Dancing to Live Music

I enjoy listening to music. I can stay still and just listen to it inside my head, as is generally expected of seated audiences, but I do prefer to listen where I'm at liberty to move about. Some folk describe the resulting movement as dance; and when I see performances of modern dance I realise that they're doing professionally what my instincts have taught me to make up, albeit less skillfully, on the fly. For the sake of brevity, and respect for those who so describe it, I'll thus refer to how I move while listening to music as dancing – just please don't confuse it with the quite different activity that bears the same name, that folk do with each other.

I dance to the music where (most) others dance with the other dancers, if you can make any sense of the distinction I'm trying to draw there. In the latter, the music influences the rhythm and style of movement, but the movement mostly responds to the other people (which I'm not so good at). In contrast – although I dodge the folk around me and may even sometimes (clumsily) respond to any attempt they make to dance with me – I am listening to the music, identifying the diverse layers of structure in the patterns of its sound and letting parts of me respond to the rhythms present at various of those layers. The result is contemplative, even introverted; it can become a meditative trance, albeit one involving acute attention to all that is going on around me, that I must dodge. Various folk, watching me, have accused me of ballet and tai chi; I even took a couple of tai chi classes out of consequent curiosity, but these taught me static slices of movement, where my instincts produce entirely dynamic responses to music.

Because social dancing is intrinsically about interaction with others, it is normally understood as an extrovert activity; folk expect those doing it to care how they look to others watching. Anyone dancing as vigorously as I listen to music is assumed to be hoping to garner attention; extroverts are expected to care what others think of them. In contrast, my main obstacle to being able to get started is the terror at being watched; I have to struggle to not care what anyone might think, to ignore any watchers and let the music take up my full attention. To succeed at that, I get my conscious mind out of the way and hand over my body as a puppet whose strings are the music, leaving the band to make the puppet dance while my conscious mind watches – often awed at the feats of agility that result – and pays enough attention to crowd dynamics to avoid collisions. Getting my conscious mind out of the way takes either a good band or a moderate amount of cider. My preferred venues are pubs; in Britain the cider could usually be taken for granted, but I now live in Norway, where it's not so ubiquitous.

I have danced on the ball-room floor of a ship in a storm (everyone else was sitting down or holding on to furniture, so I had the whole space to use as I pleased); never knowing where the floor shall be next time I land on it was a particularly amusing challenge. I have danced in muddy fields, on uneven floors, on sand and gravel; on ordinary floors barefoot or in heavy boots, on shiny floors in smooth-soled shoes. I have danced on the harbour-side in Arendal to the stochastic noise field of fireworks exploding everywhere out to the horizon at new year. I have danced in the streets in the heat of summer, in the cold of winter and in pouring rain.

Twirling Loon I have danced to many styles of music. I don't have to like the music itself to enjoy dancing to it – but liking the music does help. I prefer dancing to live bands, though recorded music is entirely feasible (it's just less fun; I shalln't pretend to be able to explain why). If the musicians enjoy playing it, I'm typically going to enjoy listening to it. I've enjoyed dancing to musicians using Robot Ringo backing; though musicians who play along to the Ringo (i.e. let the robot lead, rather than playing around it) are a waste of time. I dance to the music I'm about to hear, seemingly knowing what's coming before it does; I suppose my subliminal mind must know more about the natural dynamics of music than I can explain, since this works with bands I've never heard before, playing music I've never heard before (and I don't believe in clairvoyance, not even the fraction of a second that'd be needed to explain this effect). The way I dance may well be related to the way I juggle.

Sometimes I get asked where I learned to dance. I dimly suspect my parents had me take some dancing, possibly even ballet, classes when I was maybe six years old; but my memory is entirely vague. Assorted village events involved old-fashioned folk dances (square dances in particular) and a school-teacher's wife made attempts at teaching teen-aged boys Scottish cantry dancing. As a student, I fell in with a motley crew of mediaeval dancers; and later with a crew of Molly dancers (this is a bit like Morris dancing). I've enjoyed watching performances of modern dance and ballet. All of these have had some influence, at least, but mostly I've learned by letting the music and my body find out what to do with each other. I was too shy to dance, for the longest time, despite the best efforts of all those teachers. Some time in my late teens, listening to some school-mates playing jazz, while tapping my feet, I felt an urge to also wiggle my fingers. That started out looking like an attempt to play air piano (as it were) but eventually my hands broke free of the constraints of an imaginary key-board and wiggled where they would, dragging my arms along for the ride. Eventually that was to drag the rest of me in and it all got a whole lot more fun. In practice, I learned to dance on the dance-floors of many and diverse pubs (and a few other music venues), principally during my third decade. Subsequent decades have surely seen what I learned evolve as I practice it more.

Dancing typically leaves me exhausted (I'm getting old): but it's therapeutic in ways I can't describe – setting aside my ego to let the music take over has its own virtues and helps me detangle my mind; the exercise does me good (and helps me lose some of my spare tire); I gain a better appreciation of the music, thereby, than I can by sitting still to listen; and it even amuses some (for all that I fear it annoys others) of the folk who frequent the pubs in which I most often do it. So I don't intend to give up any time soon.


Folk sporadically ask me what styles of music I like, expecting an answer in terms of conventional genres. My tastes are rather eclectic and ignore genre boundaries, though: the nearest thing to a unifying theme is that I usually like music more if the musicians were having fun making it. There are exceptions: I am fairly sure Fripp and Eno enjoyed making No Pussyfooting (which I bought without a second thought, based only on who made it) but I was just lost; fortunately, it was obviously going to be more interesting to a guitarist, so I gave it to my younger brother, Sam.

I also like some of the weird and wonderful ways folk are having fun with technology to make music. Let's start with two examples and see what else I can collect:

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