Let's get cerebral

So you thought clubbing was mindless fun? Not for the new breed of dance floor intellectuals, says Oliver Bennett
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE DANCE music scene has been writ large for a decade or so, and during these years, popular sentiment has built up a tragic picture of drugged and glassy-eyed youth, arms reaching out moth-like to the light, their only verbal appreciation a gurned "wicked", or "nice one", before they pass out with heat-stroke and a nosebleed.

And yet, now that the scene has progressed, it is luring in a different sort of punter, more mature and conceptual, who brings a certain chin- stroking, analytical approach to dance. For writers and academics are finding that raving fulfils certain needs, and these boffins of the beat like to chill out with a chat about the anthropology of trance-dancing as they sit among the post-rave scatter cushions.

An accusation levelled against techno and its various musical relations is that it is moronic, robotic, banal; of interest only to the basest of disco needs. Not so, say the smart rave protagonists. "Certainly one of the great lures for the writer and intellectual is that non-verbal, total immersion in the music," says Geoff Dyer, whose novel, Paris Trance (to be published in April by Abacus), is marketed as "a Tender is the Night for the Ecstasy Age". But that's not all: "I see techno as the last great narrative of the century. After all the fragmentation of post-modernity, everything is reconstituted in techno." Dyer has reflected this in his novel by reconstituting (and acknowledging) lines from Hemingway, among others.

Crucially important, the boffin line goes, is that techno and trance is atavistic and futuristic at once: aspiring to primordial ritual while also being, as Dyer says, "reliant on a bank of new technologies: pharmaceutical, technical and musical." Also significant is that techno is, to use the old Modernist phrase, a truly international style. "You get it everywhere in the world in slightly different forms," says Dyer, likening it to fast- food franchising.

Author Tim Pears, whose book, In A Land of Plenty, was published last year, is also an aficionado of the rave, and says: "A good DJ does weave a narrative, a story. And you get the situation where they pass the story on, like a baton, to another DJ." But mostly, adds Pears, he is involved because it is "an intense, happy experience" that marries the mind and body.

Another analyst of the scene, radio pundit Charles Ledesma, says that techno is, contrary to popular opinion, "not simple music. Much is sophisticated and complex, with elements from sources as eclectic as Indian raga and the industrial music of the Eighties. At the top end, it is contemporary classical music."

Roger Griffin is professor of history at Oxford Brookes University and a specialist in fascism and nationalism - a knowledge which, strange as it may seem, he brings to the dance floor. "Rave is like a positive Nuremberg Rally," he says. "Everyone is involved in individual expression, but the mass is as one."

Professor Griffin didn't "get" techno when he first heard it: "I couldn't get beyond the beat." But after his wife took him to an Exodus party in Luton, he began raving. Since then he has been to all-nighters at the rate of about one a week and, in between writing books on twentieth-century nationalism, has written sleeve notes for CDs. He says the scene has "changed his life", and he brings to the rave a mass of historical references from Dionysus to William Blake.

"Western intellectuals have been dismissive of dance music," he says. "As a social group, they have a problem letting themselves go. It all goes back to Descartes and the mind-body dualism. But I'm sure Descartes would have loved the primordial experience of dancing to techno and trance music." Those uptight intellectuals with their over-reliance on the cerebral have, he says, suffered from "a hypertrophy of the left frontal lobe". But along comes the "archetypal experience of the dance", which "accesses the primitive limbic system as well as the neo-cortex", enabling the raver to unify the intellectual and physical and "access a higher state". Prof Griffin says that it is "a complex physiological process", but one that enables him to have what he calls a "peak experience".

It is useful that the rave scene is inclusive. Prof Griffin, 50 years old this month, says, "What's wonderful about the dance scene now is that people with what were once called 'straight' lives are dipping into it." The "weekend hippy" construct of the Woodstock generation does not compare with it, he thinks, and he cites another positive side effect: "It keeps you very fit." As for drugs, Prof Griffin quotes Blake: "No bird soars higher than if it soars on its own wings."

He even finds the fashion side of the dance scene interesting: "a bit like the salon scene in eighteenth-century France." But the important point is that raving offers an experience that is missing from modern life. "A secular society does not train people in ritual experience. The rave brings some of that back."

Most of his raving friends are "high-powered people", he says. "We have found what's missing through the dance scene. We take it seriously, but it's fun, too. Serious like yoga is serious."

How do the more callow ravers feel about it? "They are chuffed that there's a professor in the house," he says. "It gives them a sense that we're all doing something important."

The more radical club-runners appreciate this interest. Chris Deckker, a partner with Return to the Source, is delighted that rave is being taken seriously. "It shows there is something deeper here than just being off your face," he says. "People are becoming inquisitive, and there is this intellectual stirring on the scene." Such is the demand that Return to the Source produce 74-page booklets with their CDs, including texts by Professor Griffin. Whatever else, it sure changes the meaning of getting mental on the dance floor.

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