Dancing in the Dark
Jennifer Voigt

In her story of the charmed life of Gillian Perholt, The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, A.S. Byatt surprises us with this insight: "Human beings are shape-shifters as much as the most subtle genie." As we follow Dr. Perholt on her adventures at narratologists' conferences, in the Hagia Sophia, in the bazaars of Istanbul, we watch her own shape shift: her marriage ends, her career expands, she changes her appearance with a word (and no plastic surgeon in sight). We read about her and realize, slowly, as we simul­taneously turn the page and wriggle about in our chairs for a more comfortable position, that we, like Djinns, have forms that stretch and stir, that require movement and change, and are never the same from day to day.

In light of this human need to expand and contract, even the coincidence that we celebrate the Reformation on Halloween becomes something divine. We put on other beings' clothing-obvious proof of our need and our desire to change our shapes-to reform ourselves. Just by costuming ourselves we assume the shape of something we may never have seen. Dressing up, we can become the physical manifestation of something we experience only because we believe in it. How different is our stage makeup from the whitewash the reformers used to paint over the visual art in the cathedrals of Northern Europe? Compare those spare spaces with the encrusted churches of the south, and we see the need we humans have to experience with the body what we feel in our souls—to make, as Dr. Gillian Perholt does, our wishes come true.

While the expression of this need is incorporated into the architecture and interior design of worship spaces, it also appears in our prayer and our worship. In Yoga, the asana is both a mental and physical meditation. The Christian sacraments bring earthly reality to the divine. The Christian liturgy invites its participants to act out the divine drama. Nevertheless, in many ways we have forgotten our shape-shifting nature, and forsaken the human need to experi­ence our bodies in response to our spiritual experience in the name of religion. A costume can also be like the veil required of Muslim women by fundamentalist Islam. Darcey Steinke describes Lutheran worship in Jesus Saves: "Through the thick glass Ginger saw that every pew was packed, and even while the people sang, each head remained so still they might as well be stones with wigs attached. It was a German thing, complete physical command over even the most passionate scenario." In The Fires, Rene Steinke echoes her, employing the most indelible of Lutheran images: "The problem was that the church sometimes trained people to become only more still and solid, to use God as a fortress against the very breath of life which could change you." What does this self-willed spiritual solidity do to the architecture of the body, or the design of the soul? What does reformation mean to stones and fortresses?

Where in contemporary film can you turn to examine the relationship between worship, the body, and movement? Contemporary movies about dance, among others, address these issues. Furthermore, they address them specifically, because they examine the human body's relationship to human desires, ambitions, and needs. Contemporary films use dance as a metaphor— and often a tool—for moral and spiritual transformation. In these movies, reformation becomes literal re-formation through dance.

In Hairspray, Ricki Lake is Tracy Turnblad, an "upper lower-class teenager" from Baltimore who, as the "height of teen fashion" in 1962 wears her hair double processed and, in the words of Divine, who plays her mother, Edna, "all ratted up like a teenaged Jezabel." Tracy also loves to dance, and one night when her parents think she's studying at the library with her best friend Penny (Leslie Ann Powers), she goes to a hop instead. There, scouts from the Corny Collins Show, Baltimore's after-school dance party program, discover her, and ask her to try out to be on "The Council," the Corny Collins Show's ultra-popular regulars. Tracy tries out with Penny and an African American girl, who, when a member of the Council reminds her that the Corny Collins Show airs "Negro Day" only one day a month, utters the forbidden word "integration," and is ushered out of the audition. Tracy, who withstands the Council's inquiries into her "personality [flaw]"—her full figure— like the most seasoned of presidential press sec­retaries, wins a place on the Corny Collins dance floor.

Tracy has a rival, Amber Von Tussle, who drives a convertible Mustang, and, bankrolled by her amusement park owner-father (Sonny Bono), is aggressively seeking the title of Miss Auto Show. Tracy earns Amber's eternal wrath by stealing Amber's boyfriend, Link, for a ladies' choice, and for having the guts to announce that, she too, would like to be Miss Auto Show. Meanwhile, Amber has parent trouble as well as boyfriend trouble. Her mother, Miss Soft Crab 1945, while supporting Amber's own Corny Collins Show appearances, confronts her one day for doing the "Shake Your Tailfeather" on city-wide tv: "Act white on television," she advises her daughter.

