Dancing on my mind

My head is full of dancing. It’s not a thing I do much, not a thing I’ve ever done much, but in this festive season we’ve just emerged from dancing kept pas-de-bas-ing into my mind.

First, there was Strictly Come Dancing. My daughters and I love Strictly. The costumes, the steps, the sheer hard work transformed into something that looks spontaneous and effortless, the spectacle. And sitting watching, don’t you feel it in your arms and your legs, your back and your head, the desire to be the one gliding or shimmying on the dancefloor?

Then, the annual school Christmas Dance (‘it’s not a party, Mum!’). We live in Scotland, which means that since the girls started to go to school, Christmas parties (sorry – dances) have involved Scottish dancing. For the weeks leading up to the dance, the PE teachers drill the kids in reels and Gay Gordons and Strip the Willow. At the dance itself, from what I’m told, the teachers keep them dancing all night, and when they emerge, they’re red-faced and exhilarated, and most of the girls have shed their high heels.

Just before Christmas, the ballet. A whole different type of dancing, this. I like the formation dances best, the ones that are not trying to tell the story, because, for me, telling a story belongs to words and any other means just yells ‘I’m only doing this because you won’t let me use words.’ My husband, who has never been to the ballet before, was puzzled by it. He said that the dancers were not really dancing to the music. I don’t know. For me the music and the dancing did seem separate, but I’m rather music-blind, so I can’t say that this struck me as it did him. It was Prokofiev and Cinderella, in case you’re knowledgeable enough to make anything of that…

And then there was an article in the Guardian, (read it here) about an essay by philosopher Roger Scruton comparing the way people dance today with former times. Now, he says, people dance ‘at’ each other rather than ‘with’ each other. It symptomatic of the decay of modern manners, the way: ‘Rudeness, obscenity, the “in your face” manners of the new TV presenter – all these are ways of being “at” other people. Courtesy, manners, negotiation and deference are, by contrast, ways of being with.’

I can understand Scruton’s position relative to dancing, but I think he may be pushing it a little far to relate it to the way we all treat each other. And I’m not sure ‘dancing at’ is such a bad thing.

Imagine the scene: it’s a dance of some sort, a party or a club, and a group of girls (or boys) are dancing together. Along come some boys. They ease up to the girls and try to break into the circle. The girls may let them or they may not. If they do, each boy will probably focus on one girl and dance ‘at’ that girl. It’s a first social contact, an expression of interest, if you like, and if it works out, they’ll have a drink, they’ll dance ‘at’ each other again, and, when the slow dances come, they’ll entwine and dance ‘with’ each other.

The obvious thing that’s different about dancing today and the dances of the past is the individuality of the dancing, it’s free-form nature. That’s what I’ve always had a problem with. I’m, as I said, rather ‘music-blind’. It seems to me that people who enjoy music feel it, in the way you can taste something and find it delicious but you couldn’t really explain it. Dancing and music goes together. If you can ‘feel’ the music, your body surely knows what to do with it. I don’t feel it, so my body has no idea what to do and I have to think about it. It would be so much easier for me if there were set steps!

Dancing in formation as is done in barn dances and ceilidhs, minuets and line dancing, has been with us for a long, long time. It’s an expression of joy, of social interaction, a form of exercise, a way for the sexes to mingle while being observed by those who think they need an eye keeping on them. In the past, this might be the first time a pair had the chance to touch each other, in some societies, the only chance they’d have before they were married. Read Jane Austen and you’ll see that this is a chance for intimate conversation which couldn’t really be conducted in any other situation.

Dancing in pairs is different, even when you’re following set steps, because a choice has to be made. In the past and pretty often now, it’ll be the boy doing the asking.
‘May I have the honour of this dance?’
‘Are you dancing?’
‘How about it?’
The girl can choose to dance or not, but most likely she’ll say yes, because who wants to be a wallflower?

At my girls’ boarding school way back in the 1980s, we had dances called ‘socials’. From the time we were 14, we could, once a year, invite a class from a local boys’ school to a disco. They might then ask us back, or another school might ask us. So what happened was we’d gussy up the school hall, hire a DJ, spend hours borrowing dresses (no trousers were allowed) and doing each other’s make-up, and then a busload of boys we’d never met before would turn up. Then we’d stand for a while, girls at one end of the hall and boys at the other until someone – it was supposed to be the hosts –was brave enough to approach the opposite group. On a properly successful evening, you’d hope to be asked to do a slow dance with someone and get kissed. Then, as far as the school went, you’d never meet this particular set of boys again, although in reality, sneaky meetings often followed. I’m sure single-sex schools (if there are any) must work it out better these days. Shoving a bunch of teenagers deprived of the opposite sex in a room with said opposite sex seems like a way of storing up very odd attitudes to each other for the future.

Here’s how it ought to work. It’s a story my mother tells about when she and my father had just met at a dance in their hometown – Mum back from university and Dad from his National Service. They’d met and danced and hit it off and Dad drove her home and promised to come round to the shop she was working in one day that week. I forget what type of shop it was, a fishmonger or a baker, somewhere where only a pretty determined young man would be able to brave the queue of women in order to chat up a girl behind the counter. And as it turned out, Dad wasn’t quite brave enough. So the next Saturday, at the ball, there was a formation dance – I think these were mixed in with the partner dances – was it called the flirtation barn dance or was that another of the dances they did? (I really should have checked the details with Mum before I started writing this!). What happened in this dance was that the men worked their way along the line of women, so that each got to stand opposite each woman. Makes me think of speed-dating… So Mum isn’t wearing her glasses, and she’s about as short-sighted as you can be, so she doesn’t see Dad approaching along the line until he’s actually opposite her. And then, naturally, she’s huffy with him, because, though he hasn’t actually stood her up, he’s failed to keep his promise to come and see her. But during their moments opposite each other, he explains and she gets it and so they dance the rest of the night together and the rest … is history. (‘It’s so romantic!’ my daughters coo. ‘It’s like a story!’)

Why am I going on about dancing? This is supposed to be a blog about books and writing. Well, it turns out that dancing is key in all the YA fiction I’ve written so far – which is no surprise really, when you consider the importance of dancing in young people’s lives and relationships – but it wasn’t until I was doing all this deep thinking about dancing that I even noticed. Which just goes to show how much of story-telling is subconscious…

Claire Watts


Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Her latest YA novel is How Do You Say GOOSEBERRY in French? (Find it here)


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