Sunday, August 13, 2017

313. Wild, Crazy Dancing

Dark Knowledge: Release date January 5, 2018, but copies now available from the author.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. More excerpts to come.

Browder - Cover - 9781681143675-Perfect - 2
The back cover summary:

New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  Chris has vivid fantasies of the suffering slaves on the ships and their savage revolts.  How could seemingly respectable people be involved in so abhorrent a trade, and how did they avoid exposure?  And what price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?


 For my two short poems "Rush" and "Signals," published by the online poetry review Colloquial, click here.


       I’ve always danced, starting with a stately minuet in a grade-school play, then the waltz in sixth grade in ancient Miss Pocock’s genteel after-school class, followed by the fox trot in seventh and eighth grade in classes with vibrant, young Miss Little, who in a school gym on Friday nights dominated hordes of budding teenagers with her clacking castanets.  Soon I was fox-trotting with the best of them, but Helen Witherspoon’s ramrod stiff right arm kept me at a distance, when my teen-age libido craved something more intimate.  Especially popular at the time was the lindy hop, where the couple half embraced, then swung apart, then half embraced again, so that partnered dancing alternated with solo.  Dancing of a different sort came with the conga line, an import from Cuba where dancers formed a long line and, with your hands on the hips of the person in front of you, did a rhythmic three-step: one and two and three, kick, one and two and three, kick.  Fun at first, if done with a Latin flair, but in the end monotonous.

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The lindy hop is still done today.
Patrick M. Len

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The conga line is still popular, and even seniors do it.  In this instance, at a governor's ball.
Alan Light
          Admittedly, hindsight tells me that in those young years I was a slave to convention, unoriginal, restrained; at high-school dances I and others left  jitterbugging to those few practiced couples who exploded into rhythmic frenzy.  Years later, after college, being ebulliently gay, I danced with my partner to brain-numbing music in a Greenwich Village discothèque, the two of us jigging and jagging and leaping and bouncing about, but never, as was then the custom, touching.  But this was the mating dance, and just the beginning of my wild dancing, of totally letting go and becoming utterly  uninhibited in a who-gives-a-damn why-not-make-a-fool-of-yourself go-for-broke kind of dancing.  Such total letting go perhaps comes with age, when, being free of mating obsessions and rituals, you can immerse yourself in the moment and dance for the sake of dance.  In this last phase of my dancing I  partnered with a cousin’s wife or a friend or anyone at family wedding celebrations in a joyous spectacle of movement, of whirling into total surrender, rhythmic mindlessness, cosmic oblivion, dance.

         Likewise in my golden years I learned the Charleston, that craze of the Roaring Twenties that I had heard of all my life, seen onstage in the Broadway musical The Boyfriend, but had never done.  Whetting my lust for it was a short film I saw in an exhibit of American art of the 1920s, showing nothing but a flapper’s feet dancing frenetically in what had to be the Charleston.  Fulfillment came at last, thanks to You Tube, when a knowledgeable and gracious young woman taught me the dance: one two three four steps forward, five six seven steps back.  One two three four forward, five six seven back.  Of course you’re turning your feet as you do it, and swinging your arms, and then you touch your knees together, move them apart, touch again, move apart, with your hands crossing from one knee to another all the while.  Hard to visualize?  Of course.  You’ve got to see it to get the hang of it.  And I did get the hang of it,  however ineptly, and derived much joy therefrom.  I felt wild and free because at long last, to imagined jazz, alone, I was doing the Charleston!

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Dancing the Charleston.

         There’s dancing even in the Bible.  King David, wearing a linen garment, whirled about with all his might before the ark of the covenant to express his joyful gratitude to God (2 Samuel 6:14).  Admittedly, at first I thought that “linen” meant underwear, and the thought of King David dancing in his undies delighted me.  But no, he was wearing a priestly garment of linen, quite appropriate.  Even so, his dancing shocked his wife Michal, all the more so since he was doing it in front of commoners.  But David made no apologies for dancing before the Lord in public, and Scripture records that wife Michal had no child unto the day of her death (2 Samuel 6: 21-23).  Yahweh, it seems, approved of dancing … especially if done in his honor.

File:Dancing Bacchante with Amour, terracotta sculpture by Claude Michel, 1785, HAA.jpg
A dancing Maenad, with a small Eros
thrown in.  An 18th century terracotta
sculpture by Claude Michel.
         The early Christians are said to have worshipped with ecstatic dancing and communal joy, in a manner that recalled the pagan worship of Dionysus, the god of revelry, fertility, and wine.  But the god’s followers the Maenads, wild women drunk with wine, had a habit of ripping animals to shreds and  eating them raw, and fear of such excesses prompted the Church to discouraged direct contact with God, substituting sober priest-led rituals instead.  Said Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth-century archbishop of Constantinople and theologian, “Let us sing hymns instead of striking drums, have psalms instead of frivolous music and song,… modesty instead of laughter, wise contemplation instead of intoxication, seriousness instead of delirium.”  For Christians, such admonitions put the kibosh on worship through dance, and the kibosh still holds.  A few years ago I attended a Catholic wedding that tried to inject a bit of freedom into the tradition-bound sacrament.  A dancer pranced about sprinkling holy water, and the presiding priest at one point slowly clapped his hands.  But this modest effort at innovation clearly butted its head against tradition and could only go so far.

