George Bernard Shaw, a great wit and occasionally a bit of an old goat, defined dancing as ‘the vertical expression of a horizontal desire’. Bollywood uses this elision all the time to get past the censors, and so does everyone else. Dance is a universal, endorphin producing physical response to rhythm, it shows off the body fantastically when it’s well done, and it’s one of the few socially sanctioned ways in which you can manhandle a complete stranger and not have them slap you. What’s not to love?
But if dancing comes as naturally to human beings as the other horizontal thingy, then it can, likewise, be a site of acute anxiety and self-doubt—only more so because dance is so much more public. Coming to a place in your life where you can dance joyously and beautifully, eyes closed, lost in the music, is a long road full of anguish and ill-timed zits, especially if you grew up in the shadow of Flashdance and Dirty Dancing. Looking back upon the school dances and parties I suffered through in my early teens, I’m thankful just to have survived.
For a time one could get by simply by denying the whole enterprise. I spent many evenings with my backside planted in a chair, scowling at anyone who approached. Even though every muscle twitched yearningly in response to the big hits of the day, the idea of sending my imperfect body out on a packed gymnasium floor to advertise its lack of coordination and total unsexiness, was simply not an option.
People higher up in the food chain could offer no words of comfort: my elder sister reported that she and a jug-eared partner had got their ears stuck behind each other. The dance floor was obviously full of nameless perils. So, while my friends set out on the road to self-knowledge and comfort by at first huddling together in a restless circle, and gradually relaxing into having fun, I just sat around acting as if fun and I were sworn enemies.
My friend Stephanie Watson tried hard to rescue me. At one dance, she and my other buddies picked me up and carried me out onto the floor. She looked me deep in the eyes and said, with genuine compassion, “Now I’m going to kick you until you move your legs.” She wasn’t one to speak an untruth, and so she duly began to kick my shins while I, who never said “Hmpf” unless I meant it, defiantly took it. She kicked a bit harder than compassion strictly warranted, and my affection for her suffered some temporary reverses, but I wouldn’t budge.
Then, one long summer in Delhi, just like that, I got over myself. There we were, some cousins at some house, with some music, and—importantly—no lights. All my repressed twitchings burst forth into a bout of utterly unselfconsciousness, and from that moment I was a fundamentally changed human being. I finally got it: it’s not what it looks like, it’s what it feels like. Back in school, I stepped out on the floor with my friends for the first time and discovered that it was much more embarrassing to have to stand down from my earlier hardline position than it was to actually dance.
Precisely because it’s so hard to overcome self-consciousness, I have a soft corner for Albert (played by Kevin James) in the movie Hitch. Albert is the model of the geeky, over-stylised, utterly uncool dancer, but he dances with such happy abandon that a silent cheer wells up in your heart. It’s a shock to the system when Will Smith, playing the dating coach, smacks Albert in the middle of his routine and yells: “Don’t you ever, ever do that again!”