Strictly Come Dancing has been struck by the curse of light entertainment

As the man who brought the twist to Cambridge’s English faculty, I know about dancing. And Strictly trivialises it

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The Independent Online

This week – the untold story of my life in dance. Clear your mind of Billy Elliot. Or, if you must, think Billy Elliot in reverse – a boy who infuriated his father by refusing to dance and wanting to have boxing lessons instead. Of the dances my father urged on me, I most dreaded the conga, the Russian kazatzka, and the last waltz with whichever great-great-grandmother was still standing. I was too shy to try any of them. Girls might  see. Or worse, join me.

But it wasn’t just girls I was afraid to dance with, it was the older women in my family as well. To do something as intimate as conga behind a woman I didn’t know was bad enough, but to conga behind a woman I did know was worse. In despair with me, my father suggested I forget the conga and just smooch. It was my mother who intervened at this point, saying that she thought smooching with my aunties would be inappropriate. I agreed with her. There’s a kind of young man who cannot smooch with a woman without feeling he has to ask her to marry him. And for all my inexperience, I knew you didn’t do that with your aunties.

I went through the era of Bill Haley and early Elvis in an agony of incompetence. The kazatzka had been challenging enough, but the jive could kill. I’d accompany my tall friend Malcolm to the Plaza Ballroom, where he would kick his legs so high in the air that everybody had to get off the floor, he thought to watch and admire him, but in truth to avoid injury. Here, hiding in a corner, I would invent stories to explain why I couldn’t leave my seat: a slipped disc, ripped ligaments, a bruised heart, torn trousers. One night I saw one of my aunties there, smooching with a man who wasn’t my uncle. Had I needed confirmation that dancing was the devil’s work, this was it.

And then something wonderful happened. The twist. Whether it was because the twist obviated the need for close contact, or because the corkscrew action suited the configuration of my pelvis, I cannot say, but I took to it at once. Not only could I do it, I taught others to do it. This got me through my first year at university where almost everybody was as wary of  moving their bodies as I had been and only I could twist. Undergraduates of both sexes queued outside my college room for lessons. Even the Master wondered if I’d show his wife a few steps. “There are no steps, Master,” I told him. By the end of Michaelmas term 1961 the twist had swept through the English Faculty of the University of Cambridge. Whatever historians of popular culture in academia say, this was my doing.

From here on my attitude to dancing in general changed. I don’t say I ever looked happy or comfortable doing it, and I of course refused to perform any routine whose genesis was the package holiday on the Costa Brava, but at least I never again had to feign angina or torn trousers. All this I mention to explain my vexed attitude to Strictly Come Dancing, or “Strictly” as enthusiasts call it, much as luvvies speak of the “Dream”. We watch it in our house, anyway, ritualistically, with friends and a grand spread of cheese straws, pizza and red wine. This, I’m told, is called relaxing and is good for me. And as far as the company, the cheese straws, the pizza and the red wine are concerned, I agree.

Nothing beats a merry gathering. It’s what we have gathered to watch that’s the problem. “Couldn’t we watch it with the television off?” I wonder. But the suggestion has no takers. This is light entertainment, and we all need to be lightly entertained. Demur to that truism and you ruin everybody’s night. That was what my father used to take me to task for – ruining everybody’s night. I don’t doubt that Matthew Arnold’s father used to say the same to him. But at least I broke out and learned to twist, which I bet Matthew Arnold never did. Isn’t that enough?

And yes, as long as Strictly Come Dancing was about people discovering a gift for dancing they never knew they had – an unexpected grace, a fluidity of body and soul previously locked away inside them (think the human corkscrew which the twist told me I could become) – then it was engaging and at times even touching. But little by little the curse of light entertainment descended on the original conception, lightness begetting lightness as surely as ignorance begets ignorance. I say nothing of the lameness of Bruce Forsyth’s jokes, which were apparently part of his charm – a subtlety lost on me – but which promise to continue anyway now he’s gone. And nothing, either, of how celebrity has become so debased a concept as to mean somebody of whom no one has heard.

More seriously objectionable is the way the judges, who once demonstrated knowledgeable criticism in action – this is what you’re doing wrong, this is how you could do it better, these are the lines and shapes we want to see – have succumbed to the lure of celebrity and declined to pantomimic versions of themselves, gurning, preening, feigning lust, exchanging leers of suggestiveness and innuendo.

In the same collusive spirit we are asked to wonder, when teacher and learner are paired off, whether shenanigans are to be anticipated, whether the spouse seen smiling weakly in the audience as a dancer wraps her legs around the husband’s waist, or the wife collapses in a panting heap into her partner’s arms, is soon to be made a fool of.

And so, ironically, it falls to me to speak up for dancing as an activity too intrinsically elegant to be demeaned, as movement whose subtle disciplines are worthy of serious respect, and as an art sufficiently sensual in itself not to be in need of low-brow sexing up.

We accept today that Disney’s cartoons of animals in tutus degraded them. Reader, humans can be degraded too.

Howard Jacobson’s new novel ‘J’ has been shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize