On Excess (Or: The Problem of Shimmying in Public Past the Age of 35)

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It’s one of the great pleasures/curses/ironies of my life that I was too shy and self-conscious to do a lot of things when I was the age when society allows or accepts your doing them, and am only confident and unconcerned enough to do them now that the world looks on such activities with disapproval and discomfort. Nowadays, I’m supposed to possess a certain matronly gravitas which would have me going on guided educational tours, volunteering as a docent at museums, subscribing to a matinee program at the ballet, and knitting slippers—all productive, improving past-times that I would totally do (or have done), and which don’t interfere with a decent, disciplined 9.30 bedtime. What I didn’t or couldn’t do when I was younger but that I really want to do now, and no longer am supposed to: scramble over rocks; do anything remotely associated with gigs, including using the word gig; swear impressively; dye my hair blue; stay up past 11 to go dancing in night clubs.

The last one poses the greatest dilemma. I love dancing of all kinds, ballet, classes at the gym, salsa, what wikipedia calls “disco”; and though I’m a reasonably social person, and, in fact, have met a lot of my friends at dance classes—I can’t find anyone to Go Out Dancing with me for love or money. When I was in my 20s, I was the one making up excuses about staying home with my cat and my research papers; now I’m the one optimistically carrying glitter around in her purse just in case the night comes when we overcome the myriad logistical (trivial) and social (significant) barriers to staying up past our bedtimes to dance.*

Part of the difficulty isn’t actually the dancing itself, it’s everything else we’ve put in its way. It used to be that dancing was a normal thing for people of all ages to do; there was room for it throughout people’s lives. But somehow everything has become so hectic and over-scheduled—with our unwitting complicity—that frivolities like dancing just don’t fit into regulated, working life. For me, it never has—when I was 18 and moved from the small town to the big city for university, and could finally go to the clubs and be a part of the scene, I was dismayed to learn that no-one went anywhere before 10, or, better 11. Why? Why must it be so late? Is it some kind of status display? (“I’m so glamorous I don’t have to get up before noon.”) Or a gesture of defiance? (“A job that starts before 10am, not to mention the work-week imposed by the industrial revolution, are for mindless proletariat slaves! Prove to the bourgeois capitalists that they don’t own your time by living on 4 hours of sleep!”) When I was a hyper-vigilant, overly-responsible student driven largely by a fear of failure, I couldn’t deal with the late hours. And now that I’m a hyper-vigilant, overly responsible worker largely driven by a fear of getting into trouble and failing to save enough for my 401k, thereby dooming myself to a retirement of poverty and desolation, I still can’t. My friends and I are all professional women (see “proletariat slaves,” above) who take it for granted that we must put in long hours at the office, take our work home with us on the weekends, get our medically-recommended allotment of sleep (with pillows slightly elevated to discourage puffiness around the eyes), and keep up with a strict exercise regimen that has us at Our Lady of Perpetual Vanity every Sunday at 9 am.

All facetiousness aside, there’s no doubt that we have responsibilities now that we didn’t then—never mind our jobs, more importantly there are children and, increasingly, aging parents who need us more than the dance club does. Even so, while we may not be able to go out a lot, staying up late is really just a scheduling problem—if we can manage everyone else’s productivity and still get ourselves to the airport at 5 in the morning for the flight to the meeting, and to the gym/dentist/ballet (matinee) on time, we can get ourselves to a bloody dance club a few times a year. If we don’t, it’s not being crazy-busy that’s the problem.

You know those twee British series set in the idealized, pre-WWII past that we all stay home on weekend evenings to watch instead of going out dancing? Ever notice just how all our romantic heroes and heroines meet in those stories? They dance—sometimes at events where their married friends, even parents, are also dancing, because there was once a time when everyone agreed that dressing up, going out, and socializing through music and dance was an acceptable way to have fun. But somehow, for many straight, white people under the age of 70, the meaning of dancing, its social function, and its form, has shifted greatly, so that we think it’s only something that the youth get to do, (while we sit at home and watch celebrities our age do it on tv)—and that it’s wrong, somehow even embarrassing, to dance if you’re over a certain age (unless you’re a fading celebrity, in which case you may dance on tv to pay for retirement). Our collective reasoning about this is, when you examine it closely, no reasoning at all. Our disapproval, and downright discomfort, about the older dancing body, is based on some dim idea that it’s inappropriate (that fantastic catch-all word we use now when we can’t explain why we think something is wrong)—even vaguely immoral. But why?

