“Put On Your Red Shoes . . .”
In 1983, David Bowie extended an invitation: “Let’s Dance.” The title track of his Grammy Award–nominated album provided the focus for the first mixtape I ever created, and the inspiration that same year to enter—and complete—a 12-hour dance marathon benefiting a housing project. But for me, and countless others in the 1970s and ’80s, Bowie offered much more than an invitation to dance. For LGBT youth, in particular, Bowie’s mere existence could be a lifeline.
In 1970, I was a geeky outsider in my rural Virginia town, an 8-year-old obsessed with sci-fi, the Apollo missions, and astronauts. Bowie’s “Space Oddity” enthralled me: with its conversation between Ground Control and Major Tom, it might as well have been written about me—“Tommy”—and my dreams of escape.
A decade later, leaving for college in Massachusetts, I struggled with discovering—and accepting—who I was. Bowie, with his confident and frequent self-reinvention and, most of all, his unabashed self-acceptance, continued to be a revelation; and more—a mirror, a map.
Bowie was many things—singer, songwriter, collaborator, innovator, actor, style setter, patron, chameleon, icon—but dancer may not readily come to mind (check out his and Mick Jagger’s devil-may-care moves in the self-indulgent 1985 music video for “Dancing in the Street”). But his music certainly made many of us feel like dancing, even as it made us think, rethink, and sometimes just feel awed—or gave us the courage to live another day.
On January 10, as we were preparing this issue for publication, Bowie died, far too young, of cancer, two days after releasing a brilliant (and, in hindsight, intentionally valedictory) new album, Blackstar. Writing in the New Yorker the following day, Hilton Als called Bowie “that outsider who made different kids feel like dancing in that difference.” Bowie certainly helped me as a young man, an erstwhile outsider, feel like dancing in my differences, and even to celebrate them. In this moment of reflection and grief, for the gifts of a musical genius and humanitarian, I offer my thanks—for the loss of them, I “dance the blues.” —Thom Watson
DSL managing editor Thom Watson, formerly an internet and social media executive and political columnist, is a San Francisco–based aficionado of ballet, contemporary, and folk dance.
The teacher’s dilemma was common, one about mean girls and ugly tweets and hurt feelings. “Help,” she cried out on Facebook. Thanks to team-building exercises and a party, the year had started out splendidly, but now she wondered what to do.
“I just want them all to dance.”
Don’t we all? And why don’t they want to? It’s a conundrum for those of us who did our first shaky pliés in dingy basement studios, who lived year after year for recital day, and who transitioned into teaching at age 18 when all our studio mates were metaphorically burning their ballet shoes. Often there was no professional career in the wings, no sights set on glory—just the knowledge that we must dance. Whenever, however, until the end of our days, amen.
Many student problems are easy to solve. The kid who consistently chaînés backward or the other with arms like angry tree branches—patience and a smile work wonders. The star, the shy girl, the quick picker-upper, and the choreographically challenged—teachers have got all of them covered.
What’s perplexing is when dance is something that students do, rather than something they feel. Joy is right there, free for the taking, riding a rhythmic beat and flush with energy. But it seems some would rather chat, dredge up issues that delay class, or stare dully at the clock. They aren’t bad kids—most of them are downright pleasant—but they drag their feet getting to the corner and I want to scream: “If you hurry, you can do it again! Don’t you want to do it again? Don’t you?”
I always did. Class always ended too soon for me. Even today, after 30 years of part-time teaching, there is never a day when I don’t want to go to the studio. Not one.
But it’s false to think everyone is going to love what we love, and continuing to wish that they would is a cruel trap. People’s hearts are their own, and all we can do is wear ours on our leotard sleeve—and just dance. —Karen White
DSL associate editor Karen White, a former newspaper reporter and freelance writer, has taught dance in private studios and choreographed musicals since age 17 and has no plans to stop.