This is going to be an odd essay. The argument, in a nut-shell, is that those officially charged with being our youth leaders, whether by religious groups or schools, as well as those who unofficially are youth leaders, simply by being youths themselves that their peers might follow if invited and challenged to do so, should consider the possibility that the most neglected and yet effective way they might serve contemporary youth would be to throw a successful dance party.
They need to heed the example of the quirkiest character in Whit Stillman’s quirkiest film, Violet of DAMSELS IN DISTRESS.
Now since I honestly want some of my youth leader friends and acquaintances to read this, let me map out where I’ll be going. Basically, I sketch what the Violet character tries to do, and compare an instance of her fictional “social work” with a real event, anti-hook-up-culture film night at Washington and Lee University. I follow that with some general remarks about Stillman’s films and the history of social dance, remarks connected to my last few Rock Songbook posts, and end with a flourish of encouragement from Jane Austen, via her most practical contemporary expounder, Elizabeth Kantor. You’ll see how it all goes together.
I. A Dismal Night at Seven Oaks College
In Stillman’s judgment, the situation at most liberal arts colleges these days is pretty poor, as he portrays with the “Seven Oaks College” of DAMSELS. There is a lot of depression. Boorish behaviors abound. Love and dignified sexuality are being eclipsed in a number of ways. (The education itself is fragmentary and iffy, although this doesn’t as immediately impact the students’ lives.) One of the students, Violet, gathers a group of peers around her—the “damsels”–by inspiring them with a mission to directly attack the Seven Oaks funk, to help make the lives of their peers better. Her “program” is multi-faceted, with not a few absurd elements, but it centers on social dancing.
Here’s how I described this last time: “She seeks to start a new dance craze, the ‘Salumbo.’ And, she fails. You might not notice the failure, given the film’s fantasy-ending wherein everyone winds up dancing, but the actual night she tries to debut the Salumbo at a dance bar, almost nobody comes. Violet’s failure…and the broader social-context reason behind this failure, is underlined by what she does have success with, and at the very same bar: she gets a number of her collegiate friends to join in with an already going dance scene, a Texas-slide thing. …Starting a dance craze, especially today, is really hard.”
II. An Even More Dismal Night at Washington and Lee University
The social life of Washington and Lee University has something of a reputation, namely, of being dominated by a Greek scene with a particularly ruthless hook-up culture. The tone of the school itself is not one of Seven Oaks’s listlessness, but more one of ambition, with many remarkably productive, well-dressed, and well-off students, and where an astounding 85% go Greek. As for the reputation, when it was time a few years back for an article in the New York Times Magazine fretting about the treatment of women on contemporary college campuses, a couple of the more shocking quotes the magazine gathered came from Washington and Lee women. And while W & L alumnus Tom Wolfe has publically denied that his 2004 novel on hook-up culture, I Am Charlotte Simmons, was based upon W & L, a professor there with a nose for these things tells me that certain details of the novel’s setting suggest that this was simply a lie. Wolfe’s fictional Dupont University was an amalgam of many schools, but Washington and Lee likely was the master model. Take such rumor and talk for what they are, as my having taught at W & L for a year doesn’t exactly qualify me to know, although my overall sense is that the reputation exceeds the present reality. And of course, there are plenty of other sides to W & L. The student body is more Republican than typical, for one, and a refreshing tradition of Southern manners is maintained, for another.
But in any case, about a year ago I attended a showing of a documentary film on the hook-up culture co-sponsored, if I recall correctly, by the student activities center and the Catholic student organization. It was probably shown at your local college also. Having just come to W & L, I was curious to see how its students would react.
The film itself was discouraging, showing a) many young women who in retrospect felt quite hurt and demeaned by their hook-ups, and b) a few (anonymous) young men who complacently described their modus operandus at frat parties for getting sex. But after some of the more heart-felt reporting about the scene in general, the film-makers brought the lawyers in. Their interviews conveyed the following edifying message: guys, if you get a girl drunk, get her alone, and she says “yes,” or does otherwise not resist, legally speaking, it is still rape if she cannot remember saying so. Such a touching film—here’s all the ways that easy sex is hurting folks, especially women, and then: P.S. guys, our lawyers will nail you unless you walk the consent line just right, during those special, wasted-drunk at-3am in-one-of-the-upstairs rooms, moments. And no sustained argument against arriving at such moments in the first place.
