A humorist unites a neophyte’s history of modern dance with his own unlikely dance memoir.
Participatory journalist Alford (Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That?: A Modern Guide to Manners, 2010, etc.) ponders the social functions of dance in the 20th century, using his own late-blooming passion as a guide to inquiry. After a mostly danceless youth—excepting cotillion lessons and bouncing from New England socialite balls to Studio 54 as a teenager, plus coming out in New York in the 1980s—the author first began obsessing over dance in his mid-50s. Zumba lessons and late-night living room sessions proved gateway drugs to more esoteric dance pleasures, including the “ecstatic dance” of 5Rhythms and “contact improv” (think Pilobolus), all of which occasioned a lot of touching and feeling, followed by aches and injuries. Alford finds material by immersing himself in curious situations and then filleting his experiences into wry narratives. He recounts his faltering steps toward proficiency with withering self-deprecation: “To admit that you’re a practitioner of the leaping arts is to open yourself to inspection on the fronts of economic status, carnality, taste, self-involvement, and body mass.” Along the way, the author folds in facts and anecdotes about legends such as Gene Kelly, an aggressive pugilist, and the winsome Arthur Murray, whose mail-order instructional footprints tutored many aspiring rug-cutters in the dance-crazed 1920s. Opinionated overviews of famous dancers, notable performances, choreography choices, and outmoded dance idioms make it nearly impossible to read the book without a search window open for video evidence (see the grizzly bear, the bunny hug, the cakewalk, Isadora Duncan). A keen self-editor adept at meeting word counts for magazine stories, Alford makes efficient use of the long form, refracting histories and theories of dance through his own hilarious escapades and tracing the darker themes of reluctance, humiliation, and shame involved in the medium in an effort to make sense of why we dance and watch others dance.
A standout in the monograph memoir subgenre, where subject guide meets personal essay.