Friday 24 July 2015

Male Dancers' Problems Ancient & Modern

Last Wednesday 2000pm: Every Girl's Nightmare
The second most traumatic moment of the week was emerging from An Hostelry in the neighbouring Cotswold village to witness ten grown men waving sticks festooned with bells and ribbons. Of all the faux inventions of the Edwardian English Folklorists,  Morris Dancing is the most embarrassing.

Bharatantyam Dancers of South India
If you are going to ‘reconstruct’ (i.e. fantasise) the rural entertainments of your national ancestors, then you have an opportunity to imagine them as sexy (Flamenco, Tango), combative (Georgian sword dance), dazzlingly expressive and numinous (all seven classical dances of India), or ecstatic and acrobatic (the Muchongoyo dance of Zimbabwe).

But no. Morris dancing as invented circa 1903 involves skipping, silly hats, waving hankies and half-hearted homoerotic gesturing with pathetic ithyphallic rhythm sticks. The periphery of Wednesday’s performance featured just two embarrassed wives dressed like extras from The Tudors, but with absolutely nothing to do. They eyed my pint of Hook Norton enviously.

David Getting On Down before Ark of the Covenant
The folklorists faced a problem. Western tradition held that men who danced for aesthetic reasons, rather than to foster health or war-camaraderie, impugned their masculinity. The sole Judaeo/Greek/Roman exception is David, who danced before the Ark of the Covenant. But since the text (Samuel II) tells us that he was rebuked by his wife Michal for cavorting near-naked, even David’s heroic male dance has proved controversial. Early Christians who objected to all dancing suggested that his must have been a drill-like war dance and nothing to do with ‘lascivia’.

Socrates at Dance Class (by Daumier)
Socrates danced, but we are reassured by Xenophon that it was chaste and improved his fitness. In the Iliad Priam rebuked the sons he thought were not pulling their manly weight on the battlefield for being ‘heroes only of the dance-floor’.  Condemnation of pleasure-oriented male dancing has always been supported by quoting Cicero’s dictum that ‘hardly any man dances sober, unless he happens to be mad' (Pro Murena 6).

The great male dancers of the twentieth century—Nijinsky, Astaire, Kelly, Jackson, Nureyev, Brown—did much to correct the damage caused by the ancient male dance artist missing from our cultural repertoire. Yet even some of them had to grin through PR campaigns insisting that they were heterosexual as if dancing was alone enough to imply they weren’t.

Romantic lead man can dance in a lumberjack shirt in industrial setting
In the third millennium, it has still been felt necessary to make the outstanding dancer Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) in the High School Musical movies also a star athlete (basket-ball player), with a particular penchant for noisy break-dancing in masculine settings like used car dumps. Efron’s packaging as icon of the strongman dancer just proves the sadly limiting ancient rule. But I would still rather watch him any day than the beribboned Morris Men of Moreton-in-Marsh. I had to have another pint.

1 comment:

  1. Michel de Montaign said ‘There is nothing more notable in Socrates than that he found time, when he was an old man, to learn music and dancing, and thought it time well spent’.

    The Holy Quran speaks of God's commanding the mountains, trees and the birds to glorify Him along with the Prophet David.

    In The Sufis, Idries Shah argues in favour of earlier origins of Morris/Moorish dancing (as far back as time time of Edward III) suggesting that some dancers were originally brought over to England by John of Gaunt.