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Fear of Dancing: Movement, Bodily Display, and the Practice of Restraint

As we watched the young women dancing with each other, I felt my personal self-consciousness and fear of public embarrassment fuse with something larger: a kind of unspoken agreement that dancing was not for us males, but was part of another order of motion that would remain forever alien to us.
Michael Stephens

Issue #59, February 2002

It would be an understatement to say I don't enjoy dancing. I am terrified of dancing. Any social situation where I may suddenly be cajoled into strutting my self-conscious, inhibited, middle-class-white-boy stuff scares me stiff.

My first dances coincided with puberty. Childhood feelings of physical ineptitude, shyness with strangers, and discomfort with group activities were amplified by adolescent self-consciousness as I entered the anxiety-soaked arena of youthful sexual competition. I took my place in the outer ring of male wallflowers that always seemed to form at dances, slouching and striking exaggeratedly casual poses to compensate for the fact that our backs were, both literally and figuratively, to the wall.

As we watched the young women dancing with each other, I felt my personal self-consciousness and fear of public embarrassment fuse with something larger: a kind of unspoken agreement that dancing was not for us males, but was part of another order of motion that would remain forever alien to us. As a youth in '60s Northern Ireland, then a culture of zero diversity, that order seemed entirely female to me. Later, as I traveled to England and America, I found that males from other cultural groups "could" dance. Black, Hispanic, and gay white males danced, were often good dancers, and even appeared to enjoy dancing, but straight white men, generally, did not dance, were not good at it when they did, and did not appear to enjoy it much. From Fred Astaire to your brother-in-law the line-dancing champion, there are endless exceptions that prove this rule: the rule that straight white men cannot dance.

The claim that certain groups "can" dance and others cannot immediately sets off alarm bells. The idea seems to suggest innate abilities and inabilities and to justify group stereotypes. I don't believe that specific groups have or do not have an innate ability to dance. I do believe that culturally and socially mediated encouragements and discouragements, permissions and restrictions, help to determine the type of activities and movements that people "choose" to engage in. These agreements set limits to the ranges of movement that are accepted within specific social groups, limits that also contour and choreograph group identity at the level of movement.

Although much academic attention has been focused on the body in recent years, centuries of repression in Western culture make it difficult to fully articulate the expressive character of movement. The study of "body language" has produced interesting results, but the attempt to systematize gestures and movements into a language excludes from consideration the range of bodily communication that is not reducible to a linguistic model.

Beyond the realm of communicative gesture lies the whole functional realm of movement patterns: walking, driving, cooking, and so on. These patterns are not primarily communicative in nature, but they include a communicative dimension in the style of their performance. Functional movements such as opening a door or picking up a glass can and do communicate, in the style of their performance, attitude, emotion, gender, and so on. Although the movements themselves are functional, they carry overtones and nuances of meaning that are not reducible to a language and are rather expressed in the rhythm, tempo, and flow of motion.

cruising picture!Movement patterns are not permanent: they evolve and change, appear and disappear in time. The repertoire of movement patterns associated with the work and leisure activities of pre-industrial Western society, for example, has been replaced by new patterns, a new overall repertoire. Cultures, subcultures, social groups, and individuals also identify themselves and are differentiated by their distinct repertoires of movement patterns. Specific movement styles and patterns can indicate gender, class, and ethnicity. It may be that cultures and historical eras reveal themselves as much by their movement patterns as by their art, politics or religious beliefs.

Roots of Restraint

The general level of awareness of the significance of movement in social affairs has diminished since the sixteenth century. In Baldesar Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, styles and patterns of movement are central to the discussion of what constitutes the ideal courtier. The public display of excellence in posture, coordination, and bodily skill is an essential indicator of the ruling class's right to rule. In the dexterity and mastery that he demonstrates in horsemanship, for example, the courtier enacts his social position: "he should put every effort and diligence into surpassing the rest just a little in everything, so that he may always be recognized as superior."

Skill in "all the physical exercises befitting a warrior" was as important to the renaissance courtier as it was to the medieval knight, but for different reasons. While medieval barons expressed their social superiority directly through violence, courtiers were concerned with developing martial skills to project the image of dominance in terms of bodily self-mastery. While demonstrations of physical skill were important in jousting, volleying, running bulls, and throwing spears, the aesthetics of bodily self-presentation were even more so: "above all, he should accompany his every act with a certain grace and fine judgment if he wishes to earn that universal regard which everyone covets."

