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Clunky dancing

May 25, 2010

As far as I can tell (and I’m no expert on these things) there seems to be more dancing on popular television than ever before. It often involves people dancing in competitions and crying on camera either before or afterwards; it might also involve celebrities surprising the viewer with their unexpected ability to dance, which is what passes for depth of character — rugby players showing that dancing isn’t just for gays, and that kind of thing. That’s my understanding of the matter. Dancing, like crying, doesn’t embarrass us any more. Dancing is something of a gift to current television, since dancing is not an intellectual form of expression, and television seems to be bent on pissing away all of its ability to be an intellectual medium. Dancing can, of course, be a compelling and complicated means of expression, but television programming apparently favours slick, unambiguous routines (alternating between the sentimental and inanely cheerful default settings) that can be evaluated by the omnipresent platitude-wielding panel of judges. But this is not a post about that particular aspect of our civilisation.

The other day I came across a couple of really superb posts on the Toys and Techniques and Unmann-Wittering blogs, dealing with music and movement lessons in 60s and 70s Britain. As the blogger on Toys and Techniques puts it, “despite the clunky institutional apparatus surrounding the whole thing a unique if short-lived musical/aesthetic utopia was the result. Next time you see a 1960s UK film like Kes or Georgy Girl, keep an eye out for scenes of kids dancing around gymnasiums in their sock-feet to crazy electronic music.”

It’s the institutional clunkiness here that gets my attention, as well as the willingness to risk aesthetic clunkiness in the name of modernization. Both bloggers focus on the radiophonic music created to accompany movement instruction sessions: such as David Cain’s music for the BBC Drama Workshop programme, or Delia Derbyshire’s contributions to the Movement, Mime and Music series, and the combined homely and unhomely quality of the movement phenomena fits with the familiar Radiophonic Workshop aura. The Toys and Techniques blog also includes a sound clip from one of the Listen, Move and Dance records released on HMV – the music trots along with a jagged jaunty step, clunking merrily towards a utopia where children dance like plants. Semi-successful attempts at modernist design (and here I mean sonic as well as visual design) result in a new and perhaps unintended type of organicism.

This would be a good time to declare that I could only hope to be anything like semi-successful in my own dancing. I’m a kind of monster.

Thinking back to my own time in first school (as primary schools were then called in Bradford) in the mid-to-late 80s, I gather that I caught the very late end of the music and movement curriculum’s lifespan, or perhaps a temporary revival. I certainly remember writhing on the gym floor in a white vest and underpants, pretending to be things. The difference between my own recollected experience and the activities described in the posts mentioned above, I suppose, is that by the 80s the utopian sentiment behind the ‘movement phenomenon’ was either dead or dying. My school also began to include country dancing lessons in the canteen as part of the typical school week, which provided plenty of opportunity for further clunkiness – but this was a grey awkwardness, and not in the name of lovely weirdness. It will be generally accepted, surely, that the dancing competitions that are all over television screens – not the dancing itself, but the formulaic relationship between the aspirant-dancer and the judge – has its roots in Thatcherism. It interests me, then, that during the Thatcher years I was a child going through some motions (nobody’s hearts were really there) that belonged to a world once known to a failing imagination, where weakness and weirdness were quite alright. I do not like a world in which dancing is an aspirational pursuit.

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