It seems necessary to implicate the 60s in this, thanks to that era’s inclusion of dancing in the anti-establishment counter-culture: dancing became unstructured, fueled by intoxication, and overtly sexual (while also less social, because less dependent on a partner). The first attribute poses an obstacle to would-be dancers of any age—people just don’t get formal lessons anymore in any style of dance, especially not the free-form moves done at nightclubs. And even though the whole point of throwing off the oppressive chains of old-fashioned social rituals like dancing was to just do your own thing–it turns out that many people actually hate doing their own thing.

There are two ways to deal with this problem—don’t dance at all, in which case you can spend a whole lifetime just lurking around in bars with a beer in your hand mocking people who do dance; or, do something to allow yourself to dance while not minding what other people might think. It’s long been the case that, in order to dance well in a club (or, importantly, feel like you’re dancing well), many people drink or take something else with disinhibiting properties; and I think it’s the association between certain forms of chemical excess and dancing that is a partial factor in our disapproval of the latter for older people. The 60s were successful enough that we’ll grudgingly allow younger people the social space to indulge in this form of excess, but the capitalist establishment has prevailed in requiring most people to be sober enough to show up for work on Monday morning—so some vague but powerful age cut-off persists to keep everyone in line.

But I’m not taking on all of capitalism today, and we can talk about selling out elsewhere: I just want to go dancing from time to time AND still show up to play my establishment role on Monday—and for some reason, the fact that I’m not 28 makes that proposition not just logistically difficult, but weird. And I suspect that what’s really at issue here has nothing to do with disinhibiting chemicals and everything to do with the problematic tension between excess and aging.

Because obviously, you can (and in the case of Zumba, should) do any kind of dancing perfectly sober, if you want to. And while, when you’re 25, you might be too self-conscious to dance, well, consciously—what I’ve happily found for myself is that I just can’t be bothered to be as inhibited as I was when I was 25, and don’t actually need to be completely sozzled in order to get up and move. And I prefer it that way: while I’m making the argument here that we should dance if we want to, I readily agree that there comes a time in one’s life when the cost-benefit ratio tips, so that being hung-over for half your weekend is just no longer a tolerable part of the dancing experience. Importantly, however, the equation where dancing=excess=being wasted is a false one, a red herring, if disapproval of tippling is what’s at issue (because, judging by the way we all joke about preparing for nor’easters by stocking the liquor cabinet, we older people are all temperance crusaders….). While drinking (or using other substances) can certainly be a problem, it’s not the problem when it comes to older people wanting to dance.

If you take alcohol (etc.) out of the equation, you end up with simply this: dancing=excess; and it’s really the latter that prompts the disapproval, in the absence of a close examination of what “excess” is. I suspect that “excess” means “having fun doing what you want, and having the bad taste to let the world see what you’re doing.” I’ve found that someone my age—that is, not 20, not even 30—is supposed to have more limited scope for our excesses, and much more sedate notions of fun. We’re not supposed to want to go dancing. I think people my age are not supposed to want all kinds of things that we want regardless—at a certain point, I’m given to understand, you’re just supposed to give up wanting. And this is not just a message I’m getting from Society in the abstract–we’re the ones buying into it, abiding by it, being cowed by it. One friend my age said recently, by way of dancing, sequins, and glitter, though she could have been talking about every other kind of moral turpitude: “Of course, that’s all over now.” Another friend, with no little sanctimony, actually scolded me for wanting to go dancing—such things should be beneath the dignity of someone like me, he said. Someone like who? I wanted to know. Where do we get the idea that at some arbitrary turn of a calendar page, we have to hang up our dancing shoes, put on a lumpy oatmeal-colored cardigan, and pick up our knitting while sitting out our turn at cribbage? (which, by the way, was how I and some of my grad school friends spent the ages of 24-26).

One never wants to be ridiculous, of course, nor does one wish to be seen anywhere too terribly infra-dig. But one doesn’t want to satisfy the world’s sanctimony either, at any age. Nor does one want or need to be governed by unexamined notions about propriety, that in turn are based on old-fashioned, biased, assumptions about class, sex, culture, behavior, and age. Sanctimony, in this case, comes from a prudish discomfort with the experience of pure, embodied, physicality that dancing provides. You’re allowed to experience this physicality as an athlete, because when you’re running, or practicing yoga, or taking a nice, structured, dance class, any potentially excessive pleasure you take from feeling your body move is discreetly camouflaged under a public performance of effort, suffering, self-sacrifice, and calorie-crushing discipline. But dancing is undeniably about nothing other than feeling good while enjoying what your body can do (often with other people)—and the connection to sex, and non-productive gratification is a little too overt for us to tolerate. Dancing does not have to be as inherently sexualized as it’s often presented in popular culture (Miley, please, just stop), but sexuality is undeniably part of the physical experience of dancing, even–yes–in the aging body. Oops—did I just make everyone uncomfortable? Exactly. So I’ll say it again—to dance is to allow the free reign of a variety of energies in the body, some (but not all) of which might include libidinal energy. To which we ought to say, so what?? Taking pleasure in one’s own physical movement on a dance floor, at whatever age, is a long way from…what exactly? Why is it acceptable for a bunch of 40 year old women to shimmy and grind in a Zumba class (because they do exactly that, and love it) and yet so mortifying and threatening if they are seen attempting similar moves outside of it? Are there not laws to contain the worst case scenario, whatever it might be? Just what are we afraid will happen, on the dance floor or off of it, if older people dance?

There are no rational answers to these questions. None. All that I can come up with is that “excess” is an epithet meant to condemn an unseemly display of physical liveliness and enjoyment (defined as thoroughly and uncomfortably as you like) when applied to the older dancing body. Fiddle-faddle. What puritan nonsense is that? The rules are the same no matter how far past 21 you might be: as long as you can physically manage whatever constitutes your personal ideals of fun, you should continue to do whatever fun, excessive thing you damn well please. You want to talk about gravitas, surely it’s terribly infra dig (not to mention unsupported by health research) to surrender your vitality in favor of performing some implied role of decrepitude that we’ve inherited from an era when the life expectancy was a good two to four decades shorter than it is now. If we can expect to live to 80 or 100, that’s a whole second lifetime ahead of us—and that’s a very long time to do nothing more outré than wearing cardigans and—heaven help us—playing cribbage (unless you love it, in which case, peg out and be proud!). As the saying goes, “youth is wasted on the young”—it’s supposed to be a curse, but I see it as a blessing, to cherish your vitality more, the closer you get to not having it. Maybe if I’d spent my 20s in more typical dissipation, I’d be jaded by it all, and agree with my friend, that “of course, that’s all over now.” At my terribly advanced age, I’m not craving dissipation and I really don’t want to corrupt any youth.** But I’ve still got decent legs and cooperative feet, and I just want to put on some glitter, and sequins, and dance.  Who’s going to stop me?

*Because one is not, mercifully, doomed to a dance-free existence. I’ve somehow ended up stuck in a social circle where the only excesses are self-denial and responsibility (yes, there is some self-selection on my part). One source of exasperation for me is that (perhaps you all know this?) people dance all over the damned place, heedless of whether they’re cool, or pretty, or young enough (because: who cares??). Nightclubs are their own thing, but then there’s contra-dancing and ballroom, and, my new favorite, latin. So in fact, after this whole diatribe, the fact is that we could be dancing if we really wanted to.

**Some fears seems to be that an older person will try to 1) act like she’s 25; 2) surround herself with 25-year-olds; 3) date a 25-year old. I guess that does happen—though most typically, the preferred age seems to be 28, and that’s a whole other issue that shouldn’t have anything to do with dancing. Personally, all things considered, I’d much rather dance as far from the youth—particularly, ones I might be professionally responsible for—as possible.

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