Will Self: PsychoGeography

Strictly ballroom
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The Independent Online

Here's a picture of Madeleine Valedon warming up for the first live broadcast of Allons La Danse! from the now-famous Radio France studio underneath the Pont Neuf. The year was 1948 and French manhood was in a pitiful state: those Frenchmen who hadn't been emasculated by occupation were gelded by collaboration. A few brave fellows had taken to the maquis, only to discover that the thorns grievously scratched their testicles.

But that night the brilliant flash of Madeleine's petticoats awakened them all! Their dormant blood vessels began to stir to the hot rhythms of Les Jazzeurs, and when the outfit was joined by Django Reinhardt on guitar and Jean-Paul Sartre on flugelhorn, the joint really began to jump. That first broadcast was watched by a colossal audience of 94, of whom 30 alone were in the Elysée Palace. De Gaulle himself is said to have arisen from his uncomfortable Louis Quinze armchair and essayed a few steps on the echoing marble floor. A nation was reborn - and all through the power of the dance!

I recall this because I was out dancing last weekend, and it occurred to me that just like any other form of physical activity, dance mediates place. The following morning a friend called me up: "You were spotted last night," he told me, as if I had committed some fearful indiscretion, "dancing at Shoreditch Town Hall." It was true, it was me, and worse still: I'd been dancing with my wife! How louche can you get? We rose from our Eton mess to join some of the other wedding guests, who were bobbing about on the wide expanse of parquet. On the stage itself was a DJ at the turntables, and a lot of little girls in lovely party dresses, gyrating with that complete fusion of abandonment and unselfconsciousness that only the pre-pubescent can really achieve.

As I minced hither and thither, I took in my surroundings: the high, panelled and gilded walls of the chamber; the enormous swags of curtain either side of the stage. It all spoke of solid, 19th-century municipal pride - and so I began to adjust my Terpsichorean promenade accordingly. I strutted and preened as if my collar were trimmed with fur. I stuck my face to the floor, so as to give the impression that my neck was being yanked upon by a heavy chain of office. I shook my fist in the air as if I were ringing a bell and cried out "Oyez! Oyez!" Any old fool can dance in time, but dancing in place takes real élan.

Ah! Dancing - it's wasted on the young. When you're a young man, in the full blush of burgeoning sexuality, dancing can be a bit of a torment. As I bopped to "Killer Queen" in my asinine, bell-bottomed trousers, I could never quite rid myself of the suspicion that my every spasm and contortion was being filmed by secret cameras, and that soon this footage would be screened in the local Odeon, so that all my so-called friends could come along to laugh and point.

True, young women seem to dance quite happily together, but I don't believe them to be where they physically are when they do it. Rather, they are transported into a parallel bower, and here they frolic, like stateless naiads. The male dance is an agonised demonstration of putative prowess, a mapping out of desire: "Come to my place," the he-bee buzzes, "I've got lots of alcoholic honey." By contrast, the dancing queens are so many pretty blooms all in row. The more they move, the more they remain static, luring us insects into their flytraps.

But all of this is in time - not in place. Dancing in place is complex and initiatory. It speaks of society - not only sex. I remember being on the fringes of the Barkly Tablelands in Northern Australia, and watching the young lads of an Aboriginal mob practising for their initiation. Looked at one way, their dancing was unspectacular: a series of short skips, a brief hoedown in the dust accompanied by an ululation from the company, then they ran off again. Yet concentrated in their movements were all the red-dirt expanses that spread out to the horizon; the crumbling ranges of ancient hills; the conical, raised waterholes of the white Australian ranchers. I'd never seen people dance so fervently in place before.

Or at least, not since I myself, wired to pinging point on amphetamine sulphate, juddered, gobbed and bashed into my comrades like a humanoid bowling ball. That was dancing in place, and the place was this piss-stinky basement club, or that trashed squat. Our spasms and isms were our celebration of place, our drunken cries our ululation, and for those frenzied hours we were quite as aboriginal as any teenagers, anywhere.