Josna Rege

496. Dancing in the Street

In blogs and blogging, Family, Greece, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 6, 2021 at 3:26 am

This is the fourth entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Dancing is movement and movement is change. Dancing in the street is an inherently liberating idea because it moves from a private, contained space to the public thoroughfare. When people get up and dance, circulation happens, and circulation is anathema to stagnation, segregation, incarceration, a threat to the status quo in any number of ways. Of course, circulation is essential to life, and dancing, more than anything else, is life.  

There are dozens of dance-related idioms in English alone: it takes two to tango, give it a whirl, be or to get in the groove, tread on someone’s toes, step out of line, be footloose and fancy free, light on one’s feet, get off on the wrong foot, sweep someone off their feet, look lively, and strut one’s stuff, just to name a few. None of the above are particularly anachronistic, with the possible exception of in the groove, with its origins in gramophone or phonograph records, which released the sound when the record player’s needle, or stylus, came into contact with the rotating surface of the grooved record (originally shellac, and after the 1940s, vinyl).

How does dancing figure in my personal A-to-Z of anachronidioms?

My mother loved dancing–in fact, it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that she lived to dance. My father loved music, but far preferred to tap his feet and watch. In post-war London of the late 1940s and early 1950, before she got married, Mum used to go dancing every week with her best friend Lily. They would go to the movies every week as well, or as often as they could afford, to see American films, mostly, with Frank Sinatra and other heartthrobs of the time. Bill, my eldest cousin and eleven years my senior, remembers jiving with his cool Aunt Glad to Rock Around the Clock, by Bill Haley and the Comets. That must have been in 1956, when, if I was two, Bill was turning thirteen. Mum knew loads of different dances and was always learning new ones. Parties in those days always featured music and dancing—in fact, dancing was the whole point of the party as far as she was concerned. When there was no one at home to dance with, Mum would rub two rags in floor polish, attach them to her feet, and dance, polishing the parquet floor as she did so and, in place of a partner, swinging round the column in the middle of the living-room floor.

Three dance-related idioms have a special meaning for me, and are anachronistic in the sense that they take me right back to a bygone time. The first calls up my (non-dancing) father and one of his favorite expressions. I hadn’t thought of it for years until I was brainstorming for today’s entry: to make a song and dance. It means to make an unnecessary fuss about something, to make a production out of it. Dad was characteristically short-tempered, and he used this when he was annoyed with someone who, instead of just getting something done, made a song and dance about it, or—another expression of his—a hoo-ha, a big fuss over nothing. (I never got the impression that Dad approved of Mum’s swooning over the song-and-dance men of the silver screen, He certainly didn’t care for Frank Sinatra, and I can’t help think it had something to do with Mum loving him so much.)

The second of my triad of dance-related anachronidioms: to put on one’s dancing shoes. This means, to get into a positive frame of mind or to get ready to party. For me it will always and forever be associated with the summer of 1963, our third and last summer in Athens, when I was nine years old and my parents took us to an open-air movie screening (not a drive-in, no-one had a car) to see Summer Holiday, starring the British pop singer, Cliff Richard (now Sir Cliff Richard–the Queen has a soft spot for him). In it, our hero and his boy band rent a red double-decker bus and drive overland to Greece in it, finding romance along the way, of course. Put on Your Dancing Shoes was one of the movie’s many musical number. I cringe as I watch it today—it hasn’t aged well; but back then, it was pure romance.  

My third dance-related anachronidiom, two left feet,  takes me back to 1967 in Gangtok, Sikkim, and the kind of shame that makes one’s cheeks burn. I was just 13, a particularly self-conscious age, and visiting a school friend over a week-long break when her parents invited some young members of the Sikkimese royal family over for the evening. It was embarrassing enough to be introduced to these princelings in my early-teen clumsiness, but the nightmare began when it was suggested that some entertainment was in order, and that entertainment was ballroom dancing. I froze; the only dance I knew how to do was something called the African Twist, that some exchange students from the U.S. to our school in India had taught us. Somebody put on a record, paired us up, and announced a foxtrot.

I won’t dwell on the awful details. I couldn’t do it; couldn’t even fake it. He knew it and I knew he knew it, although he was terribly well brought up and smoothed things over with the utmost finesse. Of course his princely education must have covered ballroom dancing, but that didn’t help; it wasn’t in my repertoire and it takes two to foxtrot. Two left feet on my part, and some treading on toes into the bargain.