The importance of sprezzatura or "grace" is stressed in every physical activity. However, to reveal the labor by which physical mastery has been attained "robs everything of grace." An attitude of "nonchalance" concealed the effort required to achieve physical control and skill behind a cultivated naturalness. This quintessence of aristocratic bodily presentation demonstrated the innate, God-given superiority of the ruling class. As a result, the men and women of the court of Urbino "seem to be paying little, if any, attention to the way they speak or laugh or hold themselves, so that those who are watching them imagine that they couldn't and wouldn't even know how to make a mistake."

Beyond emphasizing the importance of the style of the courtier's movements, Castiglione itemizes the types of movement that are appropriate to the courtier. In sports, apart from being skilled in hunting and tennis, "the courtier should know how to swim, jump, run and cast the stone for, apart from the usefulness of these accomplishments in war, one is often required to display one's skill and such sports can help to build up a good reputation, especially with the crowd." On the other hand, "if our courtier possesses more than average skill in all these sports, I think he should ignore the others, such as turning cartwheels, tight rope walking and that kind of thing, since these are more like acrobatics and hardly suitable for a gentleman."

Castiglione's male courtiers are caught between two phases of social behavior. On the one hand, there is the frank, unrepressed pleasure in displaying strength, skill, and physical dominance that is characteristic of the medieval identity. At one point, Castiglione describes a cardinal, whose love of athletics is so strong that he cannot resist inviting visitors, even complete strangers, into his garden and insisting "against all protests that they should strip down and try to beat him at jumping." This phase of social evolution, although extinct among modern Western adults, still exists among Western children: socializing through physical contests has, as it were, been restricted to an earlier stage of social development.

We can see in Castiglione a developing concern with repressing and controlling the body's effects that is so characteristic of the modern identity. This concern is expressed pervasively in the importance that is attached to developing bodily control and "grace," but it also takes the form of a tendency to judge the appropriateness of specific movement patterns according to place and social context. One courtier speaks critically of those who show off their dancing skills in the street, as well as those who upon meeting a friend in public, "immediately act as if about to fence or to wrestle, depending on their favorite sport." Between the renaissance and the present, this emphasis on bodily reserve, particularly in public life, has increased steadily. The physical exuberance of late medieval and renaissance public life has vanished, and in its place we see the practice of restraint that characterizes modern Western movement styles.

In Castiglione's world there is a heightened awareness of being always on display, always performing for "those who are watching": for one's equals, superiors, and inferiors alike. As the ruling class continued to move away from the demonstration of its entitlement through crude acts of physical dominance, it became obsessed with enacting its "natural" superiority through bodily display: to move immaculately, to walk the walk of the master became a central focus of upper class life. Riding, dancing, and fencing were the major components of male aristocratic education between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, and the accumulation of daily, intensive training in these movement skills produced a ruling elite who were distinguished from the crowd by the unusual perfection of their posture and the stylization, precision, and mastery of their movements.

One of Castiglione's speakers cautions that "in saddle vaulting, in wrestling, in running and jumping, I should certainly like him (the courtier) to refrain from mixing with the common people or at least to appear among them only on the rarest occasions." The reason given is that "there is nothing so perfect in the world that the ignorant do not tire of it and despise it when they see it often." In renaissance and post-renaissance society, however, few structures existed to preserve physical distance between peasant and lord, which is precisely why bodily display was such a crucial indicator of class. Riding, hunting, martial arts, sports, games, and physical contests were everyday activities that always took place in the public eye. The caution being given here only demonstrates how common it was for gentlemen to join in games and physical contests with their social inferiors.

Consciousness of Clumsiness

The spirit of conservation, restraint, and reserve in regard to bodily display, achieved in embryonic form in The Book of the Courtier, developed through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and became the defining characteristic of the bourgeois class. The early bourgeoisie had neither the motivation nor the leisure to perfect their skills at dancing, fencing, and riding, and moved among the nobility with the consciousness of concealing awkwardness and clumsiness rather than of displaying grace. By the close of the eighteenth century, the over-cultivated play world of the European nobility and its decadent airs and graces had become a scandal to the practical bourgeois. The nineteenth century bourgeoisie continued to cultivate manners and "social graces", but the development of poise, deportment, good posture, and dancing skills was increasingly limited to female education. The decorative display world of nineteenth century bourgeois femininity became, as it were, a conservation area for the dying culture of aristocratic self-presentation.

