I can’t stop thinking about dancing. My life since lockdown has settled into dull rounds of things that can be defended as “essential” to any officious onlookers, and nothing could be more plainly extraneous than dancing.
Add to that the terrible, horrifying intimacy of the dance floor now we have all become accustomed to moving around at the centre of a 12-foot circle of impenetrable space. I get twitchy if someone starts queuing at less than the recommended distance from me. The idea that I ever used to bump around to music with friends and strangers in darkened, drunken, crowded rooms seems as unlikely as, say, eating a bat.
For about two years from when I was 16, my existence revolved almost entirely around dancing. Saturday meant working all day in a supermarket, to make the money that I would spend later on a ten-pack of cigarettes, entry to a nightclub and my share of the taxi home.
My best friends were the girls I went dancing with. We talked about things that had happened while we had been out dancing, and what might happen the next time we went dancing. When we went shopping, it was for things to wear while dancing, which would inevitably be short, tight and cheap (since they had to be bought with whatever was left over after the fags and the door fee).
It’s important that you don’t come away with the impression that any of this was good, because it was all terrible. Some people, though, do have a youthful nightlife worth memorialising. Some people are part of scenes, in which the going out and the dressing up and the music the DJ plays coalesce into a new kind of art where the audience becomes the performance, and that performance begets its own creations.
In 1979, Steve Strange launched a Bowie night called Blitz in a London wine bar; the door policy was that he let you in if he liked your look and thought you’d fit, leading to a trail of aspirant Blitz Kids snaking up to the door in get-ups that were part Weimar and part sci-fi.
Blitz only lasted till 1980, but its crowd was the foundation of ’80s music. Almost everything came out of there. Not just the costumed archness of the New Romantics like Spandau Ballet (Blitz’s house band) but also the straight-up pop of Culture Club (Boy George worked the cloakroom) and Bananarama, whose Siobhan Fahey recalls spending the whole week scavenging and crafting so she could throw together “a mix of glam, military and strangeness” that would get her into the club.
I can get behind the talk of Blitz spirit if and only if it refers to dancing
The whole point was that, whoever you were the rest of the time, you could pose as someone for the night. Everything was preparation for your moment on the dance floor.
Blitz’s name, and the wartime chic it inspired, were hardly incidental. Dancing and catastrophe move hand-in-hand. In Simone de Beauvoir’s novel She Came to Stay, based on Beauvoir’s own life in 1930s Paris. The glib bohemians who populate it drift deeper into nightlife as invasion becomes more and more of a certainty: “Faced with the threat of possible disaster, a dance-hall was considered a better refuge than the theatre.”
The Blitz Kids were escaping the drudge of run-down ’70s Britain, but their instincts were sharpened by the Cold War. When, coming full-circle, Bowie cast Blitz regulars in his video for Ashes to Ashes, he put them in a blasted world of black skies and pink seas: they looked perfectly at home in the apocalypse.
At the end of everything, what is there to do but be spectacular? There has been a lot of inappropriate talk about Blitz spirit relating to coronavirus, which I can get behind if and only if it refers to dancing. As a grown-up, going out dancing has drifted further and further into special occasion territory: something for hen dos, weddings and major birthdays only, like the good glassware.
This scarcity plus my own love of dancing means I tend to bring it whenever there’s an opportunity, regardless of appropriateness. Highlights of shame include hijacking a party in a cricket club to twerk to Nicki Minaj, doing deathdrops onto a sticky brewpub floor, and grinding up on the comic novelist Kathy Lette (let the record state that she loved it).
Sometimes it’s the right time, though, or at least the end times. My last weekend before lockdown was spent at a friend’s fortieth, where everything was laced with a hectic feeling of finality. Travelling hundreds of miles by train, meeting new people, hugging — even then, these were beginning to feel like actions that belonged to a different lifetime, as our dependable futures were being cancelled item by item.
After the civilised dinner, my friend’s husband put on a playlist, and the party erupted into dancing that went on till 4am. When things are desperate, you don’t want to be the audience, you want to be the show. Going dancing is impossible, and it’s the only proper thing to want to do right now.
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