The Half Light: The Pains of Being Terrible at Dancing

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Whenever I find myself grooving in place at a concert, usually with at least one friend nearby, I take a moment to silently curse my dad. The unpleasant truth is that I can’t dance, not even a little, and that’s his fault. I don’t have the science to back this up, but I’m pretty sure he was born with an extra awkward chromosome, and he passed it along to his first son. My mom? She’s literally an amateur choreographer. She actually designs dances, and she can also perform them without making everyone in the room uncomfortable.

I brought the X-Box Kinect game Dance Central home for a vacation last Christmas, having practiced Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” routine many times, and she beat me on her first try. She’s fast approaching 60, but she was nailing every move on the screen with style and then inventing some new ones of her own. “Quit showing off!” I yelled. “I’m supposed to be poker face!” Then I ran upstairs to weep, dance, curse my father again, and weep some more.

Dad is a tall, athletic person with a number of good qualities. But when it comes to dancing, he’s essentially like an alien sent to earth to try to impersonate humans, but who can’t get used to these crazy new human body parts and sure as hell can’t make them work in rhythm. My mom told me that when they were younger, she took him out dancing exactly one time. He began jogging in place, and that was the last time they hit the dance hall.

I’m not much better. While I was blessed with a little bit of speech rhythm—the gift of gab, if you will—body rhythm is nothing but a dream. Sometimes an actual dream—I’m cutting a rug in front of friends and enemies, in a sort of harmonic body ecstasy that I will never know. When I used to goof around the house as a kid, dancing to a song on the radio, I’d catch my mom throwing me askance looks or offering helpful suggestions like, “you should move your legs.” I was doomed from the beginning, and I think she understood and accepted the fact with a mother’s good grace. It’s sort of like when Queen Elizabeth realized that Prince Charles was a total weirdo and could never be king; you don’t choose your kids, and you have to roll with the punches.

In a way, though, my dad has it good. He doesn’t like music. He doesn’t like dancing. He doesn’t care if he never dances or sings another day in his life. If someone came and told me tomorrow that I could never play the Bulgarian folk sport of Snoporov (which I just made up, and which involves something called “wheat towers”), it wouldn’t matter. What you don’t care about doesn’t affect you, and my dad lives a life of no regrets.

But I love music. I can feel it in my bones, and the natural expression of that love is to dance. I’m convinced that I’m a great dancer at heart who has been cruelly handicapped. Like a virtuoso pianist without hands—he’s still great, he just doesn’t have hands! He lacks the proper tools, and so do I. You guys should see me in my apartment, on nights when my girlfriend isn’t around and I can pull the blinds. It’s a one-man jamboree, and I hold nothing back. In terms of pure enthusiasm, I believe I’m on a level above the best dancers in the world. But I’ve only let loose like that in public twice.

The first time was in Belfast, Northern Ireland. That’s a city that in 2004, five years into the Good Friday Agreement, still shut down at sunset. If you’ve never walked in an empty city street at night, count yourself lucky; it feels like you’re in a post-apocalyptic movie where a virus killed everyone and you have to find the last living person. Eventually, my friends and I found a little bar on the main drag, and there was a band playing American songs (Neil Diamond, Michael Jackson). Maybe it was the tension of a terrifying abandoned cityscape slipping away, but my friends and I lost all inhibitions. The dancing was so extreme that the entire place was laughing at us, which goaded us on to stranger and stranger dances. That was a magical evening, but we were trying to be funny, so there was no real pressure.

The second “public dancing event” came when I lived in Brooklyn. I studiously try to avoid any situation where I might be forced to dance, but on this night my guard was down and I said, “screw it.” We went to some club, and I forced myself to let loose. Maybe my brain is the only thing holding me back, I thought. Also, there’s nothing more awkward than a dancer thinking they can disguise their own discomfort with limited movement, so I cast aside every bit of self-doubt and went wild. As in my childhood, with my mother nearby, I caught a few sideways looks. But it was nothing too devastating, and I thought I acquitted myself nicely. I even entertained a fantasy that I was actually a good dancer, and that maybe this would spawn a new era in my life free from self-conscious wallflower behavior.

Then, the next day at lunch, a horrible little blonde girl (who would call herself a “fashionista” without irony, in case you weren’t convinced) smirked at me and said, “I heard you were an…interesting dancer.” My stomach sank, but I pressed her for details. I had to know the truth. But she just kept that inscrutable smirk and said there had been “comments” about it. I didn’t need to be told what that meant. People were talking about me, and it wasn’t positive. I’d made a fool of myself because I’m an awful dancer. My brain began to spin in a thousand directions. Once, when my father was a youngster in fifth grade, he went trick-or-treating. He was very tall for his age, and some old crone at the door looked at him, screwed her mouth up, and said, “Aren’t you too old to be doing this?” It killed him, and he never dressed up for Halloween again. I always thought it was a really sad story, but this towheaded little pixie was sideswiping me with the brunt of history repeated. Damn her!

So I continue to avoid the spectacle of public dancing. Except, that is, at concerts. There, I refuse to be the kind of person who stands with his arms crossed, barely bobbing his head. When the music’s too good, I have to move. It’s in my blood, even if my blood moves through my veins in clumsy, inelegant ways.

The compromise I’ve made with myself is simple. First, I always have a beer or some other drink. The hardest part about concert dancing is deciding what to do with your hands, and a drink reduces that problem by 50 percent. Others like to twirl their hands around in glow stick fashion, hold them above their head, or pump them like pistons. When I reached out to my friend Justin about other uses for the hands, he came up with this one: “Hand on heart tapping the beat, other hand pointing skyward, eyes closed, head up, foot stomping. I call it “the worship.”

There are a million ways to go. But I just hold my beer, sway back and forth a bit from the hips, nod my head, and try to remember not to bite my lip or close my mouth. With the other hand, I do the “half-worship” and tap the rhythm out on my stomach. If people are jumping, I’ll jump, because it’s safe.

Is it still awkward looking, this spectacle? Yes. But amid the tightly packed crowd, my trusty formula helps me escape detection. In the cursed world of dancing, that’s the best I can hope for. Damn you, dad! Damn you!