Sunday, August 03, 2008

Dance and Social Fantasy

The following extracts are taken from an article ‘Dance and Social Fantasy’ by the sociologist Angela McRobbie, published in the collection Gender and Generation, edited by McRobbie and Mica Nava (London: Macmillan, 1984). McRobbie has written a number of works about popular dancing and was groundbreaking in taking dancing seriously – a few years later, once academics had started taking ecstasy, they all seemed to be writing about it. I particular like her focus on what goes in people’s heads – the fantasy element - as much as on how their bodies are moving.

Her observations seem to be largely based on late 1970s/early 1980s discos and clubs in Birmingham and London, but much of what she says surely still holds true. The timing of this writing is significant though, as it demonstrates that some of the changes sometimes lazily attributed to some 1988 acid house/ecstasy year zero – such as the increasing participation of men in dancing as a pleasurable end in itself – were already being commented on several years beforehand.



For women and girls, dance has always offered a channel, albeit a limited one for bodily self-expression and control; it has also been a source of pleasure and sensuality. Even though it has often been directed towards men, the spectacle of women dancing has been linked unambiguously with female pleasure...

Dance’s status as a prime vehicle for sexual expression for women... is by no means a simple function of dance. Rather it carries a range of often contradictory strands within it. There is, on the one hand, the social pressures which direct little girls towards dance as a suitably feminine form of leisure. And dancing here is linked with being pretty, graceful, controlled and an object of admiration. But this conformist role does not deny the way dance carries enorm­ously pleasurable qualities for girls and women which frequently seem to suggest a displaced, shared and nebulous eroticism rather than a straightforwardly romantic, heavily heterosexual 'goal-­oriented' drive.

As a purveyor of fantasy, dance has also addressed areas of absolute privacy and personal intimacy, especially impor­tant for women and girls. And there is I think a case which can be made for forms of fantasy, daydreaming, and 'abandon' to be interpreted as part of a strategy of resistance or opposition; that is, as marking out one of those areas which cannot be totally colonised. Dance and music play an important role in these small daily evasions, partly because they are so strongly inscribed, in our culture, within the realms of feeling and emotion. They are associated with being temporarily out of control, or out of the reaches of controlling forces. Thus we have the experience of dance being linked, linguistically, with the onomatopoeia of the letter F: Saturday Night Fever, Fame, Flashdance - as though, with a quick slip of the tongue, to move rapidly to fever, frenzy, feeling.

Dance and fantasy

Dancing seems to retain at its centre a solid resistance to analysis. So deeply have we absorbed its rules and its rituals - the preparation, the mirror, the anticipation, and of course the dancing - that somehow we avoid subjecting all this to the scrutiny of analysis. Even the simplest of conventions have eluded sociological comment. One of the most obvious of these might be the way in which a girl or a woman going to a disco or dance alone is deviant. This does not hold true for men or boys. Where in general they may also go out dancing in groups, to go alone is in no way remarkable. But for girls it means a great deal more. It is a sign either of having no friends, or of being on the look-out and therefore morally out of line.

The second convention which marks out the different experience of dance for men and women lies in the strength of its attraction as a pleasurable activity. Up until very recently dance has been inextric­ably linked with femininity, which has made it either an ordeal or something faintly ridiculous for men to show more than a fleeting interest in. There are a whole string of literary, cinematic, and sociological accounts which offer ample evidence of this. These have shown how men have seen dance as an unfortunate pre-requisite to courtship. Mungham (1976), amongst others, has described how men at the dancehall he studied, would stumble clumsily from the bar towards the end of the evening to strike an often ungainly pose on the floor and to survey the mass of dancing girls.

Recently, as dance has become more popular among men, its connotations of cissiness, triviality or silliness are rapidly disappearing. Men can now demonstrate sophisticated dancing styles with expertise and pleasure without inviting criticism or disdain from their male peers. Black (Afro-Caribbean) culture has done much to bring about this change, with the massive increase in dance technology ('ghetto-blasters’ and walkmen, hi-fi’s and sound systems, 12" singles and pop videos) and dance music style (funk, rap, disco, soul, lovers rock, and pop), advertising its appeal and facilitating its spread. Most new dance styles have come out of black youth culture, with men tending to take up the most spectacular gymnastic and acrobatic variations. Leroy, one of the main charac­ters in Fame, exemplifies this exactly. He started off as a rough street boy who loved to dance. Then, in true Hollywood style, he gradually became the school hero, a kind of hip head boy who will always see justice and goodness prevail. In his dancing, however, he displays a combination of sexy masculinity with controlled half-­balletic, half-gymnastic movements.

