I Can’t Dance

I Can’t Dance

Last Saturday night, to celebrate her 30th birthday, my friend Sarah dragged all her friends out for a night of salsa dancing. The evening began with an hour-long class in a midtown studio and culminated in a bout at a Times Square-area club to test what we had learned.

I came to these festivities with some clear advantages and tons of disadvantages. I’m a huge fan of Latin music—I have a huge collection of rare Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Nuyoriqueñan LPs spanning six decades, have several friends who have been active in that musical scene, and at some point I even assembled a band to play a crazy microtonal salsa tune I wrote. But, at the same time, apart from the process of physically making music, I have virtually no physical memory and my ability to watch someone do something and then replicate it myself is practically non-existent. I move intuitively and cannot channel those motions into anything faintly resembling an organized system.

To put it in simpler terms: I’m really physically awkward and I can’t dance. During the class, I often forgot which foot I was supposed to move at any given time, no matter how many times I went through the same repetitive motions, nearly tripping people in the process. And when I had to spin the women I was assigned to dance with, I kept hoping they had good health insurance policies. Later at the club, I realized that the best way I could handle dancing with someone was by standing still, which my mind knew was not at all what I was supposed to have learned but how my body responded nevertheless.

However, the realization of my complete ineptitude in this department has proven to be something of a disconnect for me. How can it be possible to love music so much and yet have absolutely no involvement with dance, particularly Latin music whose primary reason for being is to get people’s feet moving? In fact, a large percentage of the world’s music has been created for this very purpose and to not acknowledge that is to deny its essence. And yet I imagine being involved with the creation and performance of music can actually be a hindrance to being able to “use” it as a vehicle for pleasurable activities such as dancing—for other folks, dancing is supposedly pleasurable. Might this chasm be at the core of what is different between the so-called producers and so-called consumers of music? Or am I rare in being moved to make music yet not able to move to it?

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11 thoughts on “I Can’t Dance

  1. SarahB

    Curious to know, Frank, about your musical studies at the elementary school level.

    Dalcroze, as well as Orff and Kodaly, put much emphasis on sounds before symbols. But even more crucial was Dalcroze’s concept of eurhythmics; that children learn to create sound and movement simultaneously.

    I wonder how many of us have these gaping musical holes. For me it’s improvisation. I have no trouble dancing salsa for 4 hours straight without any kind of script or plan. But if you put my french horn on my lap and say “play something” I become absolutely paralyzed and honestly can’t think of a single musical idea on my own.

    Music educators would say that improvisation can be taught but it my case it surely wasn’t.

  2. Alex Shapiro

    I absolutely love to dance, but my observation is that lots of pro musicians–especially guys–would rather endure a root canal than the indignities of a dance floor. Years ago I dated a really sexy drummer who was one of the best musicians I knew. Although he enjoyed parties, he refused to dance. When I asked him why, he replied that after playing endless gigs with bands and watching the rest of us make total fools of ourselves out there on the floor, that was the last thing he was going to do! I could see his point, but it certainly never stopped me from making a fool out of myself, anyway.

    Your thought, Frank, that perhaps by being involved with the creation of music, you can’t really enjoy “using” it for pleasure, leads me to offer these suggestions: #1: disengage brain while heading toward dance floor. #2: to assist with #1, have another drink! And #2 leads in beautifully to #3: after a couple of drinks you won’t even care what you look like out there. Gee, I should have said that to the sexy drummer!

  3. philmusic

    “.. my observation is that lots of pro musicians–especially guys–would rather endure a root canal than the indignities of a dance floor…”

    I love to dance. Even if I forget the steps! Does this mean I’m not a “pro”?


    Phil Fried, who is shocked by such banter!

  4. Alex Shapiro

    Ah, missed opportunity
    Well damn, Phil: where were you when I was dating and goin’ out on the town?? Ha ha ha!

  5. JohnClare

    Alex gives good advice…my thoughts are close – most important to have fun. Perhaps too many gigs on viola make me suggest to mimic the moves (sort of a “faking” trend?) and not worry about the exact steps, lol!

  6. perpetual

    like madonna says:

    “Let your body move to the music [move to the music]
    Hey, hey, hey
    Come on, vogue
    Let your body go with the flow [go with the flow]
    You know you can do it”

    don’t worry about the steps. enjoy the music. what i believe we should all look for in all music: enjoyment.

