You should be dancing, yeah

Group of dancing friends enjoying night party

Group of dancing friends enjoying night party   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto


‘I realised that the only times I had been really happy dancing was when I had let myself be that figure of fun’

Recently I found myself dancing at a party in Berlin. It was a very mixed party, consisting of people who were gay and straight, young and old, dressed to the hilt or kitted in jhalla T-shirts and jeans, some very agile and others who were quite stiff but still moving to the music. The DJ was good, popping out some nice surprises especially from the early 80s, and we were all sort of dancing together in loosely moving constellations of three and four.

Among us was a woman, possibly in her 30s, who caught our attention. The woman wasn’t exceptionally striking looking, nor possessed of any great terpsichorean skills, but there was laughter on her face and she was moving with great, vigorous joy. I watched her with not a little awe and it set me thinking about this whole business of dancing.

At some point in the 1960s, two different kinds of public dancing met in India and got married. On the one hand, we had our old traditions of group dancing, where people danced to celebrate festivals or weddings; these included all the different tribal dances, Bhangra in Punjab, Pahari dances, Raas-Garba in Gujarat, and many others.

On the other side of the divide was the Western tradition which came from European folk dances and from the ballroom, and which was combined in the early 20th century with the far more free and rhythmic movements of African dance via jazz and other popular music. Whether foxtrot, tango, Charleston, swing, boogie-woogie or rhythm & blues, what continued here was the ballroom muscle-memory of couples dancing as a unit and ‘addressing’ each other; if the dance evening was an epic it was one that was made up of the individual stories of each pairing, of ‘a man and woman’ moving both in group synchronisation but also in a micro-harmonisation with each other, exchanging varying degrees of physical touch.

The lone male

At some point, after the mujras, Kathak and classical Indian dance had been well-mined by commercial filmmakers, after the sequence of an individual (usually male) dancing by himself had been repeatedly explored, Hindi films discovered rock ‘n’ roll, the twist and other newer American gyrations. Specifically, Shammi Kapoor looted from the U.S. whatever he could lay his hands (and legs) on, from James Brown and Little Richard to Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, and came up with a new branding to compete with his older brother Raj’s far gentler and smoother swayings.

Simultaneously, the night-club scene was becoming an established trope in Bombay cinema, but here it was always the cabaret dancer, the ‘vamp’, who would do the dancing, while the innocent hero was ensnared by the mixture of sinuous naked limbs and slithering saxophone solos.

As the 60s proceeded, rock music and the discotheque also began to make headway into urban upper-class India. As the necessity for live jazz bands began to fade, the DJs took over, slinging records connected to loud amplification.

By the early 70s, the movie heroines, the ‘good’ girls, were also dancing to the new beats, giving the vamps and male leads a run for their money.

Two to tango

By the early 80s, what one could call ‘couple-dancing’ had spread across the different classes in Indian cities; whether it was the funky genius of R.D. Burman or the barrage of derivative atrocities from Bappi Lahiri, whether it was in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu or Bangla, disco with a capital D was here to stay, to do love jihad and openly mixed marriage with traditional dance forms like Garba and Bhangra.

I grew up in the 60s and 70s with one clear understanding about this dancing thing: there were those who were gifted with natural grace and ability and then there were people like me, people for whom moving to a beat was difficult enough, forget executing complicated steps while doing so.

As a Gujju, every October-November would bring the excruciating week of Navratri, where my parents, both avid and skilful dancers, would not only dance Garba and Raas but also choreograph different groups for competitions. Try as I might, I could never get the foot movement right, nor the trick of tapping the raas sticks just so, without smashing the other person’s fingers. Then there were the two or three boys at my boarding school, the ones who could effortlessly channel the Bombay heroes, or Helen, or (later) John Travolta, guys who could shape-shift to adorn any beat, any genre of music with their precisely mobile bodies. Discovering rock and blues in my early adolescence was a boon, for even I could manage to enthusiastically catatonise to the simple 4-4 beat.

Graduating from school and coming home to Calcutta with the self-given label of ‘rocker’, I tripped and fell into the vast and horrible vat of disco that had opened up while I wasn’t looking.

Ill-advised and ill-equipped boys like me spent a lot of time leaning on the darkened walls of discos and party rooms, sneering at the idiots who were gyrating to all the moves from Saturday Night Fever or actually dancing to ghastly Abba.

All we fools got to do was sneer, while the taste-free but fleet-footed and snake-waisted ones got all the action. Escaping from that waste-land of syncopated celibacy to an American college, I imagined I would at last meet if not my soulmates then at least some dance-mates. Not a bit of it, the late-70s scene on the U.S. East Coast had moved on from what I imagined were the pillars of rock dancing — the idea of playing The Doors or Jethro Tull at parties was by then regarded as plain bizarre; people were jerking and pogo jumping to punk and New Wave.

Breaking free

One thing I noticed though, despite my panic and despair even as ‘couple-dancing’ was spreading its tentacles back home, here young people my age tended to dance without the chains of partnerism. The party night modus operandi was dead simple: you went as you wanted, dressed up or not, you suckled at the beer keg with your flimsy plastic glass, then you jumped about in abandon, only vaguely acknowledging the beat, till you stepped on the boot-toe of some girl or boy you liked and who was drunk enough to like you back, and that was it.

Coming through all this adolescence and early adulthood and returning to India, some peculiar things stayed constant.

Small pleasures

From our schooldays, there was in India a certain figure of fun, someone we usually labelled with some north Indian surname like Tandon or Agarwal, who would, according to us, always make an utter fool of themselves on the dance floor.

They would be loud, they would be utterly free in their movements, but equally free of grace or rhythm. They met neither the tight-assed terpsichorean requirements of the disco brigade nor the uncoordinated ‘not-trying-at-all’ coolth demanded by the anti-disco phalanx. These people (again usually men, but not always) were just wrong in every which way, or so we thought.

Looking at the woman in the Berlin party, I suddenly realised that she was a typical ‘Tandon-Agarwal’. She wasn’t interested in being cool or stylish. She wasn’t trying to show off or impress anyone. She wasn’t aiming her performance at any single person or trying to pull anyone. All she was doing, as genuine Tandon-Agarwals the world over have always done, was just freely bathing in the music.

As I watched her, I felt awe, yes, and a sharp pang of envy. I looked back at all my years of dancing, all the foolish agendas that lay stamped and squashed out on different dance floors, and realised that the only times I had been really happy dancing was when I had let myself be that figure of fun, that Tandon-Agarwal.

The columnist and filmmaker is author of The Last Jet-Engine Laugh and Poriborton: An Election Diary. He edited Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories and was featured in Granta.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 11:54:43 AM |

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