Subtlety does not come naturally to John Waters, and in Hairspray, he characteristically chooses to lay America's bitter, racist hand on the cinematic table. He does it, however, through a strange combination of compassion and anger that can only be expressed through his camp style of direction. Waters has the rare ability to be able to present issues like race and class without looking preachy because he does so at the expense of all sacred cows. Any one with the idea that leftward leanings beget polit­ical correctness must remember that, for all intents and purposes, Hairspray remains one long fat joke. What is Hefty Hideaway but a glorious romp through a world created by stereo­types of fat women? Tracy is utterly serious when she proclaims that she wants to show the world that she's "big, blonde, and beautiful," but Waters tempers this proclamation with a double shot of irony. Can you take Divine seriously when, as Edna, she asks her husband (Jerry Stiller) to pass the diet pills? Can you take Divine seriously, period? Or Ricki Lake? Or Pia Zadora? (Destiny got the last laugh on Waters in 1992 when we were all suddenly forced to take Sonny Bono seriously). Even Waters' preoccu­pation—not with the dark, soul destroying aspects of fame, but with the humiliating, "you're last year's bad hairdo" side of every­body's 15 minutes—is a kind of popular culture-informed examination of the thin line between the sacred and the profane. Is there any doubt what Waters had in mind when he cast Bono as the father of the eclipsed Amber?

For Waters, no ideology's center holds; his direction is a kind of deconstruction. Despite Tracy's father's comment that "integration is no laughing matter," Hairspray makes fun of race and class in the same way that it makes fun of the obese, or perpetually cheesy celebrities, the popular dances of the early sixties, or hairspray itself. At least twice in the movie Waters has one group laughing at another—when Amber's homeroom class laughs at the special-ed home­room class, and when the blacks of Baltimore laugh at Penny's paranoid mother. In this way the movie uses laughter to expose the absurdity of the beliefs on which we can come to base our lives. Laughter becomes a way to demonstrate the power of one group over another. The kids in Amber's homeroom may not be smart, but at least they're not in special-ed. The black people terrifying Penny's white mother with their laughter know that they are safe within the group and that she is alone with her fear. This same sense of laughter as power infects the audi­ence. We may not be beautiful, but at least we're not fat. We may not be famous but at least we're not pathetic. We are not, blessedly, wearing our hair in beehives.

Power is important because that is what is at stake when Tracy dances on television. For Tracy, dancing on the Corny Collins Show means instant respect from her parents, who recognize a way to make money in Tracy's new found fame. It also means the opportunity to dance with the dreamy Link and eventually wear his ring. To the rest of Baltimore, Tracy's entree into the world of televised dance shows means a shift in the social order.

Wealthy, spoiled Amber faces a challenge from a girl whose mother takes in laundry. Even more scandalous, Tracy means to use her power differently from anyone before her. She means to integrate the Corny Collins Show, so that black kids can have the same opportunity to have fun that she has. Bringing integration into the picture makes the social order even more uncomfortable for Waters' Baltimore. Only Waters could make white fears about miscegena­tion work as a running joke in a film. One after another, he gives us stereotypical comments played back in a distorted laugh track: the senti­ment that the white Penny and her black boyfriend, Seaweed, share ("We are outcasts from both cultures"); the insult that Amber's mother hurls at Divine ("Is your daughter mulatto?"); the sense that dancing with black men could endanger the virtues of Baltimore's white young women. Penny's own mother kid­naps her from a record store because she finds her daughter dancing there with a black man. Later, she hires a psychiatrist (Waters himself) to cattle-prod Penny into liking white boys. "Balti­more is not ready for integrated dancing" for the very reason that Penny's own parents take her hostage. Dancing on the same television show could lead to the black and white kids wanting to dance not just beside each other, but with each other. This could lead to even more scandalous behavior.

