We Must Cultivate Our Own Dancefloor; or, Thoughts While Listening to “Like a Prayer”

Look around: everywhere you turn it’s heartache
It’s everywhere that you go
You try everything you can to escape
The pain of life that you know
If all else fails and you long to be
Something better than you are today
I know a place where you can get away:
It’s called the dancefloor, and here’s what it’s for…!

—Madonna, “Vogue”

I am sitting in a darkened bedroom in a big, empty house on a rural island in the Strait of Georgia, listening to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” I am enraptured by this song whenever I listen to it, and I have listened to it many times this summer: on a train to Rhode Island, on a plane to Paris, speeding down the highway from the San Diego suburbs. Each time I have the same response, which is that a great gush of emotion wells up inside me, and I can do nothing but raise my head to the sky, shout the lyrics (silently, if need be, as now), and form a fist which pumps in time to the beat. It’s strange how much I love this song and how few pieces of music move me more—I’ve come a long way from the civil rights anthems of the elementary-school car ride, or the Scottish folk ballads of the middle-school bus, or the Pink Floyd that got me through high school. Weirdly (I think), I’ve wound up through all of this at Madonna, despite my actual political, feminist objections to the Madonna phenomenon itself. Weirdly, there are only a few Pete Seeger songs, a few finales from Russian ballets and symphonies, which can command this much attention and passion from my soul.

It must have something to do with the single memory I associate with this song, which (unlike most of the memories I associate with songs) is not related to the first time I heard it, or the person who introduced me to it. That’s a fairly uninteresting, and fairly embarrassing story: I’d never heard Madonna before this spring, when the Glee Madonna episode prompted me to download a “Best of” album from iTunes. I had the songs in that collection on in the background through a few months of walking across campus and doing laundry and surfing the web. I learned the lyrics, and I got them stuck in my head, and then I was playing the songs again and again as, finally, I packed my things up in boxes and got ready to leave Princeton for another summer.

One of the components of leaving Princeton for the summer was attending the three-day bacchanal my university throws for its alumni, an event of which I’m far more ashamed than I was of my sudden descent into pop culture and the slippery slope in that direction which Glee seems to have set in motion. I spent three days getting no sleep, hating the 70-year-old rich white men and 20-year-old rich white football players who made my beloved quad smell like stale beer and vomit, and letting my shame at actually enjoying myself at the alumni parties subside into the retributive self-righteousness I felt at abusing their free food. And after three days of all this, of the longest and most exhausting and most emotionally up-and-down party I’ve ever paid $45 to attend (or, indeed, attended for free), I went to the last dance, a Saturday night affair sponsored by the LGBT alumni organization, a high-school-prom of the very drunk queer kids set who spent a few hours grinding with their friends in a too-large multipurpose room with a DJ and a disco ball. It was cheesy and ridiculous and the most fun I’ve had in the past several months. Because it was a gay dance, the DJ played Lady Gaga and Ke$ha and even the Spice Girls, and of course various disco standards, and of course everyone knew all the songs. It was a collective experience of dancing to collectively popular music of the sort which I don’t get to experience very often, and for me it culminated with “Like a Prayer,” a song to which I remember shouting the words with one of my friends, all the energy I’d built up in months of secretly listening to Madonna in my room all coming out in the realization which it took that cheesy fag-and-dyke-prom of an alumni reunions event to bring home: I love the dancefloor. And I love it because it represents unbridled joy.

In the past twelve months, I’ve been absorbed neck-deep in the personal struggles of young adulthood: sorting out desires from obligations, trying to figure out my purpose in life, striving to identify what a good person is and what she does to be good and to be better. This time a year ago, I was about to return to my family after a summer of depression, disillusionment, and cynicism in the District of Columbia, and I spent my sophomore year of college salvaging my faith in humanity by coming to love art galleries, classical music, literary criticism, and other trappings of highbrow culture; by investing my emotions in friendships instead of in elections; by making a difference through the person-to-person contact of the dining hall or the LGBT Center; and by investing myself in my scholarship and in the notion that studying now so that I can be an academic in a decade or so is as worthy a use of my time as working for a political cause. In the intervening moments, between applying all my mental will towards figuring out what a good person is and then trying to become one, I have snatched slices of transcendent happiness: on my first and then successive road trips; having madcap ideas and making them happen; basking in the company of the brilliant people I idolize who let me tag along in their far-more-interesting lives; watching the sun set from that beautiful little room with its window seat over the archway in the college quad I call home. Occasionally, going to a party. Dancing. Laughing. Going back to my room too late, still grinning, still with pop songs and their unrelenting beats running through my head.