My intention here is not to focus us on the fine-line rape/consent issue, about which different legitimate opinions exist; rather, what I’m trying to convey is the overall feel of the film. The feeling I had was, alas, ugliness all around! A kind of ritualized sexual predation, those who have in a sense organized it getting theirs, more women than not going along with the scene, some of them confessing their deep hurt after the fact, feminist-of-sorts lawyers barking their bark, college administrators doing their “We’ve said what we’re obligated to!” CYA thing, and a film that thinks it can simultaneously speak to students’ hearts on one hand, and their fear of lawyers on the other.
And the audience? Only a handful of sorority and fraternity members showed up. A few administrators and profs came, as did two students who made eloquent personal statements against the hook-up culture during the Q & A—these were not confessions of those who had participated in it, but seemed to be coming from those who hated the scene and had decided to remain outside it. All told, it was an audience of around thirty, half of whom were students, in a theater that could seat a couple-hundred, at a school that enrolled a couple thousand. Since the purpose of the event was to prompt conversation about the hook-up culture among the student body, I think it’s fair to say, with all due esteem for the organizers, that it accomplished little, other than further appall a few folks already appalled. A night nearly as pathetic as Violet’s failed attempt to launch the Salumbo.
III. The Impotence of Awareness
However, the thing about the Violet’s failed dance-launch is that it would have made a substantial difference had it succeeded, i.e., had it become a dance craze, even just at Seven Oaks, whereas what would have constituted the success of the film at WLU, say, filling the theater, and getting the frats and sororities to show it at their houses, might not have helped that much, especially in the long run. After all, young people viewing and talking about a film cannot cause them to adopt the practices necessary to avoid the outcomes it laments. Certain Christians would insist conversion is necessary to really avoid them, and any sort of Aristotelian common-sense approach to ethics, whether blended with religious teachings or not, would insist that a change of “habits” and “practices” would be necessary–without this, the film’s message could make no impact beyond increasing one’s despair (and, yeah, one’s knowledge of the relevant law).
Consider it this way: does anyone think students are not going to party or organize social scenes, because they’ve come to worry that doing so tends to lead to what the film portrays? If, as some youth group leaders seem to say, no religious students, no feminist students, nor any students having “hook-up-culture awareness” should go to the Party, will that help? Well, it can help them, especially if they have other interesting ways of meeting their social needs (a bigger if than we sometimes admit), but it doesn’t hold out much hope for the broader culture. Or if, as some other youth group leaders seem to say, the Party should go on just as it did before, but now in a sense “monitored” by students armed with knowledge about the latest psychological statistics and legal rulings, will that help?
Of course, all this is barely relevant, because almost nobody showed up anyhow. And perhaps we’re beginning to understand why.
Violet’s failure was the more admirable one, I say, because it was actually far more ambitious. Instead of putting the emphasis on “increasing awareness,” i.e., making her peers feel more outraged by or guilty about the negative things that really were happening on the college scene, she sought to provide a positive thing that would simply take the place of (and subtly work against) some of the negative things, and notice, something connected at the hip with her own happiness.
In part, my judgment that hers was the better and more ambitious reform project is based upon the history of social dance in the 20th Century.
IV. A Stillmanian Perspective on Social Dance in the 20th Century
Here’s what I think we learn from what I’ve called Whit Stillman’s Social Dance Sequence (METROPOLITAN, set somewhere in the 1965-1975 window, LAST DAYS OF DISCO, set precisely in 1980-81, and DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, set in contemporary times).
1. Stillman’s generational cohort, and especially his upper-class peers, experienced, between the “Last Days of the Deb Balls” shown in METROPOLITAN and the arrival of disco, a dearth of social dancing opportunities (approximately 1969-1977). That (loneliness-exascerbating) dearth was directly caused by Rock (not rock n’ roll) and the 60s Sexual/Cultural Revolution it was linked to.
2. Classic 70s disco can be understood as an attempted correction of that “dancing wasteland,” an attempted recovery of the dancing-centered “adult” nightclub culture that had thrived in 20th-century America until the Revolution. It therefore deserves our interest as one of the first musical/social reactions against that Revolution.
