The Big Read: Ah, let's go to the hop

Darrel Bristow-Bovey | 2017-03-03 08:03:41.0
Photograph by: VCG/GETTY IMAGES

I sat down recently to write something that matters to me in deep ways, although I don't always like to admit that to myself because fear looms larger when you admit that something matters.

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As I sat down to it I noted that I only had an hour to spare in between other work, and also that I was hungry and maybe I should have breakfast first because you can't write well when you're hungry and I thought some other stupid things involving how little I'd slept and how distracted my heart is and how this isn't the ideal time to be writing this.

In short, I had many excuses for why I wasn't going to do anything, and why I wasn't even really going to try.

It reminded me of something. The night before I'd been up late in good company, looking at old photographs. There was one from the first party I'd ever attended where there was music and dancing, when I was 10 or maybe 11 years old. I wasn't in any of the photos, and I suddenly remembered why.

The party was in Heidi T's garage and for the weeks leading up to it I was seized by a gloomy preoccupation: I didn't know how to dance. Can just anyone dance? Of course not. Dancing is a specialised human skill, like driving or semaphore or tying shoelaces; you need instruction and rehearsal. You can't just wander out there into the middle of Heidi T's double-garage and start moving all willy-nilly and herky-jerky like some sort of rabid dog.

The thought obsessed me: the moment I lurch out there with my Exorcist head-rolls and white-man's overbite and C-3PO arms, everyone will be able to see through my disguise and recognise me for what I really am - not a normalish kid more or less like everyone else but an empty weirdo who has never quite learnt what everyone else knows by instinct. Laughter and pointing would ensue. Worse: they would be able to see me.

I spent the Friday night before the party in front of the TV, trying to teach myself to dance to any music that might come on, the volume turned low so as not to wake my mom who might wander through and see my epileptic pyjamaed shame. You couldn't control the late-night music, you had to take what you were offered, and what was offered was ABBA's The Day Before You Came, their long, last, alarmingly heartbreaking recording, which tells a surprisingly moving story and to this day makes me feel desperate for early-morning commuters in cold northern countries, but which was somewhat unhelpful for a young chap trying to let his feet find the funky rhythm.

I glimpsed my reflection in the lounge window, lurching and gurning like an organ grinder's monkey and realised the truth: this sight must never be seen in public.

But what to do? Just not attend? Unthinkable! I needed to be there to watch the others dance so that I could learn how to do it, or this sorry cycle would never end. Finally I hatched the foolproof plan. With much cajoling and haranguing and probably some weeping, I persuaded my mother to bandage my left ankle. A fellow can't be expected to dance with a sprained ankle. It was the perfect excuse: I could be present without participating; I could protect my fragile public disguise. No one would like me any more than they did, but at least no one need ever know how much was missing in me.

I hobbled convincingly into the party and took a seat at the back. I'd prepared an elaborate story, but no one really asked. Then the music started, and I scrutinised the kids like a scoutmaster on a seaside holiday, and what I saw was . what? What's that? What are they all doing? That's not dancing, is it? They're no better than me. Why aren't they all spontaneously self-combusting in pure shame? But they aren't. They seem to be enjoying themselves. What kind of topsy-turvy world is this?

Soon I wished I was out there dancing badly too, but how could I? I was trapped by my own excuses. The thing protecting me was the thing keeping me seated while everyone else was beginning their careers of being rhythmless white folk on the dance floor.

Caron Priestley was kind. She came over and persuaded me to dance, and I stayed doggedly true to my story but I hopped around on one leg to Survivor's Eye of the Tiger, a grinning peg-legged dancing fool. It was a happy ending so I didn't get the lesson and I didn't stop making excuses, mainly to myself, so it's still taking me a long time to learn what I needed to learn.

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