Sunday, August 23, 2009



I don’t like confessing things. But I don’t mind “voluntarily sharing” my thoughts and impressions. When I do, I try my best to recall my own actions as accurately as I can. “Confessing,” on the other hand, implies that I must “tell the truth” to some fatherly authority or face unappetizing consequences. Confession is freighted with judgment; the listener judges and decides for himself whether you’re telling “the truth.” And if you do “confess the truth,” the listener has the power to approve or condemn it. In either case, the speaker is the weak party. I avoid such unfair power relationships whenever I can. That’s why I don’t “confess things.”

Even if I could use language to precisely convey what I did, thought or felt at a particular moment in time (a doubtful enterprise), I don’t like the idea that I must “tell the truth” or face negative consequences. I try to tell the truth because I have a conscience, not because some higher authority compels me to speak. Confessions require external pressure and even subservience; conscience, by contrast, comes from within. I try to be honest with myself; and that’s the only way I can accurately recall my impressions. I do my best to remember what I see and hear. I try to be honest when I recall those impressions. That is my truth; I don’t need to “confess it.” I simply honestly recall what I sensed. And sometimes I forget “the truth” completely. After all, there are too many details in life. You can only grasp a precious few.

Today I want to “voluntarily share” some impressions and thoughts. First, I like dancing. Some might call this a confession. I simply call it a preference. Dancing is not easy. We constantly face social pressures impelling us not to dance. Generally, no one really dances until they get drunk. But have you ever danced while perfectly sober? It’s liberating. It feels really good to move your body simply because you are personally exhilarated about something. Your spirits rise when you let your body move like that. After all, in “everyday life,” we accustom ourselves to holding our bodies in relatively few positions: sitting, standing, walking, lying down. Social custom expects us to hold our bodies in these positions: For example, no one dances at work. Yet when we move in “unexpected ways,” we break those customs. I find that fun. I like controlling my own body. It’s a welcome change.

Second, sometimes I dance when I walk the New York streets. Ever since I was a kid, I have loved walking in New York. I grew up in suburban, sleepy Connecticut. Not much moved on the Connecticut streets. But in New York, the streets burst with energy, even drama. There is always something to see; you rarely see the same thing twice. Put simply, New York moves. During my first years in New York, I used to get excited just to go outside and walk. I walked everywhere, just to feel the energy. I didn’t really have a destination. I just moved because it felt good to move around in such exciting surroundings. And because I felt so good during those walks, sometimes I would break out a dance step. Why the hell not? I felt good, so why not let my body show it? Even now—fourteen years later—I still sometimes feel giddy on the New York streets. True, they’ve changed a lot. But there are some things about New York that never change, like nonstop, vibrant movement on the streets.

I march, too. Just about everyone who walks alone in New York listens to music. Hip-hop started in New York. Hip-hop is basically funk music interspersed with spoken, rhythmic (hopefully) rhymes. Of course, it has changed profoundly since the 1980s; I really don’t like it anymore. But in essence, hip-hop is New York marching music. In the old days, it propelled you forward with attitude. Back then, a good hip-hop song made you want to get up and move with purpose, just the way you feel when you move through the New York streets. It makes you want to say: “Yeah, look at me. I’m in New York; what are you going to do about it?” Hip-hop beats are marching beats. You can dance to them as easily as you can keep in step with them.

Yet people think marching is old fashioned. It isn’t. In fact, marching influences all modern dance music. If you can move to a song, it most likely has a march beat in it somewhere. Soldiers march because marching boosts morale, just like dancing. Marching brings people together under a rhythmic, even hypnotic pulse, just as a great dance song does. Marching is also extremely “manly;” it oozes with masculine braggadocio. When soldiers march, they parade their physical discipline and strength. When people watch soldiers march, they admire their lockstep and smart uniforms. They hear the beat pulsating in the background. They hear hundreds of boots hit the ground as one. And they see the soldiers moving as one with the music, like an inexorable, proud machine. Meanwhile, the soldiers themselves feel strong and united under the music. They move together and they know they are powerful. There is something about a march beat that makes every listener confident and proud. Marches replicate the tempo of a brisk walk. A march beat makes the listener want to move with purpose. Dance beats do the same thing.

Dance beats are little more than embellished marches. Every great dance song is also a march. Listen to one. Can you walk briskly to it? If you can, it’s a march. Is there a bottom line drumbeat that propels you forward? If there is, it’s a march. All modern American dance music derives from marches. Funk, hip-hop and even electronica derive from New Orleans jazz. New Orleans jazz, in turn, took its snare/bass drumbeats from 19th Century military bands. Armies have always known that propulsive music makes soldiers feel strong and unified. Early jazz musicians took marches and made them “fun” as well as “unifying.” Marches have attitude; so does jazz. Marches make want you get up and move with confidence and purpose. So does jazz. And so do all the other funky genres that developed after jazz. They all trace their origins back to the military march. Dance music appeals to us for the same reason that marches appealed to our earliest ancestors. They both spring from a common root: Beats that inspire unifying, powerful movement.

I think about this legacy when I march through New York. It’s easier to move over long distances with a strong beat behind you. That’s why armies always had drummers to spur tired soldiers another mile down the road. Just as marches lifted soldiers’ spirits through movement in the past, dance music lifts our spirits today. Both marches and dance music target our bodies. They make us feel good because the music makes us move our bodies in more daring ways than usual. When we do, we feel confident. When we dance—just as when we march—we dare the world to look at us and we don’t mind. Both marches and dancing immunize us from the normalizing judgments of the outside world. In fact, if we dance or march with enough zeal, those normalizing judgments give way to admiration and even awe. After all, the public always respects a company of soldiers marching to a powerful beat. They might move their bodies in “uncustomary” ways, but they project such raw, confident strength that they inspire respect. Who wants to mess with soldiers who march well? The same goes for good dancing.

I march in New York because marching fits the city’s pulsating energy. In many ways, New York is one vast theater. Everyone knows that everyone else is looking at them, even if they try not to show it. Everyone is playacting on some level. Everyone wants to be special. Vanity is everywhere, even when unwarranted. But that’s what creates the city’s crackling energy. Everyone is striving for something and moving somewhere. Quite simply, everyone is marching.

I like contributing to that energy. That’s why I march in New York. I’m not afraid to say it. But no matter how strange this sounds, this is no confession. I am not at all ashamed to say that I march every day; I am proud that I can let music move me. When a march or a dance song triggers good feelings in my body, it makes me happy. That emotion is mine. No one else experiences it at that moment. Why feel ashamed for a happy moment? Leaving happiness to one side, I think it’s fair to say that it is better to feel confident than to feel insecure. Confident people dance because they don’t care what others think about them. They also march because marching inspires confidence. Put simply, if you can march, you can dance, too. It really doesn’t matter who’s drumming the beat, as long as it moves you.

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