Thursday, January 19, 2006

Transplant 2: Paranoia on the Plains

To Northeasterners, especially those from urban areas, being noticed is what we work very very hard to achieve. We live for attention. We try to distinguish ourselves, especially in, say, a club. South Dakotans, on the other hand, live in terror of having other people notice them. At least, that's what it looks like to me. (You can see the cultural dilemma I face on a daily basis.)

Consider:

If you go out to a "club" here - and I am using the term very loosely - you will find an environment that is very much like the high school dances I remember. In high school, everyone would line up against the walls at the perimeter of the gym or cafeteria or wherever the dance was being held. The DJ would be playing perfectly danceable music, everyone would be singing along and bobbing their heads, but no one would be dancing. No one wanted to be, as one of my friends put it, "those people," the ones who start dancing before the dancing gets going, before it is "cool" to dance.

Now, follow this logic for a minute. There is a moment at which it becomes cool to be out on the dance floor. This moment comes after some other, "less cool" people have started dancing. It is never cool to be the first people on the dance floor. So, that means that if one wants to dance and also be cool, one must wait until someone else decides to dance and thus makes the dance floor safe. It is rather similar to the way that penguins test the water for sharks by pushing each other in. If no one gets eaten, it's ok for everyone to dive in. I'm not sure what South Dakotans think is going to happen to the first few dancers, but I suspect that it is simply that other people will look at them. And this, to any South Dakotan, is torture.

When I got to college, I noticed a huge difference between high school and college dances. In college, when the music started, bodies hit the floor. These bodies seemed to flaunt the laws of physics. "Is it really possible to do that?" I would wonder to myself as I watched others contort on the dance floor. "Those hips have got to be double-jointed." Sweat would be pouring down faces, shirts would come off, and pretty soon, if it was a really good party, people would be dancing in bras and jeans or the like. But no one stopped dancing. I used to be the one who could keep dancing all the way through a high school dance, but in college, I would have to take breaks, breathless and panting, while the bodies continued hurtling and spinning and jerking and jumping.

I found the same things in the clubs in Albany and Hartford and Buffalo. Dancing was something that you took seriously and did your best to do well. There was an understanding that many of the dancers came because they loved to dance, and while they might enjoy a drink (or several), they did not need to get all liquored up in order to lower their being-looked-at inhibitions.

In South Dakota, however, dancing is something that you do once you've ingested enough alcohol that you have a legitimate excuse, should you dance poorly and embarrass yourself. However, there is one exception to this rule. For some reason I haven't quite figured out, it is perfectly acceptable for "dancers" to showcase stripper moves and...er...become intimate...on the dance floor. Now, this is not so unusual; such behavior is the norm all over the country. What makes it odd in South Dakota is that this rule co-exists with the fear of being watched while dancing. Back when I was coming up, there was plenty of sexy dancing, plenty of bodies pressed up against each other and grinding, but it was done with more attention to the dance. These days, when I see people doing the sexy dance thing, they seem to have mostly forgotten to move rhythmically and gracefully. To paraphrase a friend, people have forgotten all about dance as a metaphor for sex and just decided that dance is sex.

So, in the clubs here, people are conflicted. They want to dance, but they are afraid of looking foolish, so they won't dance without drinking, they won't dance if there aren't enough people on the dance floor, they often won't dance alone. At the same time, they seem not to be afraid of being mistaken for exotic dancers. It is as if they are thinking, "If people are going to look at me, they might as well get an eyeful."

In case you are wondering, I am, of course, always tasteful and appropriate. My sexy dancing is both rhythmic and graceful, and I always gyrate on beat.

1 comment:

blacksweatpants said...

i'm a minnesotan, not a south dakotan, but i can support your observations about midwestern dance habits.
i personally avoid structured dances, and dance most often to the hip-hop on the radio in our deserted dorm bathroom at, say, three in the morning. it's a nice, safe, people-free environment :).