The Wheelchair on the Dance Floor

This is the internationally recognized symbol ...
This is the internationally recognized symbol for accessibility (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Several of the most fun dance experiences I’ve had in the past few years have been at events where a person with a disability was central to the proceedings.  Contrary to what some people might expect, participation from the disabled person made the entire dance experience more engaging for everyone there.

One instance was a wedding and the ceremony took place outside, on a beach downhill from a hotel.  Everyone walked down a long zig-zag aisle to get to the ceremony location and once the processional began, we could see that this arrangement had been chosen not only for its visual beauty, but also for functional reasons.  The Best Man used a wheel chair and the zigs and zags were like a series of ramps, making it possible for him to process down to the beach as a member of the wedding party.

Later, at the reception, the dancing was all right, but really took off when a female guest invited the Best Man onto the dance floor.  As he rolled and spun in his chair, and everyone else joined in, the whole event seemed to lift.  It was suddenly not about dancing just like your neighbor danced, it was about expressing joy, rhythm, and movement in the ways available to you at that moment.  Dancing had become “safer” for everyone.

The Best Man was a good dancer.  He was in a wheelchair, but he was a good dancer. My husband leaned over to him and said, “you’ve got some good moves there!” to which he replied, “I had even more a few years ago.”  My husband just laughed and said, “Yeah, me too!” and we all danced with all the moves we had on that particular day.  It was fun!

Whether we say it overtly or not, people are always seeking that special chemistry that makes a party “gel,” the energy that connects everyone more intensely, the magic that makes an event memorable.  Back in the 1950s, politicians used to talk about “making the world safe for democracy.”  I’m interested in making the world safe for fun and one of the ways we do that is by being aware of the conditions that allow more people to participate more fully.  Making that zig-zag aisle allowed a man in a wheelchair to play an integral role in a major life event for his friend.  Including a person in a wheelchair in the dancing made the whole celebration more fun for everyone.  We’re not just “doing a favor for a disabled person” when we make our events more inclusive; we’re making our own worlds larger and friendlier.  And if we should become disabled at some point in the future, the image of the wheelchair on the dance floor will remind us that there are still many ways to dance.

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Get This Party Started!

Get This Party Started!

Party-goers from different generations have very different expectations about how a dancing party gets started.  Our band played for an end-of-term college dance on Wednesday evening and saw a pattern that is typical for today’s students.  The dance was advertised as beginning at 10 PM and when we began playing, no one at all was there except for the two organizers.  A group of young women who were expert swing dancers were the first guests to arrive and they made great use of the open dance floor for about 15 minutes as other guests began to slip into the room and help themselves to the food.  (As I wrote in a previous post, women want to dance!)  Occasionally, another couple or two would join in on the dance floor, but there wasn’t a critical mass of dancers until over a half hour into the first set.

 

We mentioned the issue of late arrival to one of the students and heard an answer we have heard many times in recent years,  “you know it’s the old wanting-to-be-cool thing – no one wants to be the first one there.”  This is in sharp contrast to the behavior we have often seen from older groups of dancers.

Our band has played a large number of college reunions for three decades, so we have had many chances to observe dancing behavior of distinct age groups.

We have had long relationships with certain college classes, for example, having played every reunion for the Yale Class of 1939 for the 25 years from 1979 until they stopped having reunions in 2004.  We have similar experience with reunions for classes from the 1940s through the 1970s as well.

 

For many mainstream Americans who came of age in the 1930s and 1940s (during the big band era), dances with live music were important social occasions and dancing was an important social as well as physical skill.  People who grew up with this usually carry their comfort with dancing throughout their lives for as long as they can move.  We have seen very touching instances of this at weddings when Great Grandma dances with her grandson or whomever.  There were and still are groups, such as some Southern Baptists and Orthodox Jews, who don’t approve of couple dancing, but by and large, dancing in couples was fun for older generations.  Live music was precious and people were eager to take advantage of any opportunity to dance.  Playing for them was very easy.  They were on the dance floor from the first note.

 

What has changed for younger people in recent years is their sense of awkwardness about getting started.  Events take a lot longer to get off the ground.  They are wonderful once they’re in full swing, but there’s a long period of standing around, waiting for someone else to make the first move.

