As the night hits its’ stride and each record I play begins to more effectively conduct the symphony of Dionysian debauchery taking place around me, I become anxious for the moment when the handful of flirty twenty somethings standing in front of the DJ booth will use their infectious energy to make everyone start dancing. I am confident I can coax them along without resorting to Michael Jackson or Lady Gaga, but before this can happen, a nod to Giorgio Moroder unleashes the flailing of arms and legs by a nearby obnoxious couple making it a point to exaggerate their best disco fever impersonations in a fit of epileptic irony.
Unfortunately for me, this is not my first, nor my last, encounter with ironic dancing. Being one of those rare DJs who truly enjoys dancing outside of the booth, watching people mock one of culture’s most liberating past times is painful.
After a long night of gigging I regularly arrive home in the wee hours of the morning with little money in my pocket, and a lot of frustration. Since my day job keeps my record collection fresh, my interest in spinning is focused on finding great music and making people dance. On the nights that people don’t, I feel the most defeated.
My more-than-thirty-something friends regularly remind me that the 80’s was the last time people went out on a regular basis to dance. I can only be empathetically nostalgic for a time that I missed. At the very least, I did manage to experience the sweaty basement dance parties at places like Lit Lounge and the now defunct Annex during the Dance Rock flash of the early 2000’s with bands like !!!, LCD Soundsystem and Clor. Unfortunately, this was short lived. It proved to be a fad to dance again, rather than a return to our roots. Dance Rock darlings The Rapture even showed their disdain singing “People don’t dance no more, (what!) They just stand there like this, (uh huh) They cross their arms and stare you down and drink and moan and piss (that’s right!)” in their song “Whoo! Alright-Yeah…uh Hun”.
Despite never having laughed at someone dancing for the sake of dancing, I understand the fear of criticism, especially in public. Previously, the solution for those unwilling to conquer their fear, simply didn’t dance. We can all rattle off half a dozen movies where the main character, put on the spot to strut his stuff, defends his position with the line “I don’t dance”.
With irony now blanketing our developed nation, the added alternative for those who “don’t dance” is to dance ironically. Exaggerated self deprecation and purposefully bad footwork has become all too common.
According to the author of this week’s brilliant NY Times article, “How to Live Without Irony”, Christy Wampole says “For many Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly middle-class Caucasians, irony is the primary mode with which daily life is dealt…The ironic frame functions as a shields against criticism…to live ironically is to hide in public.”
With a vested interest in making people dance, you would think that ironic dancing, for me anyways, is better no dancing at all. Possibly, but I feel the need to offer yet another scenario; A plan “C” that is devoid of irony.
Ms. Wampole feels that detouring from a path of of the ironic “…involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values.”
The idea that we would dance seriously, or with conviction, requires a cause or motive. Something that can be collectively shared and understood collectively. What could be more collective than an encroachment upon our freedom of expression?
Since 1926, the New York City Cabaret Law has made it unlawful for people in bars or clubs to dance unless the establishment possess one of the city’s coveted cabaret licenses. Originally a tool to keep down what Gamal Hennessy of of the Nightlife Cultural Initiative calls a “…rise in the then perceived evils of women’s liberation and interracial dating.” It was not enough to stop these “evils”, but unlike the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting alcohol, it has not been repealed. Over the years it has been used by politicians and law enforcement officers alike to conduct otherwise illegal searches, shutter clubs and regularly harass law abiding citizens just looking to blow off a little steam.
I share Mr. Hennessy’s sentiment, as seen on his blog post “You Should be Dancing (New York City and the Cabaret Law)” for New York Nights, when he states, “The cabaret law is a prime example of attacking culture and expression in the name of public safety…It is arbitrary and nonsensical to conclude that music is a protected art form, but dancing is not protected. The two art forms go together…It is repressive and inhumane to require a license for something as fundamental as the expressive movement of the human body.”
Dancing as a form of protest is an honest and forthright act of defiance in the face of those interested in stopping people from having a good time for the sake of it.
Fuck irony. Dance like you mean it!