Shall We Dance?

When my sister and I were kids, we would get invited to the family weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs and funerals. Now, there wasn’t generally much dancing at the funerals, but the other affairs (as they were called in the day) generally included dancing, usually accompanied by a live band. (This was in the era before DJs became the norm for such affairs, though I suppose some bands still reign). While we “kids” generally attempted ot dance, we were used to dancing to rock and roll. The bands attempted a few “rock” tunes, but Herb Zane and his band (who played not only my bar mitzvah party but also my sister’s wedding party years later) were about as far from rock and roll as you could get.

What was the most interesting at those affairs, however, was when the “older folks” got on the dance floor. I was always amazed at how good my folk were as dancers, as was my aunt (who was surprisingly light on her feet despite a rather hefty girth). As I used to comment to whomever I was sharing a table with, “Wow! Those guys can dance!

Not being a big fan of so-called “reality” shows, I resisted tuning in to ABC’s Dancing With the Stars. For one thing, the “stars” seemed to be mostly that B- to D-list group you find on all these celebrity-driven things. True, the sports figures seem to be more illustrious than the Hollywood ones. Hell, even a sport-illiterate like me can identify some of them.

But now I’m hooked, and there are a couple of reasons why. The first is the enthusiasm of all the participants. They all, without exception, seem to be having a hoot doing this. The second thing is, they’re all good. Even when they’re not-so-good, they’re still pretty damned good. Better than I can do, in any case (and that’s not even accounting for Heather Mills artificial leg, which didn’t stop her from doing a jaw-dropping flip that I couldn’t even imagine doing). And the dancing is done to a big, live band, not pre-recorded music. It reminds me of the times you would see dance routines on the old-time variety shows, something that is sadly no longer a part of our culture.

This is an era where watching “dance” on film or TV becomes an exercise in seizure-inducing short-attention-span quick cutting (which also masks the fact that most of the dancers presented this way can’t actually dance very well). The directors of Dancing With The Stars appear to have spent a lot of time watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films. In those films (and others of the era that featured dancers like Cyd Charrise and others), the dance routines were mostly captured with a single camera, in a continuous long shot that allowed you to see the dancers from head to toe. The camera follows the dancers around the floor. While Dancing uses some quick-cuts to closeups of feet, etc., for the most part they stick to single, fluid long shots. Bravo!

I worry about the future of arts culture in this country. Our educational system, in the interest of “no standardized tests left behind” has largely elminated arts and music education from public schools. As a result, kids don’t get exposed to the performing arts as much as they used to. Now, we may not all have appreciated it at the time, but getting a foundation in the arts help you to develop skills for determining “what is good.” It’s more than just a question of what you like. You can see this in the audience at Dancing With The Stars, who regularly boo perfectly reasonably criticisms of those performers they like. (The stars themselves seem to take critiques in a much more positive way).

If the studio audience is any indication, those watching Dancing With The Stars are having as much fun as the dancers. I don’t know about you, but as I watch those people gliding and bumping and grinding and flipping their way across the dance floor, I keep thinking “damn. I wish I could do that.” Maybe someday. We can’t all be great dancers, but this program just might help keep the revival of “real” dancing going. And it might help some of us who flail around on the disco floor look a little more polished too.

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