The Toronto-based filmmaker Michael Allcock is terrified of dancing.
In his feature documentary Fear of Dancing, Allcock is front and centre, detailing his views on dancing, which he sees as an affliction. For Allcock, newly single and full of anxiety, the pressure to be good on the dance floor seems overwhelming. The objective view that dance is universal, or as Martha Graham once said, “Dance is the hidden language of the soul,” holds no water for folks like Allcock. While, for some, spirits soar while dancing, Allcock suffers from chorophobia — a fear of dancing — and over the course of the 78-minute film, we witness how it’s keeping him, and many others, on the sidelines.
Vintage home movie footage shows a young Allcock dancing the twist with special glee. But that passion changed with time. As he explains, the vulnerability starts young, in what one of his subjects calls “the little nightmare called high school,” the place where mate selection and all kinds of teenage neuroses fester. (On that latter point, I won’t protest.) For the documentary, Allcock travels the globe to find his cast of dance detractors. They don’t see dancing as beauty, or power, or an expression of something larger than themselves. Quite simply, that idea of “Just get up and dance” is killing.
In the documentary, Allcock stays clear of the ways in which dance transcends the boundaries of gender, race and sexual politics. Nor is he looking at dance as an art form. He’s interested in exploring popular dancing and social dancing. Though in one section of the film, he does venture to address religious objections to social dancing and that centuries ago dancing was associated with the insane. To the clear-headed, at least in our current understanding, all this talk of sin and madness is delusional. But for the chatter about how dance makes you feel alive, that dance is sacred, it’s actually sobering to acknowledge that, for many, dancing is a total nightmare.
In his quest for answers, Allcock gets people to open up about why they are so terrified of dancing. We all know someone who hates dancing, but perhaps none of them is as vociferous in their indignation than the British actor-writer-satirist Stephen Fry, a self-described “dance-hating curmudgeon,” who comments that dancing is a “slovenly mixture of sexual exhibitionism, strutting contempt and repellant narcissism.” Perhaps to the point, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Dancing is a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire.” Regardless, you’ll never catch Mr. Fry cavorting on the dance floor.
Other interview subjects include the Washington, D.C.-based composer and vocalist Be Steadwell, who talks about stereotypes and expectations that all Black people are good dancers. She sings her tune Black Girls Who Can’t Dance in the film. One fearful fellow who won’t dance in public, in a pleasing paradox, chooses to dance in blackout rooms, surrounded by similarly distressed chorophobes. A Toronto woman, who detests dancing, drags her equally dance-loathing husband to a yearly Oktoberfest polka-thon in Kitchener, Ont. Seems like the happy music moves her, but that’s as far as she’ll go.
The crew travels to Kenya and interviews Lucia and Margaret, two women very reluctant to dance. In their culture, entering the circle of dance is part of daily life. Dance, as we see in the various scenes shot in their communities, is everywhere. “Just the thought of dancing terrifies me,” Lucia says. The ability to dance is “a gift from God,” says Margaret. But they abstain. Further inspiration comes from Aileen, a Cree First Nations woman raised in numerous non-Indigenous foster homes, who travels to her first powwow in Thunder Bay, Ont. She’s flustered, feeling the judgment of “doing the steps right.” During her inaugural dance, we witness her trepidation at entering the circle, but ultimately, it’s a transformative moment.
Back from his odyssey, Allcock concludes by getting many of his interview subjects to do a little awkward dance. It’s standard wrap-up material, but Fry, bless his soul, sneers, shudders and gives Allcock the bird, calling it a “finger dance.” To wit.
Catch Fear of Dancing streaming on CBC Gem.