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Tools for being Human, part four: Dancing

dance

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.

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Tools for being human, part two: People watching

temple-woman-modifiedThe old man is initially defined by the curve of his spine. He’s bent almost double by some malady, and I feel the warm prickling of guilt as I watch him roll one sleeve up, and look over his shoulder. But I’m over the other shoulder, at a window seat in a busy cafe with another dozen pairs of averted eyes. He tilts his body like a crane and drapes his hairy arm over the bin. Then he draws something upward, a brown, moist-edged paper bag. He shakes his head as he parts the paper packaging, drops the disappointment back in the bin and draws a slow, visible breath as he wipes his fingers on his chest. I warm my fingers on my coffee cup as I wonder when he last saw the horizon, what his mother’s name was, on which shore he left the love of his life, in order to chase a dream he thought she’d never understand.

I lean back a little in my stool, and steal a glance at the young man seated next to me. He folds a page of his sketchbook over gently, rests it on the counter. He leans back on his seat to lift pens or pencils from his day pack, and the end of a tattoo on his neck is revealed. Just a spiral really, a couple of twisting grey lines, but enough to allow me to continue drawing them down, over his chest. A tentacle maybe, from a squid, wrapped about a tall ship. Perhaps his father was a fisherman, but this thin young man didn’t enjoy the drawing of fish to the deck, the stomp to the head, the curl of the sea against the roll of his stomach. But cancer took his old man three years ago, and the myth of their connection now wraps about his heart.

When I was young I couldn’t imagine a world occupied by uncountable billions of people. By the last year of high school I knew the faces if not the names, sometimes a story, what type of bike they rode, their sister’s horse’s name. Two months later I found myself at university, trying to understand how I could be amongst so many people and yet feel so, so lonely. On the third or fourth day of lectures I sat in the Mt Street Cemetery, wondering what my options were. As I watched the shadows thrown by the lowering sun, I noticed a woman in a long, dark dress, walking slowly down the hill, picking her way between tombstones. She wore her thick auburn hair in a loose bun, her feet were tied into tall leather boots, and her eyes were on the sky rather than the path. And I began to tell myself a story. She knew a mermaid once, or at least a trans-gender Greek man who professed to have been half salmon in a previous life. And before she moved here to study Philosophy she had dated a musician, and hopes that she was responsible for a line in one of his songs. And for her Wellington was a temporary home on the way to somewhere she dreams of, writes poems about, draws sketches of. Probably somewhere with windmills and moats and scarecrows. She eventually passed out of view, but I remembered her as I walked to class the next morning, and I kept an eye on the crowd, my eye focused on possibilities rather than disappointment.

Some years ago I sat with Linda in a crowded outdoor market in Singapore. At first we are the only two white people in a spiral of Asian humanity. But the longer we sit, sipping at cool fruit juices, the closer the spiral twists about us. A young boy is concentrating on unwrapping a balloon string from his hand, and suddenly his eye catches mine. I smile gently, his head tilts a little and he reflects the curl of my happiness. He turns to his mother and lifts his arms, looking up at the red bubble above. Was the balloon a bribe, a gift, a location-detector? And as I pick out the faces and forms in the crowd, I feel the place seep into me. The strong brown arms of a vendor tying a rope under his marquee, his glance across at a women in the stall opposite, his motion pausing for just a second. And that brief pause is another story. When I take time to consider others in a crowd as people, as lifetimes, as part of a bigger family, then loneliness doesn’t make as much sense. Nor do anxiety and mistrust.

So I have learnt to enjoy sitting still and watching others. And sometimes I wonder if my observations are two-sided. Am I in turn being watched? Does the old woman in dark glasses at the other end of the cafe counter see something in the way I pause between writing paragraphs? Does she wonder why my eyes are drawn to this person or that? Does she notice my glances are often to younger women, but that I quickly shift to other targets? Does she wonder if I am embarrassed to let my stare linger on those more obvious attractions? Or is she hoping I leave that half croissant on my plate, that she might gently gnaw its buttery sweetness once she draws it from her pocket in another hour?

And at other times I find myself considering the other counterpoint to my scrutiny, what do my observations say about me? Why do I presume that the beautiful, artfully dressed girl carries the awkward longboard merely as a prop, an unwieldy attempt to be a part of an alternative crowd? Is it my own pretences that are the seed of this judgement? Or simply jealousy of the gentle perfection of her features, the grace of her stride? What right do I have to be so silently outraged at the three couples staring into their phones, rather than into each other’s eyes? Am I really so fortunate to have experienced uncomfortable first-date silences in the Facebook-free millennium?

I feel there is something useful in imagining myself in someone else’s shoes, or burka, or domestic dispute. If I remind myself that others have their own choices to make, their own mothers to please, their own dreams to chase (or abandon), then acceptance of difference is not so difficult. If I try sitting inside their thoughts, imagining their troubles, then tolerance is not such a stretch. And I’ve found that over time I have built the self-confidence to bridge that gap between myself and the stranger. I find that empathy gives me the power to overwhelm by traditional shyness.

I finish my coffee, lower the cup and press a finger to the counter in front of the young man’s slow-forming sketch of a big-eyed woman. His first girlfriend? Or a character from a dark Japanese horror? ‘She’s beautiful’ I say, looking to his hesitant eyes, imagining his anxiety, but also the warmth of pride. I leave the half-eaten croissant on my plate, and slide it gently in the direction of the old woman as I sling my bag to my shoulders and shift toward the door. I can’t see the bent man, but if I walk to the bottom of Cuba Street, perhaps I’ll be able to offer a kind presence, or a tray of sushi.

I met the woman from the cemetery again in my second semester, and she invited me to a party, a celebration of the release of The Cure’s ‘Disintegration’ album. She went on to study in Germany, and to write prize-winning novels. She inspired me to try out black lipstick, read Edgar Allan Poe, and to use a thing called electronic mail to send fantastic stories to my fellow students when I should have been studying. And her success in story-telling inspires my writing today.

So I dedicate this piece to ‘Cath the Goth’, to my fellow people-watchers, and to all those I’ve watched and never quite had the nerve to smile at, or wave to, or buy a coffee for.