Dancing, Northern Soul Style December 20, 2007Posted by wallofsound in Northern Soul, Popular Dance.
Here’s some more of my writing on Northern Soul. This time I am posting an extract from some work analysing dance styles on the Northern Soul dancefloor.
Style refers to the manner of expression; it is the particular way certain actions are performed. In his semiotic investigation of style, Dick Hebdige (1979) suggests that style is the active use of available materials, in which each use is interconnected with other uses, to produce a meaningful whole. As such I want to explore dance style as a process of meaning-construction, distinct in its usage of available moves, and linked to other practices that make it meaningful. It is, therefore, far more important to understand how and in what context dancers dance than simply what they dance or how it feels.
I start by identifying a central set of practices which were established in the early 1970s, and (mainly because of the continuity of many of the participants) have remained the predominant way in which dance is organised within the scene. These aspects of style constitute a narrow definition of how music can be danced to, expressed by the scene’s participants as a shared set of competencies or dance techniques and an associated notion of competence.
Competence and dance technique
Ben Malbon, in his analysis of post-House club culture, argues that part of the sociability of dance is the ability of the dancer to demonstrate a number of competencies which, drawing on Goffman (1959), he suggests aim to ‘successfully negotiating the trials of ‘impression management’’ (p. 97). That is to say, it matters what you look like when you move, and it matters what spatial relationships you produce in relation to other dancers. In fact, as I will show, on the Northern scene the idea of competence orders the spacing of dancers and variation in style in a way that it does not seem to in the post-House club culture Malbon investigates.
We will not find an understanding of dance within the scene if we concentrate on the ‘gymnastics’ of back drops, spins and dives that impress the on-looker at a Northern night. They are the most obviously distinctive features, and certainly they give a heroic appellation to the exponents, and a sense of the extraordinary to these dance floors. However, even when (30 years ago) we were younger, fitter and more practiced, only a minority of dancers used these moves, and only at set places in certain records. Today it tends to be the older male dancers who execute them, rather than the large number of younger dancers. I would suggest that it is through this relationship that a sense of the heroic has been established.
Cosgrove tried to put his finger on Northern style by noting that the dancer ‘glides from side to side’ and ‘predict almost every beat and soul clap’ (1982, 38). The predominant ‘glide’ style is achieved through some core characteristics of posture and movement: rigid upper torso, eyes up and looking forward; weight back and pushing down through the hips on to the heels; moving mostly with feet, with fairly straight legs, to propel oneself across the floor (almost always sideways); arms and hands tend to follow the shifting weight of the dancer, or push against it for expressive counter-point. It is this core competency that signals you as an insider, and not a dance tourist. Many – and at an increasing number of Northern nights, most – dancers limit their dance to these core postures and movements. There are some who do not adopt this predominant style, and I will return to them later in this section.
There are also a series of elaborations to the core style that are available to the competent dancer. The most common are to do with the dance steps. The standard steps of the side-to-side dance movement count out the four beats of each bar of the music as a basic repetition: four beats to the right, four beats to the left. This seems to be the easiest way to interpret the steady, even, lightly syncopated beat of the up-town sixties Soul records that characterises the music played at Northern venues. This beat is the main drive of the dancing style because it determines the even time marking which underlies Northern dance style. However, by shifting weight across two beats from the heel to the toe the dancer can momentarily keep their balance on one foot. This allows dancers to undertake steps characteristic of a more practiced participant. Primarily it allows a heavy use of the ankle, rather than leg, to propel the dancer, and to use their other foot for an action that does not require carrying their weight. It is this movement, which makes the dancer seem to glide, while at the same time as allowing leg, and foot movements that counter-point the main beat. This puts considerable stress on the ankles and this is the reason Northern dancefloors are lubricated with talcum powder by the dancers.
It is from these pieces of footstep improvisation and elaboration that the other bodily movements are built. They mostly cover a range of small shifts which within the scene have significance. These would include changes of direction, the interspersing of short and longer sideways strides, twisting the body in a counter direction to the movement of the feet, and shifting the weight around the centre of the hips. These moves are paralleled by hand and arm gestures which play with other aspects of the song, or emphasise them, most notably with the soul clap – an exaggerated wide armed communally-executed clap – which marks out certain beats usually in the bridge of the record. These relatively simple moves are then sometimes built up into more dramatic moves that produce the acrobatic activities of spinning, falling backwards, or diving forwards. At its most elaborated these would be combined so that, for instance, a spin ends in a backdrop, which merges into a kick from the prone position, and a return the vertical ends with a spin to hit the first beat of a new stanza of the music.
