There’s a monthly club party I go to in Berlin with the promo slogan “nothing matters when we’re dancing”. Contrary to what you’d expect, its demographic is not students and twentysomethings: it’s mainly thirty-plus and mixed in gender, occupation and race. In Berlin the dance floor’s been a democratiser since the Berlin Wall came down; it’s often said that it was on dance floors that German reunification first happened.
Emma Warren’s Dance Your Way Home is a beautiful and timely defence of dancing. Whether it’s at home or with friends, professionally or for fun, dance is one of our most natural outlets for creativity and connection. Warren’s book focuses on dance in community and culture.
She talks to dance historian Toni Basil (whose CV includes choreographing the video for Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime) and hip-hop dancer Henry Link. She meets Dr Peter Michael Nielsen, whose office has “a bass chair which he helped invent because he believes applied bass can improve the symptoms of a number of ailments”. She cites scholars like Edwin Denby, who discusses ballet’s origins in the classical world, and Egil Bakka, a professor emeritus of dance studies who says that, at the evolutionary level, interaction is dance’s “core value”.
Warren learns how, in pre-industrial times, dance was more common and spontaneous than it is now. Modernity has alienated us from ourselves
The main thread is the influence on dance of the Black Atlantic (Black cultural hybridity following slavery and the African diaspora). We learn of the electric slide, a dance craze preceding the ‘Gangnam Style’ dance, and there are chapters on London bass music clubs Plastic People and DMZ. In New York, Warren looks at the queer ballroom scene and its links to the Loft, the mythologised 1970s party space created by David Mancuso.
‘I miss breakfast rolls and the sense of humour but our life in the US has been as normal as anyone else’s with young kids’
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Her tone is down to earth. Having been a girl bopping at home to Top of the Pops, Warren then experienced rave culture in the late 1980s. She went on to a career as a dance music journalist, interviewing the likes of Daft Punk, and would later see significance in how her parents Meg and Rick “met on the dance floor at the Sailing School, just off the Barbican in Plymouth”. Dance was in her genes. And not only in a positive way: her Irish grandmother emigrated to Birmingham around the time of our repressive Dancehalls Act.
We also get the science. We learn that ‘dancing increases opioid production in the brain, especially when people move in synchrony. It uses more calories than cycling, swimming or running’ and ‘improves emotional states and has an overall energising effect.’ Studies show that dancing improves out-of-the-box thinking and, when pregnant, helps foetal development and maternal wellbeing.
Among young’uns “simple dance moves such as swinging arms or stepping from side to side drew children together emotionally, with participants reporting that afterwards they felt closer to the groups they’d danced with”, But as in many other areas, our creative impulse in dance is stymied by the adult mania for competition. “Dance classes for tots often involve examination, as if learning to dance, even for fun, and even if you’re only five years old, requires the imposition of quality control,” Warren says.
Narratively, the book’s “personal journey of discovery” format is occasionally tonally odd
At a conference on folk dance, Warren learns how, in pre-industrial times, dance was more common and spontaneous than it is now. Modernity has alienated us from ourselves. Men weren’t always coy about throwing shapes in public; it’s a culturally determined hang-up that can, of course, magically dissolve after a few drinks.
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Warren says her book is told via “10,000 rabbit holes”. Narratives are interrupted or taper off. The book could have been more tightly edited in places. For those purely into dance, the long focus on UK acid house may be uninteresting; it’s a story told many times before. I’d like to have read about 1950s and 1960s dance crazes, or about dance in cinema. Narratively, the book’s “personal journey of discovery” format is occasionally tonally odd (as when describing an email correspondence during the pandemic lockdown).
Recently, Warren was diagnosed with dyspraxia, a condition in which poor balance affects co-ordination. ‘Dance class allowed me to recognise that a number of things that I thought were “just me” were actually just standard for the non-neurotypical,’ she writes. A lot of the people I chat to at Berghain seem neurodivergent. For those of such minds, dancing liberates, as it skips past conventional semantics. “Dancing is a basic need which has somehow been hived off from everyday life, at least for some people,” Warren writes. Books like hers will help turn that situation around.