There are a few other more general points which can be made about the conventions surrounding dance culture at the present moment. The most important of these is the way in which dance can no longer be reduced simply to the level of promising or providing sexual opportunity. For girls and women it has always been an absorbing and pleasurable activity in its own right. And often, despite the pressures of romance, girls have been content quite simply to dance. The most important shift has been that men are now beginning to participate in dance in a less sexually frantic way; they too have taken up its narcissistic, auto-erotic dimensions, and its features which are predicated more on patterns of friendship than on its possibilities for sex or romance.
But even if it does not have to lead to romance, dance still affords the opportunity for fantasy. Like the cinema, the dancehall or disco offers a darkened space where the dancer can retain some degree of anonymity or absorption. This in turn creates a temporary blotting-out of the self, a suspension of real, daylight consciousness and an aura of dream-like self-reflection. Where the cinema offers a one-way fantasy which is directed solely through the gaze of the spectator towards the screen, the fantasy of dancing is more social, more reciprocated. This is because it allows simultaneously a dramatic display of the self and the body, with an equally dramatic negation of the self and the body. This latter works through the whole structure of the dance-floor. The crowded mass of bodies, the insistent often trance· like disco rhythms and the possibility of being at once there and not there.

Dance evokes fantasy because it sets in motion a dual relationship projecting both internally towards the self and externally towards, the 'other'; which is to say that dance as a leisure activity connects desires for the self with those for somebody else. It articulates adolescence and girlhood with femininity and female sexuality and it does this by and through the body. This is especially important because it is the one pleasurable arena where women have some control and know what is going on in relation to physical sensuality and to their own bodies. Continually bombarded with images and with information about how they should be and how they should feel, dance offers an escape, a positive and vibrant sexual ex­pressiveness and a point of connection with the other pleasures of femininity like gelling dressed up or putting on make-up. But how exactly does fantasy function amidst the semi-darkened space, the mirrors, corners, music and alcohol?... (I should add that since my sources are predominately heterosexual these fantasy scenarios make no claim to represent gay or lesbian experience).

The first is possibly the most obvious and relates to the absence or presence of the object of desire. The presence is awaited, antici­pated, and then acted upon through the use of mirrors, the positioning of the body within his gaze. This allows the dancer to have one partner in fact and another in fantasy. His absence too can generate fantasy-structures based round loss, around what might have been, and of course around a possible future presence, and thus with what it might still be like. Equally, concrete loss of this object of desire can precipitate the fantasy around suffering and pain so familiar in the pages of Jackie. To see him disappear with somebody else! To catch him in an embrace with someone else! To be left alone, to dissolve in tears! And then slowly to plan - to get him back, to find somebody else, to play hard to get, or simply to wait!

It is in terms of these small theatrical tableaux that so much of women’s culture can be made sense of. The last dance, the waltz, dance as memory, dance as sexual expression. Like all fantasies, dance signifies in these contexts as something to be lingered on, referred back to repetitively and imagined as future pleasure. This means remembering precisely minute details or dress and appearance, another seemingly trivial, but nevertheless stubborn and recurrent feature of women's experience. Dance and the excite­ment of going out dancing, retains a special place in the female memory for the very reason of its dispersed, fluid and often ambiguous pleasure.

This is particularly the case for working-class women for whom getting married, settling down and having children marks such a decisive break in their patterns of leisure. Many of the young working-class mothers interviewed by Dorothy Hobson recalled with nostalgia and more than just a hint of regret the days when they were able to go out dancing whenever they felt like it (Hobson, 1978). What they said had a particular poignancy because as married women their desire to go out occasionally to a disco was inevitably destined to be misconstrued by their husbands as a desire to go out on the town with the idea of picking someone up. Neither did the husbands welcome the notion of their wives being the object of other men's gaze.

From getting down to getting home

While the private aspects of dance, the self absorption and the fantasy might have a special place in the rituals of dance culture, it would be quite wrong to pay less than equal attention to its more explicitly social dimensions. And the observations I offer here focus on precisely those more material and concrete actions which characterise dance. Generally I am restricting these comments so that they refer, not to all kinds of discos, but rather to two fairly typical 'scenes'. These are 'respectable' city discos frequented by young single people usually under twenty-five-years-old and for whom Saturday night dancing, though extremely pleasurable in its own right, is still nevertheless a stop-gap between youth and settling down. My other area of interest is what could be described as the subcultural alternative. Here I argue that what this 'scene' offers is a suspension of categories, there is not such a rigid demarcation along age, class, ethnic terms. Gender is blurred and sexual preference less homogenously heterosexual, but I'll expand on this later.

