When I was eighteen I was afraid of dancing. I was on exchange in Ecuador, and heading out for ‘Ladies Night’ in La Mariscal in Quito was always a terrifying experience.
The local Ecuadorians stood out immediately in bars teeming with other expats and travellers. They, unlike us, knew how to move to the reggaeton that dominated the playlists of all the Mariscal clubs. Gringas like me bobbed stiffly until some Ecuadorian or Colombian guy took pity on us and grabbed us by the hips – no funny business, just frustrated dance instruction – to show how it was done.
I didn’t learn anything about movement in Ecuador, except that dancing was not something I could be taught at eighteen – it was already too late, and my uncoordination was set for life. A couple of local guys who often came out with our little expat group literally spent weeks at the clubs trying to teach me the basics of salsa movement – an incredibly easy and supposedly intuitive eight-step combo that my body steadfastly refused to absorb.
‘You’re very bad,’ Alex, who was an extraordinary dancer himself, said to me in Spanish, and he was right. I was very bad.
Dancing was a sort of requirement because, by a certain point in the evening, everyone was jammed on the dance floor, crushing into each other.
When I returned to Australia and started university, nights at the clubs in Mariscal turned into university parties and 21st birthdays and nights out at the sweaty, packed-out uni bars in Melbourne. Here, again, dancing was a sort of requirement because, by a certain point in the evening, everyone was jammed on the dance floor, crushing into each other and spilling lukewarm vodka raspberries and vodka Red Bulls and vodka lime sodas on everyone in the immediate vicinity.
Thankfully in Australia, for the most part at least, the dancing is less elegant and in a nightclub setting it’s fairly easy to lose yourself and your embarrassing movements in the crowd. But I was new to Melbourne (having just moved from Sydney) and being able to dance was a social requirement akin to the ability to make jokes about your weekend sexual misadventures or about the mature-aged students in your Lit tutes.
As it did in Quito, alcohol became a useful lubricant to loosen me up and turn my rigid bopping into a more streamlined sway (although there the fuel was tequila shots and the gasoline-strength rum and cokes you got with your $5 door fee at the club). This sway tended to stand out less in a crowd of my fledgling uni friends – some of whom were naturally brilliant and unencumbered dancers, who didn’t seem at all concerned with how they looked to others.
Belly full of jungle juice, I would attach myself to a large group of friends and sway close to the outside of their gyrating semi-circle. I never, ever wanted to be caught close to the middle of a group of dancers and risk having everyone around me watch and judge my utilitarian movements. Blending in was key.
I never, ever wanted to be caught close to the middle of a group of dancers and risk having everyone judge my utilitarian movements.
Because I was so terrified of dancing, I didn’t have much of an appetite for the music trends of the young adults who listen to Nova and spend $100 a week on beers at the uni pub. As a teenager I had been resolutely emo – something I’m not sure has a name or even really exists in 2017 – so my preference was for melancholy tunes wailed by Very Sad Men. Bright Eyes, Death Cab For Cutie, Modest Mouse, The Shins – I took the now-derided Garden State soundtrack very, very seriously. A sad man with a guitar was virtually impossible to really dance to, which was perfect. At university parties, there’s nothing even vaguely emo about the soundtrack. In 2009 the party playlists were faux-ironically full of Miley Cyrus’ ‘Party In The USA’, Bruno Mars’ ‘Just The Way You Are’ and Jeremih’s ‘Birthday Sex’ (‘It’s the best day of the year!’) – songs I only vaguely knew about or understood.
At these first parties I would stand on the sidelines, finding ways to avoid dancing with mates and the occasional man or woman who wanted to dance with me for sexier reasons. I didn’t really know the songs, I couldn’t sing along, and I had no idea how to really dance to them. When it got to the latter parts of the evening, I would skulk back to my room at the residential college, only slightly sweaty and glad not to have shown people I was still getting to know how bad a dancer I was.
Then, I guess, I found my people – a man and woman who protected me at every party, pub night, and spontaneous trip to a CBD club. They could still dance better than I could, but I was close enough to them to admit, ‘Yeah, I don’t really know how to dance.’
So they squashed me into the centre of their wildly gesticulating mass of limbs and fleshy, flailing body parts, and they helped me follow their moves. Occasionally one of them would lean in to me and say, ‘Just do whatever, no one cares.’ It takes at least a few times being told no one is actually looking at you to believe it, but it’s true – no one is looking at you.
Pop has that sense of freedom, the abandon that comes with dancing in a dark and humid club like an idiot, not caring whether someone’s noticed your arms swaying slightly out of time, or that you can’t bear to pick your feet up from the ground because you’re just not ready for that kind of commitment. Pop is freedom for rhythmically challenged losers like me.
Pop has the abandon that comes with dancing in a dark and humid club…Pop is freedom for rhythmically challenged losers like me.
My teenage angst dissipated a bit and pop began to pique my interest a little more – though it still vaguely terrified me. First I branched out (safely) into music I’d heard on my parents’ stereo. I got back into the Elton John my mum would play in the car on the way to my grandparents’, into the Madonna and older Kylie Minogue tracks my cousin favoured. I mainlined David Bowie and Queen, and introduced Soul Sundays to the playlist roster at my bar job – The Supremes, Frankie Valli, The Temptations.
In these older school pop icons I began to find links to the music being played at the uni parties I attended. I found that I could bop in the same way to Bowie’s ‘Fame’ as I could to Taylor Swift’s ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’. It was a neat little discovery.
I collected pop songs on my pink iPod, hooked it to my speakers in my small, bland residential college room and danced uninhibited and in the dark along to Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift, and especially Beyoncé – everything from ‘DIVA’ to the hands-down classic ‘Crazy In Love’.
And when my people and I moved out of college and into a shitty little house behind a Brunswick barber shop, we would turn all the lights off and flail around to Destiny’s Child and Rihanna with abandon. At some point we discovered Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’ and would dance along to that with equal fervour – without quite realising that Carly Rae Jepsen would evolve into the pop princess she is now, in 2017.
Going to clubs to dance is still not my absolute favourite thing to do, I’ll be honest – I still find it difficult to move effortlessly along to the music, and it’s something I only do when I’m under the influence. I much prefer to privately burn off extra energy in my bedroom, where the heft of my naked body and my inability to move elegantly along to music matters to no one but my cat (who is generally more interested in what’s happening in the alleyway out my bedroom window anyway).
But now my phone is full of pop music that’s made for dancing – the better songs from Justin Beiber’s Purpose, as well as hits by Selena Gomez, Julia Michaels, Charli XCX, Robyn and, of course, the anointed Princess of Pop for discerning listeners: the entire Carly Rae Jepsen back catalogue (If you’re looking for somewhere to start, I’d suggest the smooth saxophone solos of Carly Rae Jepsen’s seminal album E-MO-TION). And I do put it on and leap around my apartment – where I now live by myself and have the freedom to look sweaty and red and foolish, my breasts heaving around the room – enjoying how freeing it is to dance along to a song that’s just about kissing a dude who you know you shouldn’t be kissing but you’re kissing anyway.
I wish I could be back in the clubs in La Mariscal now, knowing what I know about how much dancing can free you of your inhibitions. At the clubs in Ecuador I would spend so many of my nights watching the beautiful dancers. Now, I reckon I’d be out there with them.