But it was a partial reaction, one that accepted that various things had changed for good, and which intensified some of those changes itself. Disco certainly accepted the easy sex, chemical fortification, and high amplification of the Revolution; it also continued the 60s pattern of de-coupled dance, even if it re-emphasized the importance of mastering various steps. And while it unleashed a stylistic reaction against the Counter Culture’s earthy and shaggy fashions, it retained the basic 60s hostility to Society. I have stressed that Stillman’s trilogy shows us there was a dance-centered affinity between the disco clubs on one hand, and the deb balls and the old supper clubs on the other, but as he knows, that affinity only went so far.
3. DAMSELS suggests that the dearth of socializing-coupled-with-dancing has actually remained the more typical situation of our times. Getting people to dance in a social way has become harder. My Songbook has stressed the more musical reasons for this, namely the erosion and abandonment of various Afro-American blues-swingin’ traditions, whereas Stillman’s dance trilogy stresses the more social reasons, at least for upper and middle class Americans, namely, that Society died, and so far we haven’t been able to replace its dance-sustaining practices with anything substantial.
A more expert analysis at this point would show what my sense for these things suspects: that there was a connection, or mutual dependence, between the classic night-club scene of the early 1900s through the 1960s, and the various Society events and practices of the same time. My sense of this in part comes from worthwhile books about the big band scene generally, and about Count Basie in particular, although a peek into this fun page on the Stork Club can give you an inkling of what I have in mind. Many of the connections between the night clubs and the Society events were direct ones, but I think we should also suspect that the limited formality of the former depended in some way on the higher formality of the latter. (For a view of how things can now look and sound, after all formality has been tossed out the window, you might turn to this GQ report on the contemporary return of the Rave scene.)
Dance-club culture from the early 80s to the present has been largely characterized by the overwhelm-the-senses spirit of techno/rave and, less objectionably, hip-hop. The notion that the Dance Club must have its quieter corners that also make it the Conversation Club, in the way Stillman presented the top NYC club in LAST DAYS, was not further developed or maintained. The happening dance party of the 90s and 00s, it seems, was one where you kind of merged your being into the throbbing crowd, hopefully rubbing up against a sexy some-body. Or that’s the more typical image presented of such parties, as I really wouldn’t know.
We might say that this more contemporary dance club culture has tended to feature asocial dancing, that is, a dancing that while it facilitates hooking-up, and often allows one the Dionysian pleasure of merging one’s spirit with that of the collective, makes other interactions difficult. The volume drowns out conversation, and its preferred dark/swirling “lighting” diminishes eye-contact.
Yes, DAMSELS briefly shows us how dancing to bumpin’ contemporary-disco music at a frat party might be a solid shot of fun, so long as it is entered into in the right spirit (Violet’s!), but for the culture as a whole, it’s the clubs and the DJs who set the master vibe.
So in the never-ending and totally necessary War against Bad Borg-like Disco Music, and in the related War against the Sex n’ Booze-centered “Socializing,” (i.e., “hook-up culture”), and even in the related War against Depressing Dearths of Dancing, we need to
a) Bring the Musicians Back to the Dance
b) Reconnect Real Socializing to the Dance
c) Reject or Sharply Curb the Imperatives of the Sexual Revolution
With b) in mind especially, but to some extent with c) also, we need to go beyond what Stillman’s films and my Songbook can teach us. And that’s where Jane comes in.
V. What Would Jane Do?
The advice I have in mind is found near the end of The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After, a book dedicated to showing how contemporary women can learn from and to a large degree emulate the “Jane Austen heroines” of the novels: Elinor Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot, etc. A fine book, practical, a real breath of fresh air for the general readers, and a delight for any sensible reader familiar with the novels. It is aimed at young women in particular, but anyone can benefit from it. To give you a notion of its contents, here’s some of what we’ve learned by time we’ve arrived at the passage I’m going to quote.
1) To aim for rational happiness in marriage.
2) To avoid adopting the views of Romanticism, or the resignation of Love-Cynicism.
3) That being considerate to those we are thrown in with generally, and forging friendships especially, are the Schools of Love.
