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Girls on the move
A short trip through Portland’s dance scene

Since I attended my first dance at the age of 12 — homecoming at a Department of Defense High School in Japan — I’ve been holding out for a delicious fantasy: an uninhibited, butt-waggling hoedown, in which I was completely unself-conscious, and my body moved in concert with somebody else’s, with no sexual pressures or expectations attached.

So far was my first experience from that ideal, so utterly removed from the emerging picture in my mind of myself as a joyful partner, able to follow in the manner of a spirited yet gracefully acquiescent femme, that I nearly threw up. I was wearing a tomato-colored wool dress with a gathered waist and puffy sleeves. My hair was an unmanageable frizz accentuated with horizontal bangs. Every part of me that wasn’t clammy with sweat was lumpy and leaden as raw clay.

My boyfriend, a gawky, six-foot blond, gamely shuffled me in circles, trying not to be disappointed by my mute terror of our body parts colliding. My knees banged into his knees, my elbows caught him mysteriously under the ribs. At each gaff, I laughed a high-pitched laugh and apologized. When the song finally ended, I scuttled over to a dark corner and downed some punch.

Fifteen years later, I realized what the problem was. Enrolled in a ballroom dance class with my new boyfriend, a gawky, six-foot blond, I was quickly relegated to the " hard case " category by the instructor, who crunched my knuckles with a fierce grip to indicate his next move, which I was to mirror, in reverse.

" You follow me, " he hissed.

" I’m trying, " I hissed back. And I was. But somehow, my body’s inherent intractability overrode my desire to do his bidding.

" I want to lead, " I said.

" It doesn’t work that way, " the instructor said, arresting his shuffle-ball-step and releasing me in mid-twirl. " You can’t have two leaders. "

My boyfriend — who’d been miserably coerced into helping me conquer my partner-dance phobia — nodded, his arms folded across his chest. We’d been wrestling away on the dance floor for five weeks now, with no visible improvement. That night, we called it quits, exiting at the break and making off down Congress Street, our smooth-soled shoes crunching in leftover winter sand.

For most of my life, I’ve been a lone boogie queen, awkward even when dancing in a group of girlfriends, anxious to be left alone to lose myself in the music, yet equally as anxious to make that illusive dancing connection, where one body’s rhythm begins to simultaneously influence and celebrate another’s. From cheesy-’80s dance bars in Tokyo to the dirty-dancing competition at Sumner Memorial High School in East Sullivan, Maine; from Trax nightclub in DC to the old Zootz on Forest Avenue, I’d tried to get up to get down — with somebody other than myself. I’d tried, and failed.

What better self-inflicted quest, then, than an assignment searching out hot dance spots in Portland? I knew that finding a venue that would satisfy my carefully honed, long-held vision of a dancing paradise was probably fruitless, but I was willing to try. I asked my usual companion in adventure, Heidi, to join me with her camera.

We started at the Mercury, a martini-bar on Fore Street that aspires to being a haunt for urban sophisticates (thus, the ludicrous price of drinks) and succeeds in being at least atmospheric — if you disregard the cast of thirty/fortysomething entrepreneurial types who hover hungrily over women at the bar.

" You guys are like bait in a shark cage, " our friend BJ said.

" Or sharks in a bait cage, " I replied, sipping yet another free drink. A lurid blue light pulsed over us, as DJs Nicotine, Laree Love, and Moshe spun some beats. A long, narrow room, the only space for dancing in the Mercury is directly in front of the turntables. That area, however, was consumed with couples in the throes of various mating rituals, and weekenders wearing turtlenecks with a single, horizontal stripe. Though the DJs were deft enough, the environment didn’t spur us into giving up our barstools. It was all too deliberate, too staged. The possibility of slipping away into a physically liberating dance-trance was nil — we’d either crash into someone’s tête-à-tête or get muckled by a horny businessman. We left.

Let me add one more element to my fantasy, the better to make it impossible: In addition to being the right space, with the right music, and the right crowd, my ideal dancing environment would have a quality of spontaneity to it — the impulse would seize people randomly, like a party that ends with everyone doing the twist, or clattering their hands and feet in a modified flamenco. After years of being a nightclub parasite, I’d given up on the whole process of getting gussied up to engage in the hopeful, and usually unsuccessful, attempt at letting go my reserve. My ideal night out would feel like crashing a basement party, circa 1952, with Otis Redding and Etta James blaring from the hi-fi and everybody jerking themselves around with barely restrained ecstasy. The spontaneous quality would prevent me from thinking about what my body was doing, and I’d join in the fray.

The odds, I knew, were slim, but out we went, gussied afresh.

Last time Heidi and I went to the Asylum, it was for nearly nude female oil wrestling, and it was fixed in my mind as a gathering spot for lewd men from Windham and Westbrook with dollar bills folded like origami in their pockets. Not an easy image to dispel. But we made our way in, bellied up to the bar for a plastic pint of beer, and wandered over to the dance floor, on which one lone fellow, the spitting image of Roddy MacDowell, was doing his own moves to the tunes of hip-hop radio station Red Hot 95.9 spun by DJ Jon. Large, homely women stood in clusters around the perimeter, and further back, a few stranded-looking men in flannel shirts and jeans.

We went downstairs to DJ FK1’s Decades of Dance. In a tiny room with black-and-white swirls on the dance floor, a gaggle of theater majors bopped around to " She Blinded Me With Science. " It felt familiar, like entering a live-action version of my early adolescence: the thrift shop duds, cat-eye glasses, and magenta hair. " Come on Irene " began to play, and a girl sitting on the couch next to me screamed and leapt up, cranking her arms and hips from side to side. When the chorus came on, all the dancers joined in, ankhs a-bouncing, eyeliner smudging with perspiration: " Too-rye, looh-rye, ooh-rye, ooh-rye-AAAAAY. "

I ventured back upstairs to see if things had livened up, in search of some booty-oriented music. The place was now packed, and a crowd of dancers ground their pelvises to a Ludacris song. A fellow invited me to dance with him, and, gamely, I said yes. After two choruses of suggestive, yet arms-length gyrating, he put his hands on my hips.

" Oh, no, " I blurted. " I’m really not one for the close dancing. "

I snatched Heidi from a Shaggy–inspired moment of whiskey–Zen and insisted, since we were on assignment, that we go to the Underground. Utterly ignored by the clutch of muscle-bound men in wife-beaters who flexed and preened to rehashed early-’90s mixes, I chucked myself jubilantly around the slippery floor, relieved, and only a little annoyed with myself for once again botching a chance to really dance to someone else’s tune.

A week later, purely by accident, we found it: the perfect dance scenario, a Chitlin Circuit blend of Tousante McCall and early Otis Redding, Oscar Toney Junior and Marvin Gaye. During one night of the Skinny’s month-long wake, Jeff Dice deejayed, his face obscured behind a cloud of cigar smoke. People talked, drank, stood around, their voices blending with the convivial raunchiness of the music, until finally, I couldn’t take it any more. I’d been distractedly bouncing in my chair for the better space of an hour, and I hauled a couple of other folks out on the floor, where I mash-potatoed all around, unconcerned with whether or not someone was watching, who was leading, or if I was stomping on somebody with my less than dainty feet.

Tanya Whiton can be reached at twhiton@prexar.com

Issue Date: February 20 - 27, 2003
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