There are a number of features which recurred so frequently during the time I was researching these mainstream discos that they seem worthy of comment. The first of these hinged around the problem of how to combine the enjoyment of dancing with the real prospect of romance, and two features here seemed to take on a special significance. These were the maintenance of some notion of 'respectability', and the minimising of the danger of sexual violence. Each of these were grounded in a real fear of assault by a stranger (i.e. a dance partner) on the way home from the disco and this fear resulted in a set of codes relating to 'getting home'. Basically this meant not accepting the offer of being 'seen home' by someone unknown, no matter how 'juicy' he was. In the discos I visited it was customary instead to suggest a mid-week date as though to prove his 'real' rather than fleeting interest. This was a practice adhered to by the majority of girls attending city discos regularly. To ignore this code or to break the rules not only put oneself at risk but also the other girl or best friend who would have to find her way home herself. This was seen as a kind of betrayal of trust and could result in the end of a friendship. Indeed, the city late at night, and the lonely suburban streets held great fears for these respectable girls and also for their parents who would frequently give them the taxi fare home rather than have them walk the streets. Even then the evening frequently ended with one girl 'stopping over' with her friends. In every way this meant that a Saturday night's dancing was more expensive and more perilous than it was for their male peers. And whilst in one sense their mothers' advice about taking care and not accepting a lift home in a strange young man's car is an excellent example of feminine good-sense, often its other side was offered implicitly as a solution and was actively advocated as such by the mother. This was simply to find a reliable steady boyfriend whose company would make unnecessary these costly and time-consuming practices. And such a partnership would also mark the end of dangerous jaunts into the city centre dancehalls. But these mothers too regretted the loss of their own dancing days, and so their advice was also tinged with sadness, and offered, if not reluctantly, with some cynicism.

Still, if in contrast to the fun and excitement of the earlier part of the evening, these difficulties seemed more like a headache, they certainly were not sufficient to keep anybody at home. Apart from the dancing itself, these straighter, more ‘respectable' discos provided a forum for a number of other games and rituals. Many of these were played by the girls at the expense of the boys. First they would set out to chat up a couple of lads and get them to buy, or 'con' them into buying, a round of drinks, then disappear rapidly with the gin and tonics, into the ladies. Some minutes later they would slink off in the opposite direction. The next strategy was a little more demanding. Here two friends would pretend that they were French and working as au pairs in Birmingham to improve their English. This allowed them the pleasure of masquerade; their temporary identities as French or Spanish returned them to the narratives of schoolgirl fiction where the 'Mam'zelle' was allowed to be extravagant and extrovert in all kinds of ways. These games also entertained a fantasy of travel and a desire for something else, somewhere else. And following this it is not surprising that the other favoured fantasy was to pretend to be either a model or an actress, or to be terribly 'posh', living in a large house in Sutton Coldfield with horses and a swimming pool.


In subcultural, or more specifically, punk discos, the rules were quite different. Ideas of being cool and of being seen 'posing' were internalised to the point of becoming automatic response. Yet strangely this was balanced out by the girls in fact being allowed to act much more extravagantly without being penalised. Thus where respectable girls fearful of losing their reputation or of losing their way home would restrict their alcohol to a couple of drinks early in the evening, punk girls would frequently go out with the objective of 'getting smashed'. In every way they were more fearless than their straighter peers. Less time would be spent here on traditionally 'chatting up' boys and more emphasis was placed on dancing, drinking or simply hanging around talking. Frequently there would be, in discos like these, large groups of people who all knew each other. This minimised the problem of getting home, and anyway having chosen to take up a subcultural identity implicitly meant also being deviant enough to gladly wander through the streets at all hours, drunk or sober, in groups or in pairs; as though to be punk was to refuse to be intimidated into submissive femininity. This did not make dancing unromantic or lacking in fantasy. It is more that the nature of fantasy was displaced into all those precious gestures of sub-cultural lifestyle: into style (wearing the right clothes at the right moment); into the pleasure of being illicit or deviant, or at least of entertaining this self-image; into dancing in the right way to the right kind of music.

Punk, new wave or 'alternative' clubs do not preclude the idea of romance. It could even be argued that the 'alternative' dance circuits are more romantic, certainly more utopian, than their more respectable equivalents. This stems from the core desire at the heart of the subcultural discourse, that it will not stop. It may get boring but nonetheless the choice has been made and the associated lifestyle has become rooted. It is not that subcultures seek to prolong adolescence or singleness but rather that they seek to overturn the relations marking out singleness as a short period of excitement before real life, hard work and settling down sets in. Which is to say that what a subculture like punk expresses is a breaking with such normative definitions and expectations altogether. This has a definite effect on the aura of the 'alternative' or punk disco. It takes out all the edge, the slightly desperate quality which Mungham (1976) describes in his study. Gender in his Mecca halls is tantamount, where in The Tincan, The Duma, The Hacienda, The Camden Palace, or wherever, it is either parodied through perversity, taking up the earlier shock effects of punk and parading them (as in leather-night at The Batcave or The Mudd Club), or else it is simply subordinated to the music. One way or another it is nothing to get frantic about - class, race, and sexual preference are all at once there but not there. Punk might be risky. it might represent a stepping out of line, but on the dance floor and on the road home it inoculates the girls both against some danger by giving them a sense of confidence, and against the excesses of sexual discrimination by giving them a lifestyle which adamantly refuses the strictures of traditional femininity.

Photos: from The Batcave (early London goth club in Meard Street, Soho, opened 1982)

3 comments:

Pop Feminist said...

Superb! I'm linking to this on my blog immediately.

Transpontine said...

Thanks PF. Have you come across Angela McRobbie before? She certainly had a pop feminist take on young women's magazines as well as dancing.

Pop Feminist said...

Oh yeah! I've read quite a few things by McRobbie. Her body of work reflects virtually all of my interests. Hrm...wonder if she's in the market for a protogé?