Friday, December 2, 2011

Julia A. Ericksen's "Dance With Me"

Julia A. Ericksen is Professor of Sociology at Temple University and author of Kiss and Tell: Surveying Sex in the Twentieth Century and Taking Charge of Breast Cancer.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Dance With Me: Ballroom Dancing and the Promise of Instant Intimacy, and reported the following:
Page 99 in Dance with Me passes the Ford Madox Ford test. The page appears at the start of one of the book’s most important chapters: Feeling the Dance, Showing the Magic and it describes a transgressive portrayal of love and romance on the dance floor.

I argue that ballroom dance involves the desire for intimacy in the modern world. Students want to experience intimacy when they have dance lessons and they want to see intimacy portrayed in performances on the dance floor. On page 99, I note that audiences want to see a believable performance and that this is less related to actual emotions than to audiences’ beliefs about their appropriate display. Here is the page:
Audiences for professional dance competitions know that the emotions portrayed are sometimes a performance. However, they too want to believe in a man, a woman, and love in the air, even if only for the moment of the dance. When a performance does not match this expectation, audiences are troubled. Ruud Vermeij tells the following story in his book on Latin American dancing:

In 1991, I danced a duet to Mahler’s 5th Symphony with Peter Townsend, as part of a lecture demonstration at the World Congress in Blackpool. The intention of the lecture was to demonstrate how a change in the ingredients of the dance, i.e. the music and the dancers, affected the entire expression/meaning. While we were occupied with dynamic changes and spatial forms, the audience perceived a relationship between two men and some were disturbed by this to the extent that they perceived nothing else. The point here is that no matter how well we controlled our steps, our partnering, no matter how clear the choreography, we were two men looking, touching, gesturing, partnering one another, and this was the essential expression. The steps made no difference at all.

Most of Blackpool’s audience of dancers would have known that Vermeij and Townsend were a well-established couple, but the public demonstration of this relationship in the form of a Latin dance interfered with their understanding of what they were seeing. Although the dance is a performance, the audience wants to believe that the feelings portrayed could be authentic and that the feelings are heterosexual. Unlike for other dance forms, in which characters are established and acting is expected, ballroom audiences are interested in the dancers themselves and in their emotions. As Vermeij’s story demonstrates, “authentic” means a man and a woman—not two men—even if they have strong and genuine romantic feelings for each other.

Intimacy is only believable when certain cultural expectations are met. Otherwise, it is hard to believe even genuine intimacy. Given these expectations, how do ballroom couples learn to portray sex and/or romance? Do they need to share a romantic relationship in order to achieve authenticity on the floor? Some top couples I interviewed were not sexually involved with each other. Others were a couple off the floor, and these often believed that something special showed between them when they danced. They understood the artifice of performance but emphasized authenticity of feeling.
After discussing how professional performers view the portrayal of feelings on the dance floor, I turn to students who often struggle to show the emotions they feel.

In a world where increasing numbers of people live alone, dance provides an instant intimacy with no strings attached and without sex. This is of particular interest to the many professional women who have succeeded in a man’s world but still want glamour in their personal lives. Such women take dance lessons. They participate with their teachers in competitions dressed in outrageous gowns with glittering hair makeup and jewelry. They watch the performances of the professional dancers at night.

The book takes the reader into a world most of us do not know exists. Ballroom is different from other forms of dance because it is all about the connection and indeed, I take E. M. Forster’s quote in this regard as a paradigm. The dance floor violates most of our assumptions about touching and bodily space, about age-appropriate partners, and about appropriate dress. It also violates many of our assumptions about gender. This is a world where men dance and where they learn to look after their partners and to demonstrate care. Women professionals often put aside the traditional trappings of womanhood like home and family and must learn how to teach men to take charge.

Page 99 is a good beginning but it does not contain the whole story.
Learn more about Dance With Me at the NYU Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue