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?

Nobody can do the shingaling like I do. Nobody can do the boogaloo like I do...okay, I lied. I don't even know what the shingaling or boogaloo are. But yeah, I'm a kick ass dancer, as long as the song's pretty fast or pretty funky. I challenge any rock critic on earth to a dance contest; I will fucking dance all your butts into the ground, motherfuckers...Um, as long as it's not, like, salsa, and there's lotsa Hispanic people there, in which case I might get kinda shy to avoid looking like a complete clutz. (I've been told I don't move my shoulders enough while Spanish dancing. So okay--I'm mainly good at dances that don't have steps. in them. Dancing is about personal expression! So as for steps, I can't go for that, no can do. Both my ex wife and ex girlfriend wanted me to take a ballroom dancing class, but I couldn't be bothered.)

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.

Honestly and truly I'd say, absolutely. Participation is essential... or at least, you have to have gone through a phase of being intensely into clubbing and dancing at some point to really undertand the appeal...the collective synchronized rush induced by certain tracks or certain DJ manoeuvres... dance culture is full of Gnostic refrains like "this is for those who know" or "hardcore you know the score" and so forth, and what they allude to is this physically-felt knowledge that comes from having experienced what happens on a dance floor when a certain kind of bass-drop takes place, or a certain drum build, or whatever...the way goose bumps ripple across the crowd-body...The crucial distinction: it's not elitist, but it is tribal.

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...

I think so. If we are talking about dance music and not IDM, I think the dance floor experience is very important. Even with some minimal techno, drum'n'bass, house, the 12-inch records are tools to be used by the DJ--and sometimes they really, really, really need the skill of a DJ to layer and build, add and subtract. Especially with minimal techno, the records are all building blocks that add up to a greater whole at the end of the night. Listening to a Hawtin track straight is a mind-numbing (and sometimes boring) experience, but when you put several of his tracks together, it all makes sense. I maintain that the musical movements in dance happen with 12-inches, not with albums, and most of this music is made (literally, engineered) to be played loud, on a massive soundsystem. Certain genres, like d'n'b, are very physical; they are made for the club, designed to be played loud, which is why it just doesn't translate well to the home listening format. I don't know how many times I've gone shopping for records and turned down certain tracks because they sounded lame or whatever, and then when I went out later that night and heard the same record on a big system, it was just like a revelation.

Recorded performance stands on its own merits. There is no need to go out dancing in order to appreciate properly a recorded dance-music set, any more than there is a need to see a live rock show in order to judge a rock CD. Still, that part of music that is live performance can only be appreciated live. It must be seen in action. Still, a live performance is a different animal entirely from a recorded performance.

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?

Well, you've seen my dance floor, whaddya think? But your question--surprise!--breaks into several questions for me. And I'd make your question plural: not the activity and culture but the activities and cultures. Say that someone who went regularly to Studio 54 is in the culture of disco. All right, well, what about the teenager in Fort Collins who's only read about it and heard the records but decides to walk into his high school with the dress and attitude of disco --as he's imagined it--and maybe gets the shit pounded out of him? Maybe he knows something about the music--its risks and possibilities--that the authentic club guy safe in New York bohemia doesn't know. Or what about my ex-wife Leslie, who as a 5th grader back in Alexandria, Virginia, was terrorized by black kids in the hallways who'd call her "Lesby" and sing "Kung Fu Fighting" while doing martial arts kicks that came within inches of smashing her face? Or what about a friend's little kids who changed Debbie Deb's "You've got the music, here's your chance" to "you've got the music IN YOUR PANTS"? (I've seen Debbie Deb perform, by the way, and I'm sure she'd love the in-your-pants version.) Or what about the kids' mom? When I asked her once to recommend some History of Art books, she mentioned Gombrich and Jansen but thought that they were too dry and that I'd prefer Sister Wendy--you know, the nun who does the art analysis on PBS--because Sister Wendy was "more disco." Isn't this all the "culture," too?

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.

On To Question 7