Jive talkin’: top philosopher says modern dance has lost its soul

Professor Roger Scruton bemoans the way formal dances have been replaced by ‘jerking like a frog’

Across the country on New Year’s Eve, people will take to dance floors to groove away the last hours of 2015. But one of Britain’s most eminent philosophers is unlikely to be among the masses of humanity moving to a techno beat.

Roger Scruton, author of more than 40 books and a noted authority on aesthetics, has used his latest work to offer a withering critique of much of modern dancing. In Confessions of a Heretic, a collection of essays to be published in the spring, Scruton takes issue with the dancing witnessed in the nation’s clubs and pubs, in which participants “jerk on to the floor in obedience to the puppet master at the desk”. Modern dancers, he notes, also “tend to avoid contact with each other, since there is no agreed convention as to what form their contact should take”.

In the essay, entitled Dancing Properly, he continues: “They are dancing at each other. The difference between ‘at’ and ‘with’ is one of the deepest psychological differences we know. It is exemplified in all our encounters with other people – notably in conversation and in sexual gambits … The decay of manners that we have seen in recent times is to a large extent a result of the loss of withness and the rise of atness in its stead. Rudeness, obscenity, the ‘in your face’ manners of the new TV presenter – all these are ways of being ‘at’ other people. Courtesy, manners, negotiation and deference are, by contrast, ways of being with.”

Scruton said he loved dancing but was “no good at it”. The solitary nature of much modern dancing was, he said, in stark contrast to the more tactile dances of his youth. “In the traditional dances, physical contact was permitted in a way that it wasn’t in everyday life. The electricity of physical contact has gone therefore from young people’s lives. For us ageds, I can remember the tingle in your fingertips when you touched a girl’s body anywhere. That’s part of it, but also that touching as a courtesy has gone.”

A conservative thinker, Scruton is naturally drawn to traditional forms of dance and, perhaps more surprisingly, to formation dancing. “I love Viennese waltzes and polkas, and especially cèilidhs and old-fashioned formation dancing,” he said. “I like rock’n’roll too. Young women especially love the idea of formation dancing … Once it’s on offer, people go for it. There’s a kind of ignorance.”

Arguing that today’s dancing has “lost the ideals and higher purpose of previous times”, Scruton’s essay traces a falling away from the “ideal picture of the ancient Greek dance”. He appears to reserve particular scorn for dancing to techno-style music that is “loud enough to make conversation impossible and, provided the pulse is regular enough, to jerk the body into reflex motion, like the legs of a galvanised frog”.

In the early days of rock, he claims, dance steps required a partner, and this allowed couples to “touch, swing around each other, move together in an attempt to recapture withness”.

As an example of music to dance “properly” to, Scruton cites Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, in which the rhythm is generated by the melodic line and the voice: “There is no violent drumming, no amplified bass, none of the devices which – I am tempted to say – substitute for rhythm in so much contemporary pop. This withness is felt by the listener as an urge to dance, an urge to look around for the person whose hand could be taken and who could be led on to the floor.” The Beatles also get an honourable mention, starkly contrasted with today’s “grotesque caricature of music in which rhythm is mere beat and melody mere repetition”.

Asked whether he would be attending a dance of any kind during the holiday season, Scruton confessed that his decision will be taken not solely on aesthetic grounds. “At my age, 71, it rather depends on my knees. If there’s a local reeling party, I might go to that.”

Confessions of a Heretic will be published on 29 March by Notting Hill Editions


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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