Diary: Catherine Fox

24 May 2019

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Summer is icumen in

NOW is the month of maying, as the old song has it: the month of “a-dancing in the grass”. This being a polite paper, we will ignore the dodgy connotations of playing “barley-break”, and pretend that we think this is an innocent celebration of alfresco folk dance. Like most people my age, Cumberland Square Eight is in my bloodstream. Back in the day, everyone had to do country dancing in primary school. Sides-together, clap! Sides-together, stamp!

The wonderful thing about this type of dance is that there are rules. Once you’ve mastered a couple of basic steps, you know what you’re doing. The other advantage is not being stuck with the same partner exclusively for the whole dance. This is where Strip the Willow scores over ballroom.

 

Outsider syndrome

FOR A child growing up in a home with no TV (and, crucially, no access to Top of the Pops), country dancing also scored over the Wednesday lunchtime “pop dancing” sessions at school. I was more au fait with Golden Bells than with the Bay City Rollers. All the other children seemed to know what to do, but as far as I could see there were no rules. There was no option but to stand at the side watching, pretending I despised it all, while secretly trying to work it out. This was an early instance of a syndrome that has dogged me throughout life: an extreme reluctance to have a go at something if I don’t feel confident I’m going to be good at it.

I suspect that I’m not alone in this. The fear of being mocked is a powerful inhibitor. Dance like there’s nobody watching? Yeah, right. That’s fine if you’re twirling round in the privacy of your kitchen, when there literally is nobody watching — except, perhaps, your offspring (and it’s always a pleasure to mortify them by a display of parental disinhibition). It’s quite another matter to dance like nobody’s watching when there’s a roomful of spectators. How do you discount them? The simplest way is to neck a couple of glasses of wine. Which is another way of saying: dance like you’re drunk. So, how to dance stone-cold sober as if nobody’s watching?

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Sisters and brothers, let us turn to the scriptures for help. We will pass silently over Salome, discarding her as a role-model for liturgical dance, and turn instead to the Old Testament. David famously danced before the Lord. I think we can safely say he danced uninhibitedly, as if nobody but the Lord was watching. But, as we know, this didn’t mean he escaped mockery. His wife, Michal, watched his antics and despised him. My observation is that you don’t despise your partner unless the relationship has already gone awry. You might want to mention discreetly that they’re flashing more than they realise (cf. David’s ephod malfunction), but you can enter into your loved one’s joyful exuberance. Love doesn’t rain on the beloved’s parade. (I have a good deal of sympathy for Michal, by the way, but you must decide for yourselves how to apportion blame for their failed marriage.)

 

Thoughts of kindness

IS IT enough to dance as though only Jesus was watching? You know that that’s the right answer, boys and girls. The right answer is always Jesus. This is why you feel bad when it doesn’t quite work like that, and you still feel as though Nelson from The Simpsons is going to bob up and shout “Ha ha!” So maybe the secret is this: dance as though kind people were watching — people who wish you well and rejoice in you, the way I delight in watching my 15-month-old granddaughter doing the dingle-dangle scarecrow dance. It would never enter my head to say “Actually, darling, that’s not quite how you’re meant to do it.” Or, worse, “Ha ha! You made a mistake.”

I’m currently experimenting with the bold idea that kind people might make up the majority of onlookers, and that it’s OK to trust to this. It’s an alternative thought experiment to my default one: that it’s a really good plan to be perfect, so that you’ll be bulletproof in the face of attack.

 

Repeat after me

ON A more pragmatic note, we can also trust to the fact that, for the most part, nobody is watching. They are far too busy fretting about their own dance moves to notice what you’re up to. This is what I tell myself each Tuesday evening at my Charleston class. I’ve signed up for a six-week course, and I definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys Twenties music and wants to try something new.

The Charleston is quite a departure from my previous leisure activity of judo. There don’t appear to be many transferable skills. I have not, for example, (so far) needed to strangle anyone, or had to execute a rolling break fall after tripping over my own feet. The only exception is the crucial knowledge that — however hopeless you are at something — if you repeat it often enough, it will eventually lodge in your muscle memory.

 

The greatest of these

IT DOESN’T take many slap-downs to dissuade us from doing something we enjoy. Anyone who was poked in the back as a child and told “Shut up, you’re growling,” will know how hard it is ever again to open his or her mouth and sing. It’s always interesting to interrogate our own urge to blight someone else, or police their exuberance. Why do we need to do it? Where is that instinct coming from? Love doesn’t rain on the beloved’s parade.

If we return to the story of David and Michal, we see that, although we’re told she loved him, we are not told that he loved her. If we don’t know we are loved, and we’re slapped down, how are we to refrain from dishing out the same to others?

Love is the answer — love, love, love. Even if we’re rubbish at it, we can practise until it’s in our muscle memory.
 

Catherine Fox is a writer, and a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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