The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

October 4, 2013

From the waltz to twerking, there’s always a new twist

POINT BLANK: By John Blankenship

— It is unlikely that any human society (at any rate, not until the invention of Puritanism) has denied itself the excitement and pleasure of dancing.

Like cave paintings, the first purpose of dance probably was ritual — appeasing a nature spirit or served as an accompanying rite of passage.

But losing oneself in rhythmic movement with other people is an easy form of intoxication.

Rhythm, indispensable in dancing, is also a basic element of music. It is natural to beat out the rhythm of the dance with a drum. Dance and music began as partners in the service of ritual, as partners in the service of ceremony.

Social dancing, on the other hand, is no less exclusive.   

There are at least two great truths about social dancing. One is that there is virtually nothing new under the sun as far as beat, steps, movements or proximity of partners is concerned.

The latest wiggle (as in the “twerking” of Miley Cyrus) has almost certainly been performed before, somewhere.

The second is that almost every new dance variation, with the possible exception of the minuet, has been seen by social conservatives as the onset of depravity, heralding a total breakdown in decency. The pristine minuet did not last long: Probably because too many people thought it a drag.

But, in truth, people have always been concerned about the moral effects of dancing.

Homer was in favor of it, and so was Aristotle. Socrates thought that the best dancers probably made the best warriors as well.

But Cicero saw no good in the practice. He wrote, “No man who is sober dances, unless he is out of his mind, either when alone or in any decent society; for dancing is the companion of wanton conviviality, dissoluteness and luxury.”

With his rumble about wantonness, Cicero put his thumb on what has bothered arbiters of taste in every century: the suspicion that dancing is somehow linked to sexuality.

The English poet Dryden called dancing “poetry of the feet,” but he was only partly right. The truth is that dancing involves more than the feet: it brings two people together in some measure of closeness, and often their bodies touch.

This issue of touching is what got the waltz in trouble in Germany in the late 1700s.

France, on the other hand, takes the blame for introducing the idea of dancing in twos.

But before new dances are accepted they often go through a predictable cycle. Someone, usually unidentified, introduces a dance, and large numbers of followers take it up. Then social criticism begins, as it did with the polka, turkey trot, hootchy-kootchy, tango, rumba, conga, samba, foxtrot, jitterbug and certainly the shaking that accompanied rock-n-roll.

While heads are wagging, more and more people find that the dance is fun, and it gains general acceptance. So it is with the twist, which looked raunchy to most people when it was introduced by Chubby Checker; but soon became so common that First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy twisted at the White House with the secretary of defense.

Dancing allows the young of every generation the satisfaction of creating something that is both uniquely their own and shocking to their elders. With powerful incentives like these, it’s no wonder that “new” dances spring up like weeds and eventually gain in popularity. After all, the movie “Dirty Dancing” has become something of a cult classic for girls under the age of 16.

Whatever the new dance variation, however, there is one ironclad rule: it must not resemble the one that preceded it.

Shortly after 1900, when the waltz had become something that decent people could do, it fell out of favor. The beat changed and in strolled the turkey trot.

The truth is that the human skeleton has not changed much over the centuries, and neither have the ways in which to frolic to music. The energetic can-can was a shocker in its day when dignitaries saw it on a movie set. But they could have seen the same high kick in Egyptian relief carvings that are more than 4,000 years old.

And the beat goes on.


Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a reporter

for The Register-Herald.