Middle school dance. A group of girls huddled together dancing. A group of guys huddled together, nervous as hell, but laughing and punching each other’s arms to pretend like they’re not nervous. One guy walks up to one of the girls. They dance. Another guy walks up to another of the girls. They dance. Dancing never looked so awkward and fidgety, but they were doing it. They were dancing. One-by-one the boys and the girls paired up, but there were still a handful of us left. Just walk on over and take one by the hand. It doesn’t matter what she looks like – nor does it matter what I look like. It’s not hard to move. You move all the time. But something in me made it impossible. I was nailed to the hardwood of the basketball court. Is it a lack of courage? I was shaking like I was about to charge out of a WWII foxhole in the face of machinegun fire. Is it a lack of aptitude? Perhaps, but this was the 90’s and they were playing the Macarena, for Christ’s sake. Anyone can do that. This is a benign school function amongst thirteen year olds! What was there to fear? Yet the ferocity of my heart thumping against my chest cavity indicated some deeper implications to all this…dancing. There was something separating those dancing and those standing with their buddies picking their noses – those sad chums running off to vandalize the school bathroom instead of taking some shy girls hand. Something was happening in that gym that would separate the doers from the non-doers for the rest of our lives…
I’m on my fifth drink with a girl at some dimly lit hipster joint in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It’s a decent enough spot: a pint of craft beer for $5; cocktails for $8; 90’s hip-hop you can bob your head to (i.e. Busta Rhymes, Dr. Dre, A Tribe Called Quest). We order a sixth round. I pluck the orange peel from my old-fashioned and toss it on the bar. Sipping at her vodka tonic my date asks if I’d like to go dancing. I instinctually resist.
“How about we just stick to getting drunk instead.”
“Let’s go dancing.” No, she’s not asking. It’s a demand. And though being demanded of things can be pretty hot for a closeted sadomasochist such as myself, a wave of nervousness comes over me. The more she persists the more nervous I get until I’m on the verge of uttering “middle school dance,” like Charles Kane uttered “Rosebud.”
My date slams her drink down. Apparently she is excited by my reticence. “We’re going dancing,” she declares, and drags me to a nearby club.
If I wasn’t feeling down about things already, the bass-rattling force of Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.” makes it much worse. What DJ in good conscience would choose this song?
“I can’t dance to this shit!” I scream to nobody. It’s too loud to hear my supplications. My date flings herself directly on the dance floor, and my palms go clammier than a New England chowder. She throws her arms in the air, cocks her hips and wriggles like spaghetti.
“You’re a grown man now,” I tell myself. “Perhaps not a man exactly, but some kind of sophisticated boy. You went to Canada once. You’ve seen the world. You went skydiving – although there was a professional skydiver fastened to your back. You’ve experimented with unidentified drugs. You’ve spent a night in a drunk tank. You can do this!”
And so with Miley’s computer generated voice imploring me, I move hesitantly to the dance floor. I listen to the lyrics:
I’m noddin’ my head like yeah
Movin’ my hips like yeah
I got my hands up,
They’re playin’ my song
I know I’m gonna be OK
Yeah, it’s a party in the USA
That’s it. Nod your head. Move your hips. Throw your hands up. Yes, Miley! Thank you! Everything will be OK!
I repeat these steps over and over, ignoring the urge to run to the bar for another drink or vandalize a bathroom stall – I’m not focusing on anything really. Just grabbing, flailing, swinging and sweating. And after a song, then two, then three, the momentum of continued movement makes it impossible to stop. My date twirls under my arm, pressing herself against me, looking into my eyes. There are certain moments when you know you won a girl. And this is one such moment. Not because I’m the next Fred Astaire, but because…well I’m not exactly sure. But something happened.
To dance is to momentarily unleash oneself from the bounds of self-imposed limitation, achieving a strange but true freedom. Perhaps she saw this. And the boy I once was, the shy boy of the middle school dance, watched in awe.