Nostalgia for the first three years of the sixties is a significant fixation for American national cinema. Barry Levinson's Diner, set in Baltimore in the early sixties, expresses a desire for a better, softer time before people's con­sciousness changed and women no longer felt the need to submit to humiliating examinations to test their fitness for marriage via their knowl­edge of professional football trivia. American Graffiti's director, George Lucas, is so nostalgic that even futuristic films he makes continue to move their audiences back in time. In these movies, one gets the feeling that pre-70s America was riding on top of a cloud (the perfect angle from which to obscure from its pas­sengers its mushroom shape).

Hairspray acknowledges this need to mythologize the end of a golden era with its stilted, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland "barn into theater" dialogue. Scenes like the one in which Wilbur Turnblad (Jerry Stiller) says "maybe Tracy could be one of these campus leaders," and Divine answers, "the times they're a changing" only further emphasize the naivite of films like Levinson's and Lucas's. When Tracy and her friends stumble into the lives of two beatniks (Zadora and Ric Ocacek) who suggest they all smoke pot together, they are mortified to have their "clean teen" innocence challenged. When they flee the corrupting influence of the beats' apartment, Zadora shouts after them lines from Howl, reminding us what lay just under the surface of American culture during the early years of the Sixties, threatening to rise at any minute. Tracy brings everything to the surface in the final scene, and her hair, ironed straight like the beatnik's who frightened her, underscores the transformation of the world that she orches­trates.

If the dancers orchestrate the changes in films where dance is the central metaphor, the characters who make up their audiences in these films also undergo their own transformations. Hairspray is a movie that is as much about watching as it is about dancing. Much of the action takes place with television cameras in front of the film cameras, and the Corny Collins show's main attraction is that if you're on it, you get to be watched. Watching in dance movies is a kind of intercessory act in which the watcher finds an advocate, or a proxy in the dancer. In Hairspray, Tracy becomes the advocate for the black kids who segregation forces to sit out Corny Collins' hops. In The Turning Point, and Strictly Ballroom, children assume this role for their former-dancer parents, allowing the par­ents to realize their dreams through them, as if by watching their offspring perform, they regain in their middle age the bodies they had in their youth.

This use of the dancer as proxy—where the dancer's body in some way fulfills the watcher's needs—is most stunning in Dirty Dancing (1984), in which Baby's (Jennifer Grey) initia­tion into the adult world happens as a direct result of ex-Rockette Penny's (Cynthia Rhodes) abortion. Baby learns to dance over the course of the story—indeed so that Penny (it is 1963) can recover from the back-alley procedure without losing her annual summer gig—but her body and its movement remain a metaphor only for her own personal revolution. The bodies that allow her to revolt are the bodies that dance for a living—Penny and Johnny (Patrick Swayze), Baby's boyfriend. Penny's abortion affords Baby the opportunity to be an accessory to a crime (by giving Penny the money for the abortion). It also fosters the break between Baby and her father when he finds out Baby's role in the ordeal. But most of all it gives Baby a chance to put her ideals into practice by helping those less fortu­nate than herself. In this dynamic, Baby and Penny are involved in one body through which Baby expresses her values.

The implications for class struggle in this situation should not go unnoticed. As a guest at Kellerman's Mountain House, Baby is at all times in a position of power over Penny and Johnny. Poor, working-class Penny's only asset is her body, while Baby, on her way to Mt. Holyoke, doesn't need to worry about how she'll eat when her joints begin to go. In truth, Baby harnesses Penny's labor for her own gain. But Dirty Dancing, at least, has a political con­sciousness. Unlike Footloose.

When the narrow tie and spiked hair-wearing Wren McCormick (Kevin Bacon) moves with his mother from Chicago to rural Beau­mont, all the girls there think he's cute and most of the boys want to beat him up. This simulta­neous attraction and revulsion stems from an exoticism these small-town kids associate with Wren, who has read books that the Beaumont school board finds unacceptable, like Slaughter­house Five. But Wren's reading habits are the least of his attributes. He tries to fit in with the Beaumont kids the way he might try to fit in with kids at a new school in a city: he talks about things city kids might—music and dancing. But these kids know nothing about bands like Men at Work and the Police. In fact, dancing and lis­tening to rock music have been forbidden by a local ordinance, enacted after a car full of drunk kids coming back from a night out dancing fell off a bridge, killing everybody involved. This was a few years before Wren came to town, and he finds it unfair that his primary mode of expression has been effectively taken away from him. Frustrated and trapped, he begins a crusade to get the town to let the senior class hold a prom. His foil in this struggle is an influential pastor, played by Jon Lithgow.

