there’s a lot of good times in there. If I also add in all the slow-foot reggae shuffles in the sun, the car seat boogies on long road trips, the Forbidden Dance, the silent discos, dance has given far more than it has taken. And I guess it has never really taken anything, rather I’ve just not been in a position to give.

In future I’ll try to use some of these other tools to ensure I’m more open to her charms. And to my own.


Tools for being human, part three: Understanding mortality

mortalityThere are dates within a year which tend to prompt self-reflection. My birthday, St Patricks Day, Hallowe’en. On these dates I usually find myself attempting an appraisal of my existence. I think of highlights and disappointments, of what has been present and what has been missing. I often then end up giving myself some sort of school teacher’s assessment. ‘Regan needs to find more productive activities on which to focus his energy.’ ‘Regan is prone to spending a little too much time day-dreaming in class.’ ‘Must try harder.’ And then there’s some sort of mental promise to myself to make changes.

I never thought to apply a score when I look at my life to date. I mean I can’t really look at it like an album or film review, I haven’t yet had a chance to enjoy the entire performance. But if I did have to rate myself, I can’t think of a time when I’d have given myself a perfect ten. Perhaps today I would give myself a seven. Recognition that there have been some standout achievements amongst the scattering of self-triggered disappointments. And as always, acknowledgement that there’s room for improvement. Up until quite recently though, I never really thought about whether there was time for improvement.

Death has always been an abstract idea for me. I thought occasionally about the final moments, the actual end point. Would I rather drown in a sea of lava or choke on a hotdog? Which Metallica song would I have play at my funeral? But not until I started losing people did I really understand that my time on earth is finite. I only have an unknowable number days left in which to train for a marathon, write a best-selling novel, and/or undo the psychic damage of mistakes I’ve made in the past. Lately though mortality has started to have an effect on my understanding of the world. I’m beginning to understand that my choices are made against a finite span of time.

And now I can see the that I might be able to utilise those times of deliberation and contemplation in order to make useful changes.  I can imagine two different personality-dependent approaches to ensuring that the rest of my life can be used to drag up my overall rating. If I imagine my life as a graph, a jagged chart of time versus enjoyment, with each upward spike a moment of joy, or kindness or ecstasy, and each downward dip a failure of morality, character or heart. If I want to use my remaining days above the ground to improve my overall score, I can look at affecting either the time-scale, or the enjoyment-scale.

If I was a certain type of person, I would concentrate on extending the time scale. I would make choices which I hoped would ensure I survived for long enough to achieve more happy spikes. Maybe I start to reduce my exposure to risks. Perhaps my next birthday would be a meal in a small restaurant, close to home, rather than two weeks in a war zone. I might take out insurance in order to protect myself from incidents. Rather than saving for airfares, I’d harbour money for my later years, protection against poverty. My New Year’s resolutions would be used to set restrictions and goals which promote durability over excitement. ‘Drink less’, ‘eat better’, ‘run more often’. You can probably tell from my tone that I’ve opted to take another path.

Rather than plotting to make it to my hundredth birthday I’d rather make the most of however many birthdays an active and varied life grants me. If my life is a book then I’d rather it was a mid-length thriller than a thousand-page health and safety manual. I’d rather take a few risks than avoid all of them. At the end of a year I’m more interested in promises to myself which excite me. ‘Visit a country that scares me’, ‘make my own surfing movie’, ‘learn enough French to say “Two beers please, my friend is paying”.

Of course there are issues with opting for a (potentially) shorter, brighter life. Most of the time I don’t have a Plan B. I go to the doctor when I’m in pain rather than when I want assurance. But the one really problematic side I see to my approach to life, is that there is a degree of selfishness implicit in focusing so much on my own desire to extract all I can from as many moments as possible.

My drive to see more of the world, to hear more from its people, necessitates that I’m rarely in one job or city or neighbourhood for very long. This means that my new friendships are frequently fleeting, that I don’t get a chance to warm them into something more permanent. There’s a melancholy there at times, when I see an update on Facebook from someone I once spent just a few days with. Someone I wish I could have engaged with more, offered more to, drawn more from. One thing experience has taught me is that people are always a component in my happiest moments. Someone to help gather wood for the fire, someone to play guitar while I sing, someone to high-five when I hang ten.

As I write this on the last day of 2016, consideration of my mortality helps me understand what I want from whatever remains of my life.  I’m not great at making promises to myself anymore. I’ve failed once too often at the ‘must eat less at Christmas time’ pledge. But tonight I’ll be thinking of the people who I’ve met, who have triggered curiosity, and wonder, and who have inspired me to be a better version of myself. And I’ll promise to try harder to reach one hand back towards old friends as I hold the other out towards new ones. Because although I don’t know how many days I have left in the world, I do know that I want as many of them as possible to be shared with those people who teach me to fly, rather than those who tell me it is too dangerous to try.

So to all those who shared smiles and laughs with in 2016, thank you. To all those I wish I’d had more time with, I’ll try harder in 2017. And to those who passed beyond my reach, I’ll look for you in the stars when I next dance under the blanket of night.