Afraid to Dance: Learning to Let Go As the Pressure Mounts

The dancing mania   by Hendrik Hondius. Source: Wellcome Library, London

The dancing mania by Hendrik Hondius. Source: Wellcome Library, London

One day in July 1518 Frau Troffea stepped out onto the narrow streets of Strasbourg and began to dance. She swayed and shimmied, bobbed and boogied, with self-absorbed abandon. She danced for hours on end, not giving a thought to rest or sustenance. Hours turned to days. Within a week 30 or so others had joined in. Within a month there were 400 crazed dancers clogging the streets. The authorities were nonplussed. They laid on musicians to accompany the revellers, opened up halls and public spaces, in the belief that through encouragement they could drain the dance away. Inevitably many collapsed from exhaustion and some died of heart attacks.

The Strasbourg Dancing Plague was just one of a number of incidents of choreomania that were reported across Europe in the Middle Ages. Scholars have suggested that these were episodes of mass, stress-induced psychosis, brought on by the harsh conditions of medieval life. Some think that cult religions were involved. Others have speculated that fungus growing on local rye crops may have produced a psychoactive drug similar to LSD.

Whatever the specific cause, there’s no doubt that fear of dancing has a very particular grip on the popular imagination. In the late Middle Ages murals and woodcuts depicted Danses Macabres in which skeletons escorted people from all walks of life in a jaunty jig to the grave. In seventeenth century England Oliver Cromwell banned maypole dancing for its sinfulness and suggestion. The nineteenth century ballet Giselle features the Wilis, ghostly spirits of women betrayed by their lovers, who when they encounter men, dance them to death. In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Red Shoes, a pair of shoes refuses to let their occupants stop dancing.

What’s going on here? Of course we all love to dance. Well, most of us do. But maybe, at another level, we’re also afraid to dance. Dance represents succumbing to the sensual and emotional; a rejection of hierarchy and convention; a loss of control. Dance takes us back to our primitive roots. We danced before we could speak. It takes us to a world of instinct and intuition, of the euphoric and ecstatic. In dance we find release from our social shackles. We let go. And so as a culture we want to dance and yet we are afraid to dance.

In the creative industries we should recognise these contrary forces. We are forever managing the tension between the desire for freedom of expression and the need to take command of a situation. Creativity demands carte blanche; commerce demands control.

This tension is felt most acutely when the stakes are high: when the Clients are most expectant; when the prize is most exciting and the penalty is most disturbing; when time is running out. And it’s at precisely these times that the instinct to take control usually wins out. When we’re in a crisis we concentrate on cracking the idea at every moment of the day; we focus on finding the answer with every fibre of our bodies. The more arduous and important the undertaking, the more seriously we tend to take it.

But pressure can be counterproductive. By concentrating too intensely on a problem, we diminish our ability to solve it. We become cautious, conservative, blinkered and narrow minded.

In fact the creative’s best response to pressure should be to puncture it; release it. Because it’s only when we are at ease, when our minds are unfettered and free to wander, that we make random connections, have lateral thoughts and serendipitous encounters. At times of crisis we should learn to let go.

So as the tension mounts and the deadline looms, always remember to step outside. Go for a walk, go to the gym, go to sleep. Change the routine, change the subject, change the record. Look at the sky, read a book, call your mum. And don’t be afraid to dance.

‘Let’s groove tonight.
Share the spice of life.
Baby slice it right.
We’re gonna groove tonight.

Let this groove light up your fuse.
It’s alright (alright), oh, oh.’

Earth Wind & Fire, Let’s Groove (Maurice White, Wayne Vaughn)

No. 135

Murder On The Dance Floor

                        Photograph: Manchester Mirror/mirrorpix

                        Photograph: Manchester Mirror/mirrorpix

I was a bad DJ. I couldn't mix; I couldn't sample; I couldn't scratch. But above all, I couldn't make people dance - or at least, make them dance to my tunes.

The withering glances, the paralysing fear, the creeping self-doubt; it all comes flooding back. Staring out at an empty dancefloor, the only movement the geometric reflections from the mirror ball, the crowds clinging to the walls as if pushed by some centrifugal force.

I’d play one top track after another: D-Train, Fatback, Archie Bell & the Drells… Nothing.

‘It’s a shame,
Sometimes I feel like I’m going insane,
But still I want to stay’
Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King - Shame

Gradually the pressure built. They wanted to dance, but they didn’t want to dance to anything I was playing. The occasional Goth would approach, demanding Southern Death Cult.

Eventually I cracked and reached for The Jackson 5. No sooner had a few bars of ABC chimed out than the floor was filled with jiving students, a mass of ecstatic rhythm and moves.

But no time to enjoy my achievement. I faced another challenge. Once they were on their feet for The Jackson 5, I couldn’t very well give them Melba Moore. So I’d unsheath Earth, Wind & Fire. And then Shalamar. And Chic. ‘And the beat goes on...’

Yes, the floor was packed and pulsating now. A joyous Bacchanalian throng. But at the height of my seeming success, I was filled with self-loathing, because I had, in effect, created a Wedding Disco. I knew the revellers would not go home sated that night. They’d had a bop, but it was the same old stuff they’d always danced to. Nothing to be remembered, respected, revisited. Nothing original, authentic, inspired. Last night a DJ ruined my life…

So why am I telling you this?

Well, as a bad DJ I learned that it’s quite easy to generate a bit of fizz, a quick thrill or momentary buzz. But it’s much more difficult to get people dancing to your own tune, to be credited with it and thanked for it. And once you’ve got people dancing to a populist rhythm, it’s nigh-on impossible to get them off it. I learned that, if I ever wanted to be a good DJ, I’d need a thicker skin.

‘Here’s my chance to dance my way out of my constrictions,
(Feet don’t fail me now),
One nation under a groove, Gettin’ down just for the funk of it’
Funkadelic - One Nation under a Groove

I’d been to enough clubs to recognise a proper DJ. I’d seen them seamlessly blend the familiar with the exotic. I’d seen them coax their public onto the floor, change the tempo, manipulate the mood. I’d seen them insinuate a rhythm that took dancers deep into the heart of darkness. And I’d seen the joy unconfined of a real dancehall crowd moving as one.

I think marketers can learn from dance. Dance is about individual fulfilment found through collective action, private passions explored together – not unlike brands. Marketers could learn from DJs, too – the experts who create, catalyse and control the dancefloor, the magicians who manufacture social success. What advice would a good DJ give a brand manager? Well perhaps...

1. Read the crowd. Feel the mood of the masses. It’s about your own, instinctive judgement, not someone else’s.
2. Live in the moment. Be spontaneous, intuitive, impromptu. Don’t plan for a future you can’t predict.
3. Mix sugar and spice, the familiar with the unknown. It may be counterintuitive, but no one will thank you if you play only what they want, know or expect.
4. Surprise them with the arcane, the forgotten and absurd when they least expect it. Don’t let consistency become predictability.
5. Create one seamless journey, contoured with its own highs and lows. Take the whole dancefloor on that journey and don’t get lost in segmentation, tailoring and targeting.

Great brands set a rhythm that unites consumers, propels them onto the dancefloor of life and inspires them to express their truest feelings, together. In the age of the empowered, atomised consumer, we should never forget that, fundamentally, brands are shared beliefs. I have always believed in a brand that seeks to lead opinion rather than follow it. I guess I believe in the Brand as DJ.

Or as Soul II Soul might put it: ‘A happy face, a thumpin’ bass, for a lovin’ race’…

First published: Marketing 06/09/2013

No. 31