Sittin' to the Rock of the Bay

What accounts for the alarming shortage of happy feet among South Florida's rock crowds?

The Goods, one of South Florida's most danceable rock bands, is on stage at the Reunion Room pulling out all the stops: "Gypsy," "Gotta Get It Back," "I'm Not Average," "Tonka Truck." A sign on the wall warning that the establishment will not be responsible for any injuries sustained during slam dancing taunts with its implicit promise of bodies flying about the dance floor. I glance around, sensing that there's a palpable tension just waiting to be released.

Nope. Everyone -- or at least the handful who haven't wandered back to the bar while some dipshit local band interrupts their evening of faux-hip merrymaking to the DJ's spin of today's hottest alternasounds -- seems pretty content to stand on the sidelines and take in the performance without giving anything back. What a bunch of weenies.

Ever since Elvis wriggled his hips safely out of the camera's view on Ed Sullivan's show, dancing and rock music have been inextricably bound. The images remain ingrained in the collective cultural psyche: Little Richard and Chuck Berry got the races to mix on the dance floor, baby boomers danced in the mud at the original Woodstock, punk rock introduced a whole generation to the finer points of slam dancing, Al Gore's utter lack of coordination at the inaugural ball scared everyone. But if you go to a show by a local rock and roll band these days, you're likely to see a room populated (mostly) by wallflowers who seem incapable of