Last October, when I put aside my political and personal prevarications and went to the annual Terrace Drag Ball, I had fun. I danced with friends and strangers, all delighting in the party and in the dancing. I came home realizing that it was wrong to deny myself simple pleasures like this, because what is the LGBT political movement fighting for, exactly, if not the right to hold drag balls? The right to ownership of a dancefloor has presented itself to me, slowly, over the course of the past year, as a fundamental right surely on par with a few others which top the front pages of the news. As I’ve read more books by Edmund White, taken an American studies class which talked (among other things) about the birth of the downtown music scene, and more importantly stepped away from gay history once or twice and gone out for myself and danced till hours I never see otherwise, I’ve realized what a powerful sense of collective identity, and collective pride, and collective joy, dancing together provides. I’ve come to understand it as a tool to banish ugliness and despair, to create resolve and strength, to assert defiance and freedom from fear. Granted, I’ve only been to a few parties, and a few dances, in the past twelve months: work always takes priority, and more often than not I recreate the magic of the dancefloor for myself, with my eyes closed in a darkened bedroom and more than enough happiness and energy to swallow up a whole nightclub (granted, being a shy young thing of twenty, I’ve also never been to an actual nightclub). For “dancing” is as much a metaphor as it is a reality, and for me it functions easily as a symbol of the process of using joy to banish ugliness, using beauty (once sought) as a peaceful weapon, a route to strengthening moral resolve to fight the next battle of the human condition. In the past year, in the process of learning to have fun, learning to do good by being good, and learning to accept and to appreciate myself in the meantime, “dancing” as symbol has helped me to keep myself whole, to keep me going through my days, and to create, hovering in the back of my mind, a vision of what the Platonic ideal of happiness can be. Yes, that’s what it is, an ideal: an ideal I have experienced only elusively, but an ideal to keep in mind when working to build a world in which the right to the dancefloor is inalienable—consider it the universal Stonewall, the Stonewall of the mind. Everyone deserves a liberation led by a drag-queen kickline, a hedonistic music-and-club-and-drug-and-sex scene born in the bowels of Manhattan, and a resilient spirit which can rebirth that scene into one which can confront death and impoverishment and come out fighting. Everyone—even those of us for whom the gender politics of the female divas so beloved by the gay male stereotype create problems—deserves their Madonna, whatever their actual gender or sexual orientation or personal struggles or routes to community and acceptance.

The other afternoon (back on the quiet, far-flung, isolated island) I was reading the newspaper stories and blog posts I’d downloaded from the neighbors’ internet connection (we don’t have one of our own), my headphones in and my body bouncing a bit to Donna Summers, another of my recent discoveries from the canon. As I flipped through stories about the dysfunction of our government; about the peril in which the environment finds itself; about soldiers and civilians killed in countries so far away I can’t imagine them; about economic crises or hate crimes the world over; I felt a sharp stab of guilt for dancing to disco while reading of such hurt and sorrow. But—as I steeled myself to move onto the stories about funding cuts to universities, a lack of investment in the humanities, and the end of tenure—I resolved that there is nothing shameful about seeking a slice of the dancefloor where you can find it, about trying to recreate for yourself where and how you can the rapture of “Like a Prayer.” I am tempted to think, as I rationalized myself into submission by thinking on that occasion, of the forces of disco and pop (allied with the forces of 19th-century portraiture and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” and the Tchaikovsky symphonies and the Declaration of Independence and Oscar Wilde’s statements in the witness box and oh, at least five dozen other things) ranged in a great cosmic battle against the forces of hate and evil and ugliness; all doing their best, whether in earnest or in camp (though those aren’t too different!), to help us to cultivate our own dancefloor.

And, well: if this is what gets us through the days and nights and helps us to keep our shit together, I am all too happy to be “putting my queer shoulder to the wheel” on this one.

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