However physically demanding such elaborated moves are they are not in themselves valued. There are dancers who can do the gymnastic techniques, but do not dance with competency. Along with all movements, the judgement of competency is applied to the way they are executed. While dancers are allowed quite a degree of variation in the moves that are executed – in fact it is greatly valued – the times when they can be executed is strongly delineated. These structures of what is possible when are related to the musical and performance structure of the recordings themselves. Knowledge of the structure of individual records is therefore central, and thus unites two forms of competence: the ability to do the moves; and the knowledge of when, in a particular record, certain types of moves can be executed.
Competency and scene knowledge
Records have been, and are, valued on the scene because they provide opportunities for the competencies of style to be enacted. Dobie Gray’s ‘Out on the Floor’ is a classic for analysing how musical and dancing competence relate. In many ways it is a basic song form, but not one strong on lyrical content. The introduction is based on a transposition of the lyrical and musical material of the song’s chorus cut down to four three-bar stanzas. ‘Hey, hey, hey’, sing the backing vocalists twice; ‘yeah! yeah! yeah!, everything is out of sight!’ replies Dobie, as we are called to the floor. This is followed by the first verse (four eight bar stanzas), then the chorus (one eight-bar stanzas), the second verse, chorus again (this time two eight-bar stanzas), an extended bridge section built on multiple phrases of eight bars. Moving to the fade out the verse and one stanza chorus are repeated and then the lines of the extended bridge are used with new lyrics.
Dancers use the core techniques described above during the verse, a flourish of extended techniques in the chorus, and quite developed versions of the extended techniques in the elongated bridge. We can start to understand the popularity of the record with dancers for over three decades by relating the playfulness of the musicians and singers with the song structure, with the possibilities for competence they provide. Most of the song is taken at a very brisk tempo, and at key points the tempo is intensified by the drums dramatically increasing the time over the basic beat. The tempo of the backing track contrasts with the generally unhurried nature of the lead singing, which on occasions uses melisima to spread a note over one or two bars. At other times, especially at the start of a verse, Gray is singing ahead of the beat. Even given the overall structure no two stanzas are organised in the same way. Most significant in these variations are the instrumental roles of drums and acoustic piano. The drums (with the other rhythm instruments) keep steady time in the verse, and then break into double time for the last two bars of the final stanza, while the vocal holds one word, pushing us into the chorus. The piano is used for a short motif, which constitutes the song’s secondary hook and is played towards the end of each stanza of verse, usually in the last bar. In the first three lines the motif is played softly and with some improvisation against the vocal. It is not used in the chorus. At other points, notably the answer section of the extended bridge, the motif is played with full attack on the keys. This all creates shifting textures, a playfulness with time, and shifts of emotional intensity in which dancers demonstrate their simultaneous competencies of dance technique as style, knowledge of the recorded music, and the rules of the scene.
If competency in the Northern scene can be understood as relating to stylised movement and knowledge of particular records and how they can be danced to, it is played out in the space of the dance floor. Dance is more than a combination of posture and steps, it obviously also involves moving in a space used by other dancers and marked out for different activities. This constitutes Malbon’s second ‘situation’ of dance: the physical geography, ambience and spacing and orientation of dancers. Given what has preceded it will come as no surprise to learn that the scene has a strong set of rules about how one moves in this space.
Moving in space
The dance spaces of the Northern Soul scene are not the mainstream clubs of youth nightlife, and they have never been so. They are a mixture of old ballrooms, pub function rooms, halls, and social clubs in communities which were increasingly marginalised by the shifting economics of post-war wealth creation. Many early venues did not even have a licenced bar. The most important element was a large wooden dance floor, and contemporary Northern nights are in venues dominated by the dance floor. Bar and sitting areas usually surround the dance space on two or more sides and there is usually a space set aside for selling records and memorabilia, as watching the dancers and buying records and CDs are important secondary activities at Northern nights. The DJ desk is usually raised on a stage at the other end of the room, and all these activities are orientated to the dance floor and the dancers.
