Thursday, March 15, 2012

All together now

I was watching Fiddler on the Roof this week, and something unusual struck me about it. Like most musicals, its characters have the habit of bursting into song whenever an emotion passes over them. These spontaneous songs are accompanied by an invisible orchestra.

But what's different are the dance numbers. There are only three: One with men drinking in a tavern, one with a city boy introducing a country girl to the idea of couple dancing, and one with a whole community celebrating a wedding. Yes, the dancing is more polished than you would expect from life outside musical theater. But at the core, these are dances people really were doing in rural turn-of-the-century Russia.

In most musicals, the dance numbers come from out of the blue like the songs and orchestras. If the dancing happens for a reason it's in movies about dancers like Saturday Night Fever or Dirty Dancing. The numbers are still choreographed, professional.

But dancing used to be a normal social activity. Jane Austen indicates that the only people who "don't dance" are the physically infirm or hopelessly snobbish. She writes about other social activities (picnics, visits, parties), but dancing was obviously her top pick. That's what's lovely about the celebration scenes in Fiddler: These are normal people in a community setting. Dancing.

When Jeff and I got engaged, our friends threw us a surprise contra dance party. There were people there who had never seen anything like it. “I didn't know people still did stuff like this!” one friend gushed. “People are in a room together, looking at each other's faces and smiling!”

If you've never tried community dancing, dancing where the point participation rather than performance, do yourself a favor. Find someplace to give it a try. My personal favorite is contra dance. Depending on where you are, you might be able to find western-style line dancing in a bar, English country dancing, a ceilidh, or “international” folk dancing (European and Middle Eastern circle dances). There are also social dances like ballroom and swing, but these take longer to learn and are couple-oriented rather than group-oriented.

Go on, give it a whirl!

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