Writing About Dancing: Disco Critics Survey
6. Does one have to go out dancing--participate in the activity and culture of disco--in order to write well about it? Are you a good dancer?
As for "participating in the activity and culture of disco", um, well, I don't know what that is. If you mean Chris Cook telling me that Harry Casey from KC and the Sunshine Band lives under his bed because he's his boogieman--and God knows why you wouldn't mean that--then yeah, I participate in disco activity and culture a lot. If you mean watching my daughter and her seventh-grade friends figuring out how to jump around to all those Destiny's Child and Mystikal hits, then yup yup yup. If you mean dancing drunk to "Jive Talkin'" at house parties or weddings or office Christmas parties or even clubs sometimes, then yeah, sure, why not. (Friday night I danced til 4 in the morning with a lovely 23-year-old Russian-born Jewish girl at a Ft. Greene bar where much of the clientele was middle aged black men dressed like pimps.) But if you mean do I think one has to swallow ecstasy pills regularly and suck penises in hot tubs to write about disco wisely, then no, I would say that that would not be the case.
I can almost invariably tell from a piece of dance writing if the writer has experienced this stuff ever...or whether they are writing from "outside" the experience...they might have interesting insights through being totally detached but...well, I would never follow their consumer guidance tips, shall we say.
And needless to say, drugs play a big part in this as most dance styles are full of effects and sounds that play into, enhance, or trigger certain drug sensations...
A great piece of dance music, or a great DJ, makes me into a good dancer, I find... awakens the Dionysus within... the music dances you, as it were...Nietzche: "Now I am light, now I fly, now I see myself beneath myself, now a god dances through me!"...otherwise one can find oneself just shimmying along adequately as if at some office party disco, dancing as social ritual rather than flash of the spirit...
As to my dancing ability, it depends on the music being played. If the music uplifts and illustrates and moves me, I dance well; if it does not., neither do I....
Makes sense, yes?
But my relation to disco is like Brian Wilson's relation to the beach: I almost never go to dance clubs, so a lot of my writing on the subject is--you know--a work of the imagination. The sort of "disco" I went to back in the day was more likely to have a jukebox than a disc jockey. My favourite dancing has usually been in people's living rooms. And in my room I'll use "dance" music as background for almost anything: crossword puzzles, napping, doing the dishes. (I once changed an LL Cool J lyric to "You're the type of guy who gets suspicious/I'm the type of guy who always does the dishes.") Really, my only claim to disco authenticity--other than having read Sister Wendy's analysis of the pre-Raphaelites--is the one time I saw Debbie Deb.
Now, my lack of knowledge doesn't always bother me, but for sure I'm not proud of it. And you will notice a tension in some of my answers here, say between my response to number 1 where I talk of using disco as source material for my writing, and number 5 where I talk about wanting to understand disco on its own terms. The two endeavors are not necessarily at odds--in fact they can augment each other, inspire each other - but they're not the same, either. I don't have time to go into this--I have to cut short in a few minutes. But I'll say here that (a) understanding disco "on its own terms" actually means understanding a multiplicity of terms, people, scenes, some of which may be in conflict with others, and (b) true understanding is a work of the imagination, too. Here's a passage of Thomas Kuhn's:
"When reading the works of an important thinker look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask yourself how a sensible person could have written them. When you find an answer…, when those passages make sense, then you may find that more central passages, ones you previously thought you understood, have changed their meaning."
This can be unsettling work, finding sense where you'd only seen absurdity. Kuhn is talking about how to understand scientists of the past, whose modes of thought are different from our own, but I'll generalize this to music scenes--even the ones you know pretty well--by saying look for the unexpected, the absurd, the boring, the strange, the inexplicable, and ask yourself why interesting people would engage in such activities. Once you've found an answer, once these activities make sense, you might discover that the rest of what these people do--the part of their behavior that had seemed normal, that you'd thought you'd understood--comes to have a new meaning. In other words, if you're reading someone, pay close attention to what he actually writes and to what doesn't seem to fit. If you're dancing, pay attention to the other dancers, and come and face the strange.