Footloose is one of the least aesthetically pleasing films I watched as research for this piece (Flashdance takes top honors in this dubious competition.) Even as a thirteen-year old, when I first saw this film at the Southwest Plaza mall, I knew a cliche when I saw it. But it remains an instructive film to write about, because though it sees dance as an act of rebellion, there is no true revolution here. In fact, Footloose is an arti­fact of a backlash against progressive political movement; such backlashes find social change suspicious and value conformity far above indi­vidual rights.

Where Dirty Dancing took its characters' troubles seriously, dealing with problems like illegal abortions, when the camera studies Bacon's reactions to Beaumont's provincialism, we see no studied social reformer—despite his assertions that Slaughterhouse Five is a classic— merely the psychology of adolescent discontent. Something about the film wants to put him in his place, like parents indulging their child's fan­tasies while rolling their eyes behind his back. Though Wren assumes the leadership in the teenagers' fight for a prom, his ideas lack any depth of understanding of his situation. At one point, he confesses to his friend, Willard (Christopher Penn), his ultimate revolutionary dream: he wants to hold a wet T-shirt contest and put Playboy centerfolds in all of Reverend Moore's hymnals. Lest Wren's secret desires look like a guerilla approach to winning his war, his reasons for waging it prove him guileless. He tells his mother "It's not just about a dance." Now I'm thinking I could really do something you know? I could really do something for me this time." Such a statement effectively negates the work the film does to distinguish the right­eous from the self-righteous. Though the story might imply the possibility of a young man with a hatred for hypocracy and intolerance, Foot­loose actually only gives us a boy trying to recover the toy that some disciplinarian took away. We are told that the reason Wren and his mother had to move away from Chicago is that the McCormicks' marriage ended, and Wren also uses his parents' breakup as an excuse to express his teenage angst. While Dirty Dancing sees the Jennifer Gray character weighing the complex emotional and ethical issues involved with her friend's abortion as an inevitable step on the road to growing up, Footloose releases Wren and, his friends from any moral responsi­bility. We are told that Ariel (Lori Singer), the love interest, takes part in the fight for the dance because she wants to get her father, the Rev­erend Moore's, attention. In one scene, attempting to win Dad's blessing, Ariel tells him, ""I just don't know if I believe in everything you believe in. But I believe in you." It is a reac­tionary way of looking at the moral and political motives of young people. Footloose presents these children as having no moral core: they rally around an issue, but they do it not because they have experienced injustice. Where in this movie is there a defense of the first amendment? The film does try to hide behind an outrageous school-board sponsored book-burning, but when the film's real hero finally goes to battle, he takes with him only passages from the Bible that he had never before read. Ariel, the "hell-raiser" who turns out to be a good girl after all, has to find them for him. Footloose treats this particular rebellion as if were nothing more than a kindergarten class demanding one more cookie for all. Teenagers don't have real motives—their minds and bodies are confused.

In Praying With Body and Soul, Jane E. Vennard describes her first experience dancing for universal peace. "Everywhere I looked were people turning and swaying and singing and humming, all with peace on their minds and in their hearts. I felt exhilarated and a part of some­thing much larger than myself." Vennard's account demonstrates the physical element of religious experience. Dance becomes a way of experiencing God in the body. Hairspray, Dirty Dancing, and Footloose are secular films, and only Footloose actually shows religious worship, though the film finds it drab and authoritarian. But they provide a glimpse into the nature of worship and suggest what it could be. Through the metaphor of dance, they show the power of the body to tear down the fortresses in which we shelter ourselves from change and challenge. This same power speaks to the Christian mission in particular, which calls its faithful to serve the poor, hungry, sick, and to challenge oppression. This physical shape-shifting can also shift the shapes of our souls. The worship these films sug­gest roots itself not in the Resurrection of the Body to come, but in the experience of the body as it is now. It is a kind of worship that asks us, like the men and women who seek joy in ball­room dance classes in Shall We Dance, to experi­ence the "joys that dance can bring."

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