4) How to detect and avoid involvement with men of bad character, including otherwise nice ones who are fundamentally adverse to commitment.
5) That “Even if you never sleep with a guy—even if you never touch him—you’re not being a Jane Austen heroine if you let yourself become emotionally glued to him before he’s serious about you.”
6) That internet social media provide a useful substitute for the old networks the Jane Austen heroines used to do “detective work” about men.
7) That Austen was not a hide-bound traditionalist, but trying to think very carefully about how young women could best “arrange their own marriage” in the fairly new social situation of the early 1800s that allowed them to do this.
Oh, there’s tons more… …and yeah guys, the pink trimmings didn’t attract me, either!
And here’s the quote:
Social networking sites like Meetup.com make it easy to organize local groups of people around any interest. If I were single and looking—and ambitious enough to try for something more like the opportunities Jane Austen heroines had—I’d try to organize something around dancing.
…my husband and I have actually done some “contra dancing.” That’s what the folklorists and hobbyists who still practice it now call the “country dance” that Henry Tilney compares to marriage. “The man leads,” said one of our instructors, “but it’s not like the waltz, where he does all the work and she just clings on for dear life.” I notice that at contra dances, there’s a lot more of strangers asking strangers to dance than at other similar public events. The style of dancing itself seems to promote more mixing—but a kind of mixing that’s structured by limits. And when I helped organize contra dancing for the kids at my son’s school, you could see the same thing. Dancing with more than one partner is part of the nature of each dance anyway, so it models something more like Jane Austen-era social life than modern people often see. Contra dances seem to be most popular with the kids who aren’t natural “alpha male” or “queen bee” types. They’re a trip back to a time when the mating game was less ruthlessly competitive.
But it wouldn’t have to be a contra dance. By far the most successful social event for the kids in my son’s class has been a parent-organized series of dance lessons followed by parties on consecutive weekends. Not the ghastly cotillion thing where the children get shown the box step once or twice but never really learn how to waltz. Instead, two-hour-solid lessons in swing and Latin dance, followed by dinners and then parties at which the kids actually dance because they know how. Part of the reason it works, I think, is that one of the families is from Latin America. …I got to hear all about the kind of social life one mom had growing up in Colombia, where dance parties broke out on every possible occasion, and all the girls made sure their brothers showed up so everybody would have somebody to dance with. She married a friend’s brother she had met at that kind of dance—shades of Jane Austen.
Ah…the light of possibility, of a better human life that really remains available to us. You see, Violet was right. She just needed more allies. Yes, our democratic times have killed Society and our Sexual Revolution-ized times have made it hard to find sane “courting,” conversational night-life, and fun dancing. No, the Kids are not all right. But in the spirit of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who said about our “commerce-smeared” landscapes that
…for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things…
…I say that human nature likewise remains, and remains ready to respond to those who can bring us together, with wise calculation and vivacious spirit, for the sake of making it flourish in social dance.
P.S. College Administrators, fire your lawyers, and hire dance instructors instead.
P.P.S. Collegiate Music Hipsters, put the muses of Shoegaze and Stick-It-to-the-Man on hold for a bit, and do your part to try to stir some new musical dance excitement into the life of your peers. Get a “Violet” to join your band.
P.P.P.S. Christian Youth Group Leaders, ask yourself—is it really the case that your ministry has no place for teaching youth the sorts of things that Violet, Elizabeth Kantor, Jane Austen, and Whit Stillman would? For encouraging artful social events, good music, and eventually, for most, a rational and golden-rule-informed pursuit of a good marriage? Jesus knew a thing or two about how the wedding party at Cana was supposed to go. Does he know anything about how modern democratic music culture might go if it is not utterly hopeless, but capable of being changed for the better? We hear talk from various Christian talkers about “culture-changing,” but little about the nuts and bolts of what it would take with this particular practice or that to change it for the better, and in ways that would woo receptive non-Christians into meeting us half-way to partner in our efforts. Hard work, all of that, with real dangers that Christians will be the ones more wooed than wooing, but we don’t hear enough teaching, especially with the youth, in this practical, not all-your-life-will-occur-in-the-bosom-of-the-Christian-community, spirit. Perhaps more on this last note later.