cruising picture!The male world of industry and its accompanying philosophy of utilitarianism excluded such trivialities. For nineteenth century bourgeois men, too much concern with bodily grace was a sign of dandyism or effeminacy. The entire body language of the old regime — with its servile bowing and curtseying, its haughty posing and preening — was purposefully eradicated during the nineteenth century, and a new simplicity, directness, and restraint marked the movement style, posture, and carriage of the ruling, bourgeois male elite. Among men there was no shame in a certain stolidity and stiffness of bearing; indeed, a degree of awkwardness and even clumsiness, especially when entering the female realm of ceremonial festivity, was appealing, both in its "honest" lack of affectation, and as a positive sign of pragmatic, no-nonsense masculinity.

Industrialization, urbanization, the privatization of family and social life, the summary exclusion of violence — dueling, fencing, and all forms of violent sports — from public life, the replacement of the horse by the automobile, and the development of the static and sedentary work conditions of the assembly line and the office, are among the significant material factors that transformed patterns of movement and the aesthetics of bodily display in Western society. Nineteenth century writers like Melville represented a culture "pent up in lath and plaster — tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks," and personified by the static, immobile prisoner of Wall Street: Bartleby. Dickens also emphasized the almost painful bodily restraint that characterized the Victorian workplace. In Great Expectations, as Wemmick approaches the office, "by degrees, Wemmick got dryer and harder as he went along, and his mouth tightened into a post office again." In Hard Times, Thomas Gradgrind embodies the utilitarian spirit in his "obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders."

This stiffening of the Western body, like the physical exuberance of medieval knights and the grace and nonchalance of the renaissance courtier, is an embodiment of the values and ideals of the dominant class and more specifically (until recently) of its male elite. White, heterosexual, bourgeois men, with their stiff collars and cuffs, starched shirts, rigid top hats, heavy black clothing and knife edge creases, led Victorian society in its pursuit of a bodily ideal marked by restraint, rigidity and a rock-like stability. The ideal bourgeois man of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a "solid citizen," "stable" and "upright," a "pillar of the community," his feet always "planted firmly on the ground." The yin to this stiff bourgeois yang is imaged everywhere in nineteenth century literature by the mobility and shiftlessness of all those who oppose or are othered to the solid, stable bourgeois.

cruising picture!Henry Mayhew begins London Labour and the London Poor by dividing all human societies into "the wandering and the civilized tribes." The street people of London are the subjects of his study, and the social habits of these "street Arabs" are determined by their wandering lifestyle. Mayhew speculates whether "in the mere act of wandering, there is a greater determination of the blood to the surface of the body, and consequently a less quantity sent to the brain, the muscles being thus nourished at the expense of the mind." Whatever the cause, it is clear that there is "a greater development of the animal than of the intellectual or moral nature" in nomadic people. The nomad is distinguished from the civilized person "by his repugnance to regular and continuous labor — by his want of providence in laying up a store for the futureÉ by his passion for stupefying herbs and roots, and when possible, for intoxicating fermented liquorsÉby an immoderate love of gamingÉ by his love of libidinous dances," by his cruelty to animals, "by his delight in warfare and all perilous sportsÉ by the looseness of his notions as to property — by the absence of chastity among his women and his disregard of female honour."

For Mayhew, the mobility of the London street people permeates and destabilizes their entire mental, moral and spiritual natures. Their love of drunkenness, violence, gambling, and libidinous dancing, their laziness, improvidence, and indifference to every stabilizing bourgeois notion of property, chastity, and virginity are all effects of their mobile life. It is movement that makes the London poor, point by point, the shadow and inversion of the bourgeoisie, as, implicitly, it is the immovable character of the bourgeois world that defines it at every level as "civilized." This metaphorical opposition of the static bourgeois and the mobile vagabond pervades nineteenth century literature.

In Hard Times, Sleary's circus troupe opposes the "square" Thomas Gradgrind. Sleary's people are all motion: "the fathers could dance upon rolling casks, stand upon bottles, catch knives and balls, twirl hand-basins, ride upon anything, jump over everything, and stick at nothing. All the mothers could (and did) dance, upon the slack wire and the tight-rope, and perform rapid acts on bare-backed steeds." Gradgrind's spirit dominated the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was not until the 1960s that Sleary's circus was reprised in bourgeois society. By that time, however, the vagabonds of Mayhew's London were long gone, and there was a terminal stiffness to the hippies' gyrations that could not be twisted away.