         But the impulses of the hoi polloi are not so easily squelched.  The churches and cathedrals were given over to orderly worship, but the people created carnivals where, just as in the Roman Saturnalia, everything was turned on its head: men dressed like women, ordinary folk insulted kings and bishops, and drunkenness and ribaldry prevailed.  And there was dancing, wild, crazy dancing.   Indeed, a Dancing Plague swept through much of Europe in the middle ages, with dancing, hallucinations, and irresistible hilarity.  In 1278 two hundred people danced on a bridge in Utrecht, causing it to collapse.  And in Cologne in 1374 more than a thousand women reportedly became pregnant as a result of orgiastic dancing.  Demonic possession, said the Church, but to this day carnival is celebrated in Roman Catholic countries just prior to Lent, permitting a last stab at revelry before forty bleak days of austerity.

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Dancing Peasants, by Rubens, at the Prado.  The Church couldn't hold them back.

         But dancing, riotous or otherwise, is not confined to Christianity.  I have often seen Hindu sculptures showing the god Shiva, the ecstatic cosmic dancer, deftly poised on one foot while lifting the other foot high in the air, his whole body ringed by cosmic flames.  Three of his hands hold fire, a snake, and a drum, while the fourth points to his raised foot, and his loose hair spreads out like a fan.  He is the Lord of Dance, and his dance creates, maintains, and dissolves the universe.  I could spend years studying the symbolism of the dancing Shiva, but his elegant frozen movements enchant me, win me over to his world dance, his doing and undoing of the universe.  Quite a contrast with the Christian deity, who in art looms like a dour patriarch, never as a dancer.

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A dancing Shiva in bronze, 900-950 CE.

         On one occasion many years ago, when I was doing volunteer work for the Whole Foods Project here in New York, the Project invited some Sufis to come and dance for us.  They came, and we all sat in a circle and, following their lead, began swaying from side to side.  Then they had us stand and sway, and finally we began dancing in a circle, while the sheikha and two of her followers stood in the center and chanted.  Having long heard of the whirling dervishes, and of Sufis and Sufism, an Islamic discipline that worships through chanting and dance, here I was at last, not whirling like a dervish, but dancing with passionately committed Sufis, though dancing only as a neophyte can.  I didn’t myself become a Sufi, but today there are orders of Sufis throughout New York City, and some of them whirl with abandon.

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A whirling dervish at a Turkish festival in Canada.

         My Dictionary of Symbols tells me that dance is an image of becoming, of the passing of time, and of the act of creation.  It seeks to transform the dancer into a god or a demon, or some other chosen form of existence.  It is magic, it is eternal energy.  And to this I would add: it is movement and flux, the enemy of stasis, of rootedness, of fixity, of everything that locks us up, ties us down, freezes us, denies our need for change.  It is fire, it is flux.  No wonder it is feared by authority, by tradition, by the apostles of order and sobriety.  Dance is revolution.

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A belly dancer in Cairo.
Judith Scheepstra
         For some cultures, dancing – even dancing by yourself without a partner – is a tradition.  In the film Zorba the Greek the protagonist Zorba, played brilliantly by Anthony Quinn, expresses his feelings through dance.   And long ago, at a Middle Eastern café in the West 40s, I saw a woman of middle years get up and dance slowly and gracefully to music.  I marveled at a culture where anyone could get up and dance alone to express their mood of the moment.  That same Middle Eastern culture offers the belly dance, with agile young females prancing and shimmying and doing marvelous  things with their torso, but that’s another kind of dance.

         And the danse macabre of late medieval art, with dancing, grinning skeletons leading the high born and lowly alike to the grave, what of that?  Another twist, and a grim one, on dance as a path to oblivion, total surrender, the ribaldry of death.

File:Dancing skeletons, 'Dance of Death' Wellcome L0006816.jpg
From an incunabula.  We're missing the kings and the bishops,
 but never was there such a joyous bunch of skeletons.
Wellcome Images

        One passionate dancer whom I’ve heard of and chronicled, but never met, was Brooke Astor, the patrician philanthropist and dedicated do-gooder who, always fashionably and expensively dressed, spread her funds and quirky sense of humor throughout the five boroughs of this city.  When not so doing she attended the social functions of the affluent and well connected, and if there was music – wild, savage music – she felt it pulsing through her and danced.  Though we moved in vastly different circles, I would have loved to rub shins with her, to have felt that same music pulsing through me, and with her to have wildly and feverishly danced.  Born to dance, that woman danced well into her old age.  Yes, she and I could have danced up a storm.


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

2.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


For two new LibraryThing reviews of Bill Hope: His Story, go here.

3.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, if you like, but no porn (I don't do porn).  Women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)

For Goodreads reviews, go here.  Likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Coming soon:  Bond Street: Gentility, Murder, S&M and Art.  And before that, another excerpt from Dark Knowledge: Chris interviews a slaver.

©   2017   Clifford Browder

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