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Off Key: The Language of Dance

 by Ben Horowitz
 published on Thursday, April 13, 2006

Horowitz/issues/arts/696669
Horowitz
 

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I write the following at the risk of sounding prudish or oppressive: I think the focus on sexuality in the way we dance falls tragically short of what dance could be.

Rather than tying us together in the glory of a repeated rhythm, dance has just become another way to express our American fetish with flesh -- "Look at my body!" scream the hips of the music video diva. The music is secondary to the strutting of those fortunate enough to have the curves our standards of attractiveness value.

When I think back across the various moments of awkward discomfort and euphoric bliss that coincided with moments of dance in my life, I wonder about what dance has come to mean in our culture.

Some of my earliest memories center around a revolving turntable. In what sounds like a scene from idyllic Americana, my parents would put a Springsteen or Creedence record on in our living room. I remember standing on their feet as they swung around the room, laughing and singing along.

Fourteen years later, I attended my first high school prom. I was hoping for something out of "Back to the Future" -- a live band playing a variety of tunes slow and fast for everyone to work up a sweat to. Ending, of course, with a Chuck Berry number. Instead, we got an incredibly bored-looking DJ spinning a weird mix of Boyz II Men, Eminem and Blink 182, and a mass of teenage bodies, in hundreds of dollars of gowns and tuxes, jamming their pelvises together.

My sophomore year of college, I attended my first rave, expecting a bunch of bony kids tripping on drugs I'd never heard of, showing me dance moves I'd never dreamed of. Instead, the atmosphere wasn't really all that different from your standard hipster musical showcase -- a few people nodding their heads to the music, a bunch more just standing around with their arms crossed.

Last year, the dance that had the greatest impact on my state of mind was at my brother's wedding. My brother and my mother twirled slowly in the middle of the dance floor to a song from "Fiddler on the Roof," my mom's face displaying a weird mixture of smiles and tears and my brother looking partly happy and partly terrified.

Last week, I flipped on PBS to see a broadcast of a concert by Femi Kuti, who was, ironically, described to me as the African Springsteen. Son of another famous African musician, Kuti carries on his father's musical legacy by writing mostly upbeat songs about the problems facing the continent of Africa today.

Kuti was singing "The Mosquito Song," a song about AIDS, with one hand raised high in the air and the other gripping the microphone close to his mouth. He spun around as if in ecstasy, while a group of back-up singers swayed behind him, his band looking stoic, like an anchor for the rest of the energy on stage.

There was something fantastic in all of their movements, just as a friend has described it to me after seeing Kuti play in Milwaukee. Their gyrations seemed to be a statement about the sublime beauty of the human body, set to moving poetry.

I probably still have a few years of naive, youthful idealism left in me. But until I've lived those out, I hope to keep striving to find concerts and music that brings people together in song and motion.

I hope I never settle for whatever current commodified sex symbol is being politely shoved down my throat.

Reach the reporter at benjamin.horowitz@asu.edu.



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