Few present day venues have the scale of attendance of Wigan Casino or Blackpool Mecca in the 1970s, and usually will be in the low hundreds, with less than a hundred on the dancefloor at any one time. Even so, so many enthusiastic dancers in a confined space demands some form of regulation. An etiquette of the dancefloor has developed to try and deal with the danger of clashing with another dancer. While some dancers will operate in an area as large as one or two square meters, this space will overlap with other dancers who seek to negotiate the use of the space through some sort of order to their dancing and a high degree of control over their techniques. Dancers with a developed technique and a high degree of competence hardly ever come into contact, and such incidents are usually followed by fulsome apologies. The sorts of orientations apparent in Malbon’s account of ‘post-House club cultures’ are not present on Northern dance floors. Dancers do not face the DJ, or any other common part of the space. Dancers on the outer edges of the floor almost always face inwards, but on the inside of the dance space different dancers face different ways. Although friends often dance in a broadly similar part of the floor, they do not normally form a distinctive group, and dancing between couples is very unusual (and often a subject of comment by on-lookers).
There is a continual churning of dancers, usually based upon preferences for certain records over others. A particularly popular record will quickly fill the floor, but the relatively short length of the records means that there is a change in those dancing every three minutes or so. Dancing is therefore an activity defined not just by the physical relationship to the music, but to the other dancers, and to the wider space through which the dancers shift their activity from dancing, sitting, watching and offering comment. I estimate that dancers today spend far less time on the dance floor than they would have in the 1970s – probably the product of our increasing age – and the composition and operation of the floor has shifted far more than the basic dance itself.
The most notable change is the role that women occupy. Once a minority of dancers, they now constitute a majority. Although one must be careful as the 1970s published photographic records of dancers tend to focus on the acrobatic dancing performed by men, the distribution of the dancing crowd supports the claim that it was men who predominate in numbers, in occupancy of space, and in the spectacle of dance. At a number of present day venues I visited a high proportion of the men occupying the floor kept to the outer edge, and women out numbered men in the centre. Although men tended to be the ones who used the acrobatic elements in their dances, some women included spins, and elaborated dance steps. Secondly, there is far less cohesion to the dancefloor than there used to be. This is most obvious in the division between dancers in their twenties – who construct their dance identities around a revival of the dress and dance of the late 1960 Mod scene – and those in their late thirties, forties (and sometimes fifties) who link themselves much more to the Northern Scene of the late 1970s. The relative proportion of these groups varies from venue to venue, but there was not a venue I visited where the younger group were in the majority. For this reason the dominant meanings of the scene are still derived from the three decades of Northern Soul. There has been some antagonism to Mod-revivalists in the Northern scene since the early 1980s because it is perceived to lack authenticity, and to be a youth fad (see St. Pierre dnk; Winstanley dnk) but this seems to have dissipated if my research is generalisable. Although there is some overlap in which records are danced to, the neo-Mods tend to dominate when certain records are played, and these are usually played within a themed set of early 1960s R&B, rather than the uptown Soul style associated with Detroit or Los Angelis labels. During these sets there are not major differences between dancers as the Northern dancers curtail the more distinctive features of their style. At other times, though, the differences between styles often leads to bodily contact as it is harder to predict the patterns of different, (Northern dancers would say) less disciplined styles.
There is another sense in which the Northern scene has expanded outside its former cultural territory of exclusion, and this has expanded the backgrounds of people at Northern venues. The rare Soul records which were collected and exchanged by DJs and dancers are now widely available on compilation CDs, and they have a wider circulation in radio programmes and on the sound tracks to adverts and TV programmes. Further, the greater prominence of women dancers, and of dancers who do not share the traditions and history of the Northern soul scene, have made the discursive practices of the scene less excluding, and the notions of the in-crowd less pronounced.
My main point here is that Northern Soul dancers are not just involving themselves in a physically pleasurable activity. Ethnographic observation and participation reveals dancing as a physically and psychologically pleasure activity, and the sweat and physical flow of dance, the relationship to music, and physical communality are major reasons dancers dance. However, they cannot explain the distinctiveness of why dance to these records in this way.