Freedom Rock

Movement and the refusal of movement can express cultural as well as social identity. In Jean Rhys's Smile Please, the author recalls the dancing at carnival in Dominica, which as a white, bourgeois English girl, she could watch but not participate in. "We couldn't dress up or join in but we could watch from the open window and not through the jalousies. There were gaily-masked crowds with a band. Listening, I would think that I would give anything, anything to be able to dance like that. The life surged up to us sitting stiff and well behaved, looking on." Here the cultural and class identities of Rhys and her companions are embodied in their stiff, seated posture and their superior "upstairs" position, a static pose that expresses their difference from and opposition to the dancers and the cultural heritage represented in their dance.

Rhys is obeying her parents' orders, orders rooted in deeper cultural and social restraints. These obscure restraining forces make the phrase "to be able to dance like that" complex. What would it take for Rhys not only to dance, but to dance "like that"? The phrase suggests two things: ability and permission. "I would give anything, anything" also suggests that for Rhys to join the dance, an enormous price would have to be paid. In an adjacent passage, Rhys imagines that a cultural transformation would be necessary for her to dance like the Dominicans. "I used to long so fiercely to be black and to dance, too, in the sun, to that music." Being black and dancing are connected steps in the same cultural trajectory: one implies the other. Dancing is common among the Dominicans — "(e)very night someone gave a dance" — and rare among the English: "(w)e had few dances."

In the first passage, Rhys is also wishing to be permitted by her parents (and the cultural imperatives they represent) to dance. However, it is a measure of the weight of the prohibitions that restrain her that she cannot imagine joining the dance as herself, but would have to become black to dance. At the level of the forces that restrain her, joining the dance and joining the dancers (in the sense of crossing over to their culture) are one and the same. In this moment, dancing is neither a learned skill nor an innate ability; it is a sign of membership in a cultural group.

For Rhys and her companions, the choice of dancing or not dancing does not indicate ability, preference, or inhibition. Cultural and social forces determine the movements that are permitted or forbidden for dancers and non-dancers. The stiffness of the Europeans is not necessarily a sign of their inability to dance "like" the Dominicans; it is a bodily refusal of the Dominicans' rhythms and movement patterns and an expression of in-group solidarity. Deep anxieties of culture and class are expressed in the Europeans' posture: fears of merging with one's inferiors, betraying one's class, losing one's identity. A whole history of social tension is embodied as somatic tension. There is also, clearly, the assumption that physical restraint characterizes white bourgeois civilization.

Similar forces of restraint, and similar assumptions about the meaning of movement and restraint, have produced the straight white male wallflower syndrome in modern Western society. Through a gradual and progressive historical and cultural shift, dancing became construed as a movement pattern that was in conflict with the gravity and dignity of the dominant white male caste, but was symbolically appropriate to inferior castes, such as women, blacks, and gays, whose essential frivolity and instability it expressed.

Ultimately, as the passage from Rhys suggests, it may be group membership that determines our "ability" to dance. Within groups where dancing is a sign of group membership, dancing will tend to be positively regarded and tacitly encouraged. Members of dance-positive groups will tend to be encouraged to dance and rewarded for dancing by the approval of their group. People in dance-positive groups are thus more likely to dance and develop dancing skills than people in groups where dancing is tacitly discouraged or not rewarded. Repeated, group-reinforced discouragement from dancing will tend to produce individuals who "cannot" dance, just as repeated, group-reinforced encouragement to dance will tend to produce individuals who "can."

Perhaps on a search paralleling my own, R. Crumb has a cartoon entitled "What is it about people when they're Boppin' and Jivin' that's so repugnant to me??" Crumb depicts himself as a stiffly hunched, frowning outsider, staring contemptuously at a group of dancers, muttering, "The sight of them 'getting it on' chills my blood." In the next image, the shading on the dancers darkens, and Crumb comments, "Something in the rhythms of modern music and the way people dance to them that's deeply disturbing — deeply — deeply." Crumb's horrified face stares out of the corner of the image: "It's — it's — a Dance of Death!"

Stiff as I am, I can't go that far. There's still time to take dancing lessons.

Michael Stephens grew up in Northern Ireland in the '60s and '70s and came to America in 1985 to play slide guitar and do a Ph.D in Culture Studies. He is the music columns editor at and is an assistant professor at a university in South Carolina.

Copyright © 2002 by Michael Stevens. All rights reserved.