Save the last dance for me

Lance Neita

Sunday, June 18, 2017

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The art of dancing cheek to cheek went out with the advent of dancehall music in the mid-1980s. It's truly a generation thing, because while the older ones among us will still do a ballroom twirl, the young and the middle-aged of today's generation have confined themselves to a ritualistic form of gymnastics that rules out any form of the intimate, up-close swaying that once graced the house party, the nightclubs, and the dance floors of yesteryear.

Dancehall is oddly named, as it appears to me that the dominant theme of feel-good and dependency on loud music and fast rhythms have completely swamped the original concept of two people dancing together.

Mark you, dancehall energises street parties and stage shows with moves like 'gully creeper', 'pon de river', 'one drop', 'Willie bounce' and 'Bogle', and I probably risk dating myself when I include the “wacky drop” as the latest craze.

Nevertheless, these dance moves do not constitute dancing in its original form where couples move together to the rhythm of the music.

I once stopped in Linstead on my way out of Kingston travelling to the north coast, and decided to observe for myself what was taking place behind a zinc fence that had advertised a big 'dance'.

After all, it was a Friday night, and I wanted to see whether people were still dancing at a 'dance', or if they simply stood up solo and admired themselves.

Well, dancing solo, or standing solo, was exactly what was going on, as the young men had bundled up themselves into a corner, beer or cigarette in hand, nodding their heads to the boom-boom beat, paying attention only to themselves and completely ignoring the opposite sex on the other side of the room.

The girls were no better. Perhaps they had given up any hope of being asked for a dance, for they themselves had gathered in a little heap on the other side of the hall, discussing the boys, and daring them to come with an invitation to 'mash it up together', or to 'flap their wings'.

This was a learning experience for me. Whatever I was hoping to recapture had gone the way of all flesh. I was yearning to catch a glimpse of the old days of house parties at Mona Heights and Harbour View when teenagers were allowed by parents and guardians to have their version of a coming-out party. That was not to be.

My earliest recollection of social dancing came from peeping into my village schoolroom at the antics of the elder folks celebrating a lodge banquet, a harvest supper, or a cricket team fundraising party.

The orchestra came from Kingston in the form of five or six men dressed in black suits, long faces, and strumming a bass guitar taller than the tallest man, accompanied by a drummer (not a drum set), a piano, and if we were lucky, a real saxophone or trumpet for the brass section.

They were serious about their business and would brook no distraction from the tiny tots like myself who tried to get them to allow us a blow off the horn or a beat on the drums. The only time the group smiled was when the curry goat was served and they retired for their break.

These village dances were to later boast a gramophone and amplifier set for the dance music as fingers snapped to Louis Prima's 'Green Door' and the elders got on their feet for the mambo, the be-bop, a fast fox trot, and the late-hour waltzes. And no matter how many miles per hour they were going, couples danced together. Please note.

As youngsters we were taught how to approach the ladies at parties — “May I have this dance with you?” being the standard set, and the ladies would demurely decline at first, then give the invitation their kind consideration before hastily accepting in case you moved on and spoilt their chance to tally up their dance card.

Now get it straight. Ladies in those days never asked men to dance. The shoe had to be on the other foot. Later on at boarding school, we boys looked forward eagerly to the twice per year Munro-Hampton hop held in the dining room, enjoying dancing with the opposite sex who were normally kept out of sight and out of reach. But even as we danced to our hearts' content, we were still guided by the courtesy of “May I have this dance?”, and were supervised under the eagle eyes of principals Richard Roper and Gloria Wesley-Gammon, who took their seats on the platform and remained there until the last dance and the final goodbyes.

Dancing means a lot to those of us who have come up through the periods of the big band music, the rock and roll, the ska, and the rock steady and reggae tempos that preceded the dancehall era.

Ella Fitzgerald will always make you want to glide around the dance floor as she seems to find the happiness she seeks, “when we're out together dancing cheek to cheek.”

I may be called an old fogey, but I will always insist that social dancing is a two-way street for male and female couples to meet and move together to the rhythm of the music, which, if true love is involved, becomes a dance to their own heartbeat. In direct contradiction to the dancehall gyrations which keep the sexes physically apart.

So if only for a moment we go back sometimes to the music of the 1950s, which was a command performance to join with the Drifters, the Platters, the Manhattans, and Ben E King to let the music play, just a little longer, while we put on our dancing shoes and danced all night.

And the assurance from my own Lusta Rose that in spite of the dancehall din and the night noises and the clash of the sound systems, she will always save the last dance for me.

— Lance Neita is a writer and public relations consultant. Comments to the Observer or to




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