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Joel Achenbach

Dancing Machine

He may look like a rhythm-challenged guy, but wait till the music comes on

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page W07

When i was a teenager it was extremely uncool to dance. It was almost unthinkable, like having short hair or being Republican or not liking Led Zeppelin. Dance music meant disco, and disco sucked, notoriously, being an art form epitomized by the Bee Gees, aka the Singing Mice. What was cool was to play air guitar and argue about who was the greatest guitar god, Duane Allman, Jimmy Page or Jimi Hendrix. (C'mon, dude, it's Duane.)

In college my policy changed, because a guy has to do whatever it takes to meet women, including something as onerous and humiliating and girly as dancing. To be precise, at first I didn't dance so much as . . . well, vibrate violently. I looked like a person being electrocuted. Eventually, though, I developed the profound belief, almost a faith, that I had become a good dancer, that not only could I shake my groove thang but that my thang when shaken was groovier than the average thang.

(Richard Thompson)

But you have to pick your spots when you dance at a party. You don't want to be the only person on the floor, an object of study, analysis and possibly derision. You cool it for a while. You have a drink or two. You observe the situation. Then you strike like a jungle cat.

So I was at this party the other night and struck hugely. First I had a few mood-enhancing beverages, to loosen the limbs. My personality blossomed. During a conversation with an exotic Filipina, I declared that I'm not actually white.

You have to understand, this was one of those parties where a pale person could get ethnicity envy. As a "white male," I usually go through life with no sense of having any race or gender whatsoever. Women have gender, people of color have race: That's just the white-male premise. It's insane, it's unfair, but generations of cultural privilege will do that to a person. But then you sometimes find yourself in a situation where there are lots of people who are not pale and male, and you sense your ethnic deficiency. Your identity lacks an interesting adjective. You're blank, vanilla, a nothingburger. You are Cream of Wheat. You are a cracker. You are grits without even a dab of butter. To become something more than this, you realize, is your special challenge in life.

Your struggle.

And my assertion about my ethnicity was true, practically, almost: I got some funky stuff in the genome. Some First Peoples blood, some Potawatomi, family legend holds. That surely means lots of mysterious Asiatic genes, some Chinese maybe, some Ainu or Polynesian, and there's gotta be some African in there, too, or at least that's how I feel. Plus there are the rumors that I'm Jewish, which probably have some seed of truth. I'm what you'd call off-white.

And then the music got good, and I was on the dance floor, proving that I wasn't Caucasoid. I showed them all kinds of off-white moves. Technically I had a dance partner (or "victim," the cynics might say), but this was, ultimately, a personal demonstration.

Good dancing requires a great deal of concentration. I kept telling myself:

1. Dance faster.

2. Bob head in joyful, wild, "party-guy" fashion.

3. Snap fingers! Snap! Snap!

4. Do something intriguing with pelvis.

5. Try to get foot movements to match rhythm of music (so difficult that this must be labeled "optional").

And so on. By late in the evening, I kept hearing people say things like, "You sure have a lot of energy" and, "You looked like you were having a good time" -- which sounded vaguely non-complimentary.

Gradually, the picture emerged of a man who, when he dances, is unusually bouncy, a bit too enthusiastic and rabbity, who bobs up and down, and is determined to outdance everyone else despite deep cultural handicaps; a man who, instead of pivoting his hips and sliding around and doing interesting things with his feet, insists on basically jumping and leaping, like the floor is burning his feet.

It all came clear to me: I spent two hours bouncing instead of dancing, being all rabbity rabbity rabbity, with the big goofy smile of a person who should have switched earlier in the evening to water. I was an embarrassment to the entire Off-White American community.

I'm going back to air guitar.

Joel Achenbach is a staff writer for The Washington Post and regularly burns the rug on the Achenblog at washingtonpost.com.


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