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Dancing or just watching?

Okay, so we are a nation of couch potatoes, gazing with the same glassy-eyed enchantment at Dance in America that we bring to the Super Bowl, guzzling beer and Coke, munching peanuts and pretzels, content just to be entertained, or at least diverted, by people busier, or at least more active, than ourselves. The Romans had circuses and gladiators, Christians, lions, chariots, and all the rest. We have television.

Of course, we are not entirely sedentary. No, sirree! Yet, let's face it, we do seem to have a preference for spectator activities rather than those involving active participation. But how about dancing? I mean ballroom dancing, a topic on my mind since reading an advance copy of Rebecca Smith's fascinating article in this issue [page 54] about the resurgence of ballroom dancing in the AIDS-conscious, monogamous nineties.

The idea of touch dancing as the latest form of safe sex is intriguing. Was there, absolutely incidentally, ever a time when sex actually was safe? Just asking! But perhaps sex (safe or otherwise) might indeed make dancing attractive and more than a spectator sport for many more individuals. Ballroom dancing was always something very special in the dance world.

Personally, I was eternally a wallflower. I can't dance. (It's not that, like Fred Astaire, I won't dance; after all, why should he?) It's much more basic. I can't dance. One leg doesn't go with the other with any degree of cohesion that might be tolerable in polite society. In ballroom dancing I was, like a lot of people nowadays, strictly a sitter-out. I never learned. Once, in 1950, when I was chairman of the Oxford University Ballet Club, the club got itself unwisely involved with the Cambridge University Ballet Club in giving a charity ball at which Princess Margaret was to be the guest of honor. As leader of the Oxford contingent, it was to be my privilege to whirl the unlucky princess around the floor in some kind of ritual first waltz.

As the date approached, it felt more and more like an invitation to a beheading. I tried practicing my one-two-three, one-two-three; but, although at that time I even had the rude rudiments of classic dance at my toe-tips, the one-two-three stuff never worked for me. It always came out one-two-and-a-half-six. God never meant me to waltz, fox-trot, or rumba. He meant me to be liberated by the private space and self-hypnosis of Chubby Checker's twist.

Oh, what happened at Oxford? you ask. Do you know, by a kind of blessed Freudian mechanism, I have virtually forgotten. I think I rather shamefully claimed some manner of minor indisposition, and my place was eagerly snapped up by a forgotten dancing fool, doubtless some scion of a noble family, far more suitable to waltz the good Princess Margaret to fairyland than my all-too-humble self. Anyway, that's me and ballroom dancing. It was always something to watch rather than do; yet even watching it left me slightly suspicious.

After all, where is the theatrical boundary between the dances we are meant to do ourselves and the dances it is permissible (indeed, overwhelmingly pleasurable) to watch? It is, you will surely agree, a boundary that has of late become hazier and perhaps a tad more disputable.

With American Ballroom Theater, and Pierre Dulaine and Yvonne Marceau, ballroom dancing itself has quick-stepped behind the footlights, and even dance competitions (and not only on ice!) have become popular TV fare, particularly in Britain and Denmark, so there is now no doubt that ballroom dancing does today have its own theatrical wing. And, after all, what are we watching in the Rosenkavalier movement of Balanchine's Vienna Waltzes if not ballroom dancing on its very grandest scale?

But the issue of ballroom dancing as a viable entertainment form begs a far larger question: that of the place of social or folk dance in a theatrical context more generally. Folk dance always played a part in ballet, and indeed in the nineteenth century, stylized folk dance of the kind of ballet-Spanish, and so forth, that you find in, say, Petipa became enormously popular. But in this century we have had a whole new category of theater dance, what Ted Shawn in his old Jacob's Pillow programming used to call "ethnic dance."

First it was Spanish dance, chiefly flamenco dancers, from Vicente Escudero and La Argentina onward, then the Orientals, particularly Indians such as Uday Shankar, Ram Gopal, and later Balasaraswati. But all of these, like the Balinese dancers or the Japanese Gagaku, were dancing theatricalized forms at least as complex in their stylization as classic ballet. But eventually folk dance itself started to be offered like ballroom today, not just as something to do but also as something to watch.

The pioneer in this field, the man who really understood that folk dance could be reprocessed into a full-scale spectacle was Igor Moiseyev. This, of course, started, as has so much of twentieth-century dance, in Russia, when thirty-year-old choreographer Moiseyev was appointed choreographic director of the Moscow Theatre for Folk Art in 1936. A year later the present Moiseyev Folk Dance Ensemble was born.

Here was a totally new departure in the dance world, a new way of looking at folk dance and virtually standardizing its theatricalization for mass audiences, experiencing it usually in either vast auditoriums or in arenas. Large-scale, high-tech folk ensembles developed everywhere; well, certainly they sprang up everywhere in Eastern Europe. Unlike the Moiseyev, these often employ folk choirs as well as dancers; such ensembles became familiar cultural missives and missiles during those chilly days of the cold war.

Curiously, although all these ensembles gained vast popularity as ambassadors (the Moiseyev first appeared in the West in London in 1955 and in New York City three years later), there were few Western equivalents, the most successful and ambitious being Agnes de Mille's two attempts at a national American folk dance troupe. But it was not to be. And today, given the funding climate, such a venture would be even more difficult to start and maintain. A pity, because some largish troupe celebrating America's vernacular dance heritage, from folk to ballroom, from jazz to nightclub, could be a veritable choreographic Smithsonian! Perhaps it could start in the ballroom.

Clive Barnes is a Dance Magazine senior editor.
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Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Apr 1, 1995
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