Boogie Notes

George Bernard Shaw famously once said “dancing is perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire”, a sentiment wonderfully captured in Renoir’s painting The Dance at Bougival in which an entwined couple spin across the dance floor, she coyly averting her eyes from the intense gaze of the young man, who in turn has his head cocked away from the viewer. Surely lovers to be. It is an evocative painting, we hear the accordion, smell the tobacco and wine that linger in the Parisian air but it is our voyeurism of two people lost together in a private oblivion that draws us in.

Renoir

Renoir pre-empts the then budding art form of photography by showing us the subtleties that may be revealed within a captured instant, something that fifty years later the French photographer Cartier Bresson would coin as the “Decisive Moment”. As Shaw noted dancing is about sex and courtship, but by no means is it the whole story, it is also about participation, communality, and physicality, it embraces fashion, tradition and ritual, it invariably requires rhythm, beat and music, but the real ingredient though is a latent inner joy.

The parameters in place for this photographic project were to confine myself to the borders of England, that none of the dancers should be professional or performing on a stage. I have a belief in amateurism in that it comes with no constraints and permits one to play with freedom, find that inner child and to do something simply for its own sake. As photographs they are not about the English, we are culturally too diverse nowadays, they are about an England that is not only rooted in tradition but has a innate ability to absorb, what we commonly and maybe clumsily call multiculturalism.

A nation is a complex beast and ours more so than many others, so to portray it within a set of images is nigh on impossible, but then again there lies no harm in trying. One can hint, suggest, allude, offer cliches, in the end it is all a subjective interpretation.

The delving and research has been as rewarding as the photography, the more I began to consider the subject the more I realised the breadth of the material, one can Tango in Truro on a Tuesday, Waltz in Wigan on a Wednesday, Salsa in Salford on a Sunday; given the time and the funds I could occupy myself 365 days a year.

Mentioning what I was doing to friends the first response was “Oh you mean like Morris dancing”, and of course that is our homegrown, quintessential English dance form we see outside pubs countrywide, those lines of bearded ruddy faced men advancing and retreating on one another, good naturedly beating each other with large sticks. My reply was “Well yes but....” then I would launch into a long list of other genres from Pogo to Bollywood, Disco to Lindy Hop. We are a mongrel nation and our dance culture reflects our diversity and tribalism.

Not only do we soak up the rain but we soak up people, words, music, and cuisine (fish and chips being an iconic example) and somehow make them our own. Our language is fluid, we import and invent words and spit them out faster than any other, the basic grammar and vocabulary is Germanic, the Normans and the Church have added in French and Latin, the British Empire gives us an Afro-Carribean and Sub Continental influence, and we have our North American cousins to thank for ‘cool’ and ‘awesome’ The point being linguistically and culturally we tend not to strive for purity and thereby do not hamstring ourselves as much with rules and tradition as do so many others.

But who dances with whom? As an onlooker the joy of dancing is there are no barriers, the old may dance with the young, the disabled with the abled, black with white, woman with woman, man with man, straight with gay, rich with poor. To quote the legendary James Brown, “the one thing that can solve all of our problems is dancing”. On the dance floor we lose our prejudices and ourselves, then we lose ourselves within ourselves, like the Dancers of Bougival and Alice in Wonderland we disappear down that proverbial rabbit hole into a magical world of our own making. We dance to feel good, to release and relieve the mundane, an escapism in which drugs and alcohol sometimes play their part equally as a cup of tea and a slice of Victoria sponge.

Dancing may be formal with contrived patterns or freeform, simply reliant on imagination and lack of inhibition (this is where the drugs and alcohol prove useful). Compare ballroom which requires an empathetic partner, a degree of know-how and personal space to the frenzy of a rock concert mosh pit with its participants randomly bouncing off one another like uncontrolled dodgem cars. Then there are those that dance alone, and like those that drink and dine alone they arouse our curiosity, sympathies and suspicions.

The question arises whether dancing can be taught or is it innate. Like those that have natural timing and musicality some have a latent ability to dance and it is patently obvious that some do not. The Anglo Saxon English are not born into a culture of rhythm and movement, it is a skill they generally acquire, as opposed to our Latin, African and Asian counterparts who seem to physically flow from an early age upon the merest hint of a beat. During the forties in the U.S. one Arthur Murray founded his system of teaching dance under the banner of “why be a wall flower”, which depicted in diagrammatic form the relevant and expected foot movements. The clever part was to send these instructions by mail order depicting what the left foot should be doing, the right foot positions were only revealed upon payment. Murray had been shy as a child and by learning the ways of the dance floor he overcame this affliction, then went on to make his fortune by noting (like George Bernard Shaw) if you were searching for a mate a certain prowess in dancing was the way ahead. Nowadays there are a myriad of dance classes available for all abilities, from those who wish to shed a few pounds through to anyone seeking their inner Fred Astaire. Learning the technicalities of dance is much the same as learning a sport, but without the emphasis placed on competition and winning.

For me this project has been as much about the photography of music which is probably not too dissimilar to listening to dance on the radio. Music and dance are as locked together as Renoir’s lovers at Bougival, it is a relationship that feeds from one another. Nearly every genre of music develops its own form of dance, and vice versa, the exceptions are classical and jazz,seemingly it is when the music requires a more cerebral input does it impair the movement of our other bodily parts – free the brain and you free the limbs. Add in the dimension of fashion to music and dance and you have the holy trinity of cultural tribalism. Judgement by appearance is not to be recommended but as a general rule the combination of skin, clothes, hair style, hair colour not only show our age but our likely affiliations.

These are not demanding or intellectual images, they are not art, they are not a document, they are not political, what they are is humankind and England at its best and out there having fun.

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