 

People with higher skill levels are often the ones to break the ice, as we saw on Wednesday.  The strong swing dancers, the very athletic break-dancer, the couple who know how to waltz, tango, or cha cha, the guy who can moonwalk or do the robot, often attract others to the dance floor–others who at first just watch and admire, but then decide to join in.  At other times, there is almost a group “charge” to the dance floor, as “I will if you will” meets “all right men, we’re going in!”

 

There are sometimes particular songs that signal “it’s time to dance” for certain audiences.  Classic party music reduces people’s uncertainty about what to do by several different means:

 

  • Familiarity – You may have danced to this before and have good associations with it.
  • Rhythm – The beat is very definite and you feel comfortable moving with it.
  • Instruction – The song may literally tell you what to do, i.e.  “come on baby, let’s do the Twist.”
  • Known audience participation aspects – People have learned to expect to sing along on “Living on a Prayer” or pump their fists on “Sweet Caroline.”
  • Choreography – The song may have definite arm motions that go with it, as in  “YMCA” or dance steps as in line dances such as the Electric Slide or Macarena.

 

I used to wonder why bands never played the more obscure songs I liked and why other songs that were not “better,” but only more familiar, were played so often.  Now I see why:  because certain songs work better on a social level than other songs do.  We hear the same central repertoire of older and newer “standards” in many different situations because these songs have proven to help get the party started.

 

The next post in this music and dancing series will be “The Wheelchair on the Dance Floor” May 5.

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What songs, sounds, or situations make you want to dance?

Do certain dancing parties stand out in your memory?  What made them special?

Women Want to Dance

Many more women than men want to dance.   Cyndi Lauper wrote “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and I’m saying “women want to dance.”  This appears to be true all the way up and down the age spectrum.  There are always men who are excellent dancers and love to dance too, but they are relatively rare.  (Any of you guys looking for love, take notice!  If you are a good dancer, a genuinely nice guy, and not skeevy, you’ve really got something!)

An internet video called “Dance like nobody’s watching: mall” shows a woman (Angela Trimbur) dancing alone (and very well) in a mall and being almost completely ignored by passers by.

And there it is, my point entirely:

Who is dancing? Where?  Why?  And who is noticing?

I’ve had a great vantage point as a bandleader and singer for observing how people’s responses to music and dancing have changed over the past three decades. I’m going to write one post every week for the next four weeks on how these kinds of fun have changed.  So for this week, the issue is women’s experiences of fun with dancing.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, dancing in male-female couples was a cultural model of heterosexual romance and a familiar experience for many Americans.  Big band swing, ballroom dances, and early rock n roll supplied soundtracks for couples to dance to.  A breaking point came with the Twist in 1960.  Couples could now dance separately, without touching.

Over the past fifty years since then, couple dancing has ebbed and flowed in popularity, influenced by musical and dance styles such as disco and dance movies such as Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Dirty Dancing (1987).  Since then, dance styles have been heavily influenced by hiphop, rap, and music videos that feature solo or group dancers more often than couples.

However, a British survey in 2007 found that Dirty Dancing remained number one on their list of women’s most-watched movies and those dance scenes still hold special appeal for women.  Women still think dancing is fun—as well as potentially romantic or sexy.

Several months ago our band played a wedding in which “I Had the Time of My Life” was a theme song and the bride expressed hope that the end of the wedding would resemble that ending scene from Dirty Dancing  (it did).   Such joyful, intergenerational celebrations are not easy to find in places other than weddings these days.  The dinner dances that clubs and organizations used to sponsor occur much less frequently now.  Weddings are often the only chances for social dancing that many people have.  I hear “maybe I can get my husband to dance with me” often enough to know that many women still want to dance more than their male partners do. Bands and DJs try to meet this pent-up demand from women by playing female anthems like “I Will Survive” and “Dancing Queen” that women can dance to in a group.  We also know that structured activities like line dances allow women to participate without having partners.

But what if no one you know is getting married?  Where else can you dance?  If a need isn’t being met in one place, it will often show itself somewhere else.  So women are dancing in exercise classes (typically with other women and led by a woman), we are dancing in gyms, YMCA’s, pools, and now even the mall; we are dancing for fitness, to enjoy movement and music, to have fun and feel sexy, and to be happy, but we are not dancing in couples that much or in traditional social situations the way people danced years ago.

Dancing and physical movement to music are just too much fun to miss.  Think about your own experience.  When was the last time you danced?  How did you feel about it?  Was it fun?  Why or why not?