Martha and the Vandellas (Photo: Motown/EMI-Hayes Archives)

There is another category of dance-related anachronidioms: song titles. They epitomize a particular moment in time and their very opening notes conjure it up. Some of them resonate deeply, cutting across nations, classes, ages, races, genders, rising to the status of anthems. When the song’s title is also an idiom, it is all the more evocative. For me these songs would have to include two by Bob Marley and the Wailers: Get Up, Stand Up and Lively Up Yourself and Toots and the Maytals’ Reggae Got Soul. But the one I want to pay tribute to today is the Motown hit Dancing in the Street, sung by Martha and the Vandellas, co-written by producer Micky Stevenson, Marvin Gaye, and Ivy Jo Hunter, and released in the explosive summer of 1964. Motown was in the business of making hits, not revolution, and they were very good at it. They swore that the song was just about city children in Detroit taking the caps off the fire hydrants during the heat of the summer, and its promotional video featured crowds of young people, almost all white, groovin’ to the beat; but something about the song made it a call to action, despite the best efforts of the record company.

Martha Reeves told the story in an interview during the summer of 2020, when the entire nation was swept by protests following the killings of Armaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Tayor, Jacob Blake, and too many more. According to music critic Jim Farber, writing in the Guardian:

Right after she recorded the exuberant anthem in July of 1964 as frontwoman of Martha and the Vandellas, it became a worldwide smash, selling millions of copies while serving as the song of its summer. At the same time, its lyrical “invitation across the nation … for folks to meet” in the street – matched to a melody and vocal as urgent as a clarion call – soon took on a second, more pointed, meaning. The transformation took place during the long, hot summers of 1964 and 65, “when riots broke out, in every city in the nation”, Reeves recalled. “Just like now, the police brutality and the government trying to control black people, prompted the uprising that was a revolution.”

I first heard Dancing in the Street in 1968, from those American exchange students from Detroit (or was it Chicago?) at our boarding school in India, the same ones who had taught me the African Twist. I had never heard any Motown before that. I had never heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, either, until his assassination was announced at the school assembly one April morning, and Laura and Joanne burst into tears. It was clear that there was a great ferment taking place back in the United States, a country that I didn’t know I was to migrate to in less than two years. By the time I got to the United States and heard more Motown at parties in college, it was the sound of white nostalgia. Inevitably, at a certain point in the party, usually quite late, someone would put on My Girl, and all the merriment would grind to a halt. There would be an almost religious hush, followed by an ecstatic singalong; and I would just stand there, alienated, because My Girl didn’t mean anything to me. It was just an anachronism; unlike Dancing in the Street, which was part of my history, even if only at second hand.

Did I mention that besides all of the above, dancing in the streets is a dance-related idiom? It means being extremely happy. Fully alive.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. Lovely one, Josna. Well, dancing has evolved into so many forms now, hasn’t it? I am not able to relate much nor enjoy wholeheartedly some of the modern versions that don’t seem to have either rhythm or pattern to the movements. Whether Indian or western, dance has a sort of heart-warming poetic fluidity to it. I love those.

  2. I love your mother’s method of polishing the floors!

    The Multicolored Diary

  3. I love dancing, although I’m not particularly good at it. Perhaps I’m more of a movement person without the formality of dance.

    • That’s well put, Liam, and makes me realize that I didn’t say anything about my love of dancing either, aside from telling one traumatic story! I love dancing–movement without formality–and enjoy dance parties as long as I don’t have to coordinate too closely with someone else, as in ballroom dancing.

  4. Hari OM
    I am so enjoying this series, Josna – and dancing is one of my favourite things. Cannot do much of it myself these days (though a little bhangra every now and then is good exercise!), but I surely do love to watch – all kinds of dancing. YAM xx

    • Bhangra is super-high energy exercise, YAM, akin to Cossack dancing in my mind. Thanks for visiting. You’re reminding me that I need to do some exercise that’s more of a workout than just walking. Dancing does that without being too hard on the joints. And it’s so joyful! (In a longer piece, I was thinking about all the songs that associate dance with the creation and maintenance of life itself, Lord of the Dance, for instance, and that lovely alternative to Happy Birthday to You, “God Danced the Day You Were Born.” Krishna, too, is Natraj, Lord of the Dance, and is frequently depicted in a dancing pose.)

  5. I always love to be told another, but this one made me get up and dance (and invite others).

    • Thank you, Cynthia! You can’t listen to Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Lively Up Yourself without dancing yourself!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: