Rock 'n' Roll Dancing | Cassandra Voices

Rock ‘n’ Roll Dancing

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“Rock ‘n’ roll is the most strenuous form of dance which has been seen in public in England for a very long time.”

I am reliably informed that an exuberant Dionysian (or Dionysiac) element competes with a controlled Apollonian in all our natures, and society at large. The title thus caught my eye of an article from an edition of Encounter Magazines from a 1957 entitled, ‘Dionysus and the Welfare State’ by Geoffrey Gorer.

Gorer, a friend and admirer of George Orwell, explains a Dionysiac craze for rock ‘n’ dancing that swept through Britain in the 1950s, and beyond, in terms of a reaction to an emergent post-industrial society in which physical work was greatly diminished.

The ache I now feel over the current denial of the Dionysiac forms of expression under current, self-imposed restrictions moved me to share the vicarious pleasure, at least, I drew from this excerpt, exploring a loss of control in dance that induces trance-like states.

Dionysus and the Welfare State
(Encounter, September 1957, pp.50-53)

Nietzsche ‘contrasted two polarities of one dimension of human behaviour: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. These could be discerned in the character of individuals, in works of art, or in societies as a whole. In art, the contrast is much the same as that between “classical” and “romantic”: in the classical, as in the Apollonian, reason is in paramount control and the values are order and proportion; in the romantic, as in the Dionysian, control is subordinated to intensity of emotion, and the values are sensation and self-abandonment.

Some confusion has arisen through treating these terms as mutually exclusive, rather than at the end points of a continuum … In the great majority of human beings, and in the great majority of human societies, both components are present in different proportions, either overtly or potentially. People and societies will differ whether they prefer the head or the heart, self-control or letting oneself go, order or thrills.

By their very nature, complex industrial societies must emphasise and stress the Apollonian characteristics of their populations. Urban civilisation and machino-facture depend increasingly on the population exercising self-control, both physical and mental … The vast majority of contemporary employments, if they demand physical effort at all, demand it minutely controlled and calculated.

As dance music [rock ‘n’ roll]seems to me … to be remarkable only for its resolute rejection of the rhythmic complications and subtleties of jazz and ragtime; one has to go back to the gallop to find an equally insistent beat.

The peculiarity of rock ‘n’ roll as a dance-form is the extent to which it employs large and energetic movements from the shoulder to the hip with relatively little use of the knees and elbows … Rock ‘n’ roll is the most strenuous form of dance which has been seen in public in England for a very long time.

Rock ‘n’ roll … seems to have arrived from the United States first in the form of fairly cheap dance records and perhaps stories in popular papers and magazines, and then spectacularly in a film which the middle class critics considered almost beneath contempt. In Britain rock ‘n’ roll seems to have come in from the “teddy boy” section of the working class, and to have permeated upwards, against quite a lot of official or semi-official opposition and criticism.

I cannot claim to know very much about purely working-class dances myself, but it seems as though most of them were highly energetic performances with no, or at most intermittent, physical contact with the partner; for Londoners “Knees up, Mother Brow” appears to have been typical.

In urban societies this very strenuous type of dancing with large limb movements and very little physical contact with the partner seems to have occurred fairly frequently in the lower working classes: witness the apache type of dancing of French bals musettes, which has frequently been elaborated into a music hall turn, or the skilled and strenuous dances of the American Negro [sic], such as Lindy Hop, which only travel down from Harlem in extremely modified and genteel travesties.

If only the movements are considered, and not the social organisation of the dance into independent couples of male and female, this type of dancing is nearly worldwide; in a great number of the simpler and primitive societies in every continent such dances occur, nearly always linked with religion … and almost uniformly they are employed for inducing some type of trance. This trance may be interpreted as possession by the deity being invoked, or as releasing prophetic or supernatural powers … or as a technique of release from the tensions and preoccupations of everyday life. It is, in short, a Dionysiac type of dancing, both, it would seem, literally as part of the ritual accompanying the worship of Dionysus, as far as this can be reconstructed, and in the figurative meaning of the term discussed earlier. It would seem that there is a human biological potentiality for inducing ecstasy or trance by violent rhythmic movements, since the technique has been observed in so many discrete societies; whether this potentiality will be exploited or ignored would seem to depend on as yet insufficiently identified stresses and demands within the society.

I have not been able to discover anything sufficiently concrete about the “dancing mania” of the late Middle Ages; but as far as recent centuries are concerned, it would seem that rock ‘n’ roll is the first occasion where the type of dancing which has been used in other societies to induce trance or ecstasy has been openly performed with the knowledge, if not the consent, of the governing classes.

I have occasionally seen dancers with the slightly glazed and unfocused eyes which, in a non-European setting, I should have considered indicative of a light trance; and the antics of many of the orchestra players do mimic “possession.”

There are, however, many “cultic” elements in the present rock ‘n’ roll craze, including an esoteric vocabulary not meant to be understandable by the profane (“squares”), quasi-compulsive dancing whenever the appropriate music is heard, however inappropriate the place … and ecstatically appreciated leaders – singers or orchestral conductors. Despite the pelvic contortions of a few singers, and the double meanings in the words of some lyrics, I should consider rock ‘n’ roll the least sexual type of social dancing which Europe has seen in the last couple of centuries; instead of a sytlisation of courtship and wooing, there is practically no physical contact nor opportunity for conversation; the dance can only performed if the pair are in good rapport before they step on the dance floor.

It is of course, possible that rock ‘n’ roll will be a purely ephemeral craze, that its implications will never be developed. But it is also possible that it represents, on an almost entirely unconscious level, a marked reaction to the moderation, the restraint, the security of the contemporary welfare states; hope and fear; triumph and disaster, strenuous physical effort and orgiastic physical release have been almost completely banished by the developments of technology and the enormous elaboration of protective legislation which precludes debauchery as well as distress. It seems at least theoretically possible that the English urban working classes unconsciously, or at least inarticulately, feel that the secure and ordered life provided for them by the combination of modern technology and middle class benevolence … does not provide all the gratifications they crave. Until the last hundred years life in the big English cities was notably violent in its amusements, its uproarious drunkenness, and its crimes, as well as in the precariousness of everyday working life. Relaxation was Dionysiac. It may be that for much of humanity security, control, and self-control are not supreme values …

Modern technology, humanism and humanitarianism all tend towards a fairly undifferentiated “classless” middle-class welfare state under the aegis of rational planning, and it seemed as though Apollo had completely conquered; but perhaps for the younger workers, who have never known personal insecurity, Dionysus is returning in his more traditional guise, the violent dance which leads to trance and ecstasy.

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Frank Armstrong graduated with a BA (International) from UCD majoring in history, during which time he spent a year at the University of Amsterdam on an Erasmus scholarship. He later earned a barrister-at-law degree at the Honorable Society of King’s Inns, and gained a Masters in Islamic Societies and Cultures at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, before taking a Post-Graduate Diploma in Education. Prior to setting up Cassandra Voices his writing was published in the Irish Times, the London Magazine, the Dublin Review of Books, Village Magazine, and the Law Society Gazette, among others. He is the editor-in-chief of Cassandra Voices.

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