Nemo saltat sobrius

How does that old Frank Sinatra song go –I won’t dance, don’t ask me? I can’t say I really liked the song, or anything, but I can understand the sentiment.

Ever since the days of ‘sock hops’ (did we really call them that?) in middle school where the boys fidgeted nervously on one side of the darkened gym and the girls swayed to the distorted, poorly amplified music on the other, I have had a fear of crossing over. I think a lot of us did. And in those days, especially at our age, we never thought of venturing to the other side with a soupçon of liquid courage on board to facilitate the long journey… Okay, I never did.

And I’m not sure it was a fear of rejection once I arrived, although the distance certainly gave me ample time to change my mind -especially if I saw another boy returning empty-armed. I kept assuring myself, as the safety of my own trench receded in the darkness, that the problem wasn’t fear that slowed my wading across the storm-tossed floor, but the inevitable embarrassment of the impending incoordination. The shame of having to return as a piece of discarded jetsam to join the ranks of the watchers-on-the-wall. I mean, it would better to go home and tuck into a good comic book than risk a public demonstration of dancelessness.

I can’t deny that my habit of wearing a plastic pocket-protector (to carry pens, in case I needed to write something down) was a mark of Cain, nor can I gloss over the fact that I was terminally shy in those days. But does shyness lead to incoordination, or is it the other way round? No matter, a constellation of seemingly disparate factors all led to the growing realization that I would never dance. Could never dance, let alone ever want to dance.

It has never been a serious impediment, or anything. I’ve moved through life without major recriminations or penalties, although like Macbeth, I have occasionally suspected curses, not loud but deep, and even mouth-honour… Whatever.

But lately, in my dotage, I have begun to ruminate on past omissions, and wondered where other paths might have taken me. Would I be the person I am today had I been able to cross that gym with insouciance -or at least the courage of youth on a dare? Or would I now be some slowly gyrating shadow-creature, sitting on a busy sidewalk downtown hoping for coins? Or maybe confined to a wheelchair after being injured on a chaotic dance-floor? Anyway, if you never throw the dice, you never lose…

Guilt may finally force me to reconsider that puerile decision, though. My eyes have a tendency to wander where they should not tread, and in such a mood of trespass, I recently found them reading unexpurgated material. Still, I learned something I suppose.

As the author, Kimerer LaMothe, writes, ‘Dancing is a human universal… and enfolded in the DNA of every infant who invents movements in joyful response to rhythm and song, long before she can walk, talk or think of herself as an ‘I’.’ Of course, that’s quite a revelation for me, you understand: did the same missing piece of DNA that might have granted me basketball prowess, also contain the dance-gene? Do I finally have a biological excuse after all these years of blaming it on my father’s Baptist roots?

‘Current explanations for why humans dance tend to follow one of two approaches.’ The first, unsurprisingly, is entertainment: the need to be doing something before they turn off the lights.  In other words, ‘dance is one activity among others offering benefits to an individual that may be desirable, but not necessary, for human well being.

‘Alternatively, a raft of sociological and anthropological explanations focus on community, asserting that dancing is one of the first means by which the earliest humans solidified strong social bonds… dancing is eventually replaced by more rational and effective means of social bonding that the dancing itself makes possible, such as language, morality and religion.’

As a non-dancer, I find that a bit of a stretch, however. But then, LaMothe suggested something that intrigued me: ‘What if humans are creatures who evolved to dance as the enabling condition of their own bodily becoming?’ I like provocative questions like that.

‘[R]esearchers are discovering the vital role played by bodily movement not only in the evolution of the human species, but in the present-day social and psychological development of healthy individuals. Moreover, it is not just bodily movement itself that registers as vital in these cases, but a threefold capacity: to notice and recreate movement patterns; to remember and share movement patterns; and to mobilise these movement patterns as a means for sensing and responding to whatever appears.’

‘According to the New York University neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás, writing in the book I of the Vortex (2001), bodily movement builds brains. A brain takes shape as it records patterns of neuromuscular coordination, and then remembers the outcomes in terms of pain or pleasure, emotional tags that help it assess whether to mobilise that movement again, and if so, how… Every movement made and remembered shapes how an organism grows – what it senses and how it responds… An arm, for example, develops into an arm by virtue of the movements it makes, beginning in utero. These movements pull its bones and muscles into shape, as contracting cells build the physiological forms needed to meet the movements’ demands.’

As LaMothe sees it, ‘In this sense, a human being is what I call a rhythm of bodily becoming.’

And yet, I somehow became without dancing. So the author, no doubt insightfully sensing that I would be reading her essay, furthered her pro-dance agenda with an even more convincing argument -to wit: ‘hopelessly dependent human infants must have a capacity to secure the loyalty of caregivers at a time when their sole means for doing so is by noticing, recreating and remembering those patterns of movement that succeed in connecting them to sources of nurture. In a view shared by Hrdy [the American anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy] and others, this capacity for the responsive recreation of bodily movement forms the roots of human intersubjectivity. In other words, infants build their brains outside the womb in relation to mobile others by exercising a capacity to dance.’ That’s clever; it fills me with hope that I am not missing genes -they merely went down for a nap.

Perhaps, in the innocence of my infancy, and long before I had acquired the ability to be embarrassed, I thrilled all of those around me with my skills in the crib and drew well deserved applause whenever I was loosed on a new set of eyes. Perhaps if I had been encouraged from an early age, I could have anticipated a successful toddle across any gym floor to open, welcoming arms… Or not.


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