Humiliation on the dance floor began at school and took a long time to overcome, writes Pete Martin. So isn’t it time we started embracing the life-enhancing benefits of dancing?
“ARE ye dancing?” “Are ye asking?” When I was a schoolboy, I saw Francie and Josie deliver this routine at Perth Theatre.
Dressed in vivid Teddy-boy suits, the Scots comedy duo – aka Rikki Fulton and Jack Milroy – lampooned the Scottish dancehall mating ritual.
Fresh from the searing humiliation of Scottish country dancing classes at school, my own answer to both questions would have been, “Naw” and categorically “Naw”.
In the run-up to the festive season, our gym teacher Mrs Loudon had tried to make our primary school Christmas party more magical by teaching us all The Dashing White Sergeant and The Gay Gordons.
It happened every year but still caught us by surprise. Like Mrs Loudon whacking a hockey ball, and it cracking off your shins, the sudden shock reminded you that PE could also stand for Painful Experience.
A big part of the problem was picking a partner. By primary seven, the wise guys were trying to shuffle towards the pretty girls and away from the socially undesirable females. You suspect that the girls were doing exactly the same. The result was an undignified rammy only producing random pairings.
Statistically, you were more likely to find yourself being birled round by an unkempt, burly girl as holding hands with a beauty queen.
Mrs Loudon was a fine teacher and famously graced any curling rink. On dry land though, she wasn’t exactly Isadora Duncan. Under her track-suited tutelage, we thundered round the gym hall in varying degrees of disorder like chaos theory in action. Somewhere in a jungle far away, a butterfly fluttered its wings, and then an elephant stood on it.
And so we arrived at secondary school – and our first proper school Christmas disco – having no idea how to dance.
Your mum and dad had the foxtrot. At any “do”, you saw them glide elegantly, effortlessly round the floor to the Big Band sound. Older cousins could lindy hop a little, jiving and rocking around the clock to the likes of Bill Haley. Even those who grew up in the early 60s had the twist and the watusi and the sort of go-go dancing you see Ringo doing at a night club in The Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night movie.
Then came flower power, pot and LSD. Hippies didn’t dance, man. Maybe it was just too hot in a kaftan, under all that hair. In films from music festivals in the late sixties, you just see the odd girl waving her arms around floppily, like she’s trying to cast a spell after taking too many muscle relaxants.
What was left for my generation? Both of our feet. Simply watch any episode of Top Of The Pops from the early seventies to get a sense of how rhythmically challenged we’d become. You’ll see the kids in the audience more or less immobile, swaying a bit or doing tiny hops from foot to foot like they need the loo, out of time to the music.
Of course, we knew some people could dance. Pan’s People could dance, but they were girls, and wore hot pants. That little kid – the one with the big afro, yes, Michael Jackson, that was his name – he could dance. But I’m fairly sure he wasn’t Scottish.
Meanwhile, down the disco in the local Scottish church hall, our dance moves were as muted as the oil wheel lighting. As the evening ended and a hit by Slade bellowed across the dance floor, even a lad in Levis, braces and cherry red Doc Martens might finally feel impelled to dance.
His favoured step (singular) might involve tapping one foot, then the other, while rotating the torso to move the arms, stiffly. Repeat as required.
Luckily, across most of Scotland, Northern soul then spun into town. For our younger readers, this was a strange dance (and record collecting) cult which started in Manchester’s mid-sixties mod scene.
With religious zeal and the slogan, “Keep the faith”, it entered the mainstream briefly in the mid-seventies.
The dancing echoed the high-energy style of James Brown with spins and backdrops. Wearing Oxford bags – trousers like big flares only parallel – and leather-soled shoes, the faithful would shake talcum on the dance floor to help them shimmy and spin.
The music itself was like Mowtown with a thumping beat. As befits a cult mentality, the tunes were often wilfully obscure. There were hidden gems – Little Anthony and The Imperials’ Better Use Your Head being my own favourite – but a lot of dross too.
And so, at the Soul Club at least, it became almost socially acceptable for the working class Scottish male to dance. My mate Danny was a great mover and we discovered that girls liked guys who danced – even if other guys didn’t.
Dan was cool and handsome, and just happened to be hard as nails, so the pair of us could ponce about with impunity.
Forty years later, “the faith” has ossified into a bit of a pastiche of itself. Today, at any shindig with a decent age range, you’ll still see two or three middle-aged men in Fred Perrys doing a pale imitation.
Still, life goes on, and the beat doesn’t. One minute you were burning up the dance floor. Next your kids are burning up with embarrassment. The question is: what is a dad to do, if not dad dancing?
Inevitably, one of the challenges life throws your way is trying to learn to dance properly. A while back, my better half and I subscribed to salsa lessons. The syncopated snake-hipped Latino teachers looked like sex on a stick. We just looked like sticks.
Undaunted, the other weekend, we attended a vintage festival in Glasgow. Early on Saturday, the Charleston beckoned.
Taught by a lovely flapper, we joined a class mostly made up of women – from grannies to young girls – with just a smattering of menfolk. It was a right laugh. Wild and immoral in the Prohibition era, the 1920s dance craze now seems like a simple, unsexy, slightly comedic way to work up a sweat. If your aim is to look cool and pull, the Charleston may not be for you.
On Sunday, we flung ourselves into the foxtrot and I want to tell you that we have found our perfect dance form. But that would be untrue. I picture my mum and dad twirling round the dance floor, and see myself moving with all the grace of a shopping trolley with a sticky wheel.
Like many simple things, these dances seem easy to do badly, and hard to master. What I do learn, is that there’s more to dancing than mating. The human urge to cut a rug appears to be more multi-functional.
Unlike night clubs, which foster the idea that dancing is only for the young and the drunk, these dance parties attracted all ages and felt like community. There’s a real feel-good vibe.
There are older couples putting us to shame with their style. There are young women enjoying dancing together, maybe because there aren’t many young men present. It’s about shaking your booty as a shared experience – letting go rather than bottling up.
I’m struck by the idea that we can avoid getting down by getting down. You can change your mind by moving your body. In a country which struggles with health and well-being, any activity which both burns calories and lifts low mood can’t be bad.
So, can the average uptight Scottish man lose his fear of shaking his tail feathers? Or will we remain content to prowl the sidelines of life until we, literally, shuffle off the planet? That is the question. “Are ye dancing?” I’m only asking.