  7. Lisa X

    “particularly Latin music whose primary reason for being is to get people’s feet moving? In fact, a large percentage of the world’s music has been created for this very purpose and to not acknowledge that is to deny its essence.”

    Frank, I can’t help but read the above as an underhanded, probably subconscious barb. Would you say that the primary reason for being and the essence of Western Classical music is to keep people sitting in their chairs? Why not?

  8. Frank J. Oteri

    I can’t help but read the above as an underhanded, probably subconscious barb.

    Lisa, I can guarantee you that my words were not intended as a barb, either one over- or underhanded. As I wrote in the thread-starter above, I’m a huge collector of Latin music (there are over 200 LPs of it in my home) and I have even composed a salsa piece for which I put together a band back in the early 1990s which included several prominent musicians in this scene. And yet fans of this music have said to me over the years that my loving this music so much and not dancing to it is tantamount to my being a vegetarian yet regularly keeping meat in my refrigerator, and even cooking it. (Most of which, by the way is not true. I am not a vegetarian, but I also have no ability to cook meat. Go figure; maybe they are related.)

    This seeming contradiction has been something I have lived with long before I took that dancing class the other night. But the more I reflected on my total awkwardness there, the more I thought it might make for an interesting discussion about the dichotomy between how music is perceived by its producers and users, something which goes beyond Latin music and in fact any specific musical genre, indeed beyond any specific artistic medium. In some ways, it’s a continuation of the discussion I started here three weeks ago which was inspired by a comment made during the International Association of Music Information Centres Conference in Cardiff, Wales: “There is a great difference between arts that spring from the community and arts that are imposed on the community.”

    I am very troubled by the notion that my relationship with Latin music completely eschews an extremely significant aspect of this music’s cultural context. But, then again, the way I come to this music is very much aligned to my thoughts about the listening modality and what its purpose can be in society, which ultimately also addresses your question about whether the “essence of Western Classical music is to keep people sitting in their chairs.” I think at this point in time it is. Despite Pierre Boulez’s legendary “rug concerts” in the 1970s (unfortunately before my time) and the growing number of presentations of “Western Classical music” in alternative venues, live concert presentations of this music still predominantly take place in locations lined with seats, where the emphasis is only on listening to the music. However, contrapositively to those who espouse the view that the standard concert hall paradigm is off-putting and in need of rethinking, I’ve long held the view that all music deserves to be listened to this way. And this is, in fact, the way I listen to everything whether I’m at home, in a concert hall, or even at a club (whenever I can find a seat).

    Of course, the word “deserves” is evaluative. But it is also advocatorial. Perhaps they are not all that different from one another, despite my desire to not let judgments prejudice my listening habits. Then again, perhaps I’m too focused on listening to music to ever be able to dance, which is another strange physical phenomenon to ponder in a world where it is assumed that everyone is able to multitask.

  9. Lisa X

    Frank, your love for Latin music is unquestioned by me.

    ‘”essence of Western Classical music is to keep people sitting in their chairs.” I think at this point in time it is.’ Really? I just can’t believe that you think the essence of this music is in the sitting of the audiences. Of course it is one of many functions, but its ESSENCE?

    While of course the desire to motivate dancing is an important part of some Latin music I can assure you that it is not its essence. Pinochet’s thugs would not have killed Victor Jara, the US Marines would not have burned ceremonial Cuban drums, and Capoeira would not have been developed merely for the sake of dancing.

    Also, why doesn’t NMBx have a blogger covering Latin music? There are something like 45 million Latinos in the US and you do work for an organization called the American Music Center.

  10. Frank J. Oteri

    Latin Music Blogger
    It would be great to have someone blog for us about Latin music on a regular basis! If anyone is interested in doing this for us, we’re all eyes and ears. Please email me and use “Latin Music Blogger” as your Subject line.

  11. pgblu

    Two things: First, the vegetarian with meat in his/her fridge is a nonsensical analogy and can be dismissed outright. The equivalent to that would be putting in a dance floor in your living room even though you’re John Ashcroft.

    Also, I am opposed to the idea of a “Latin music blogger” on NMBx. Not because I don’t think there’s anything interesting to say, but because I think the board would lose focus. I would be strongly in favor of a blogger who writes about issues of concern to Latino or Latino-American (what a strange term! Aren’t all Latinos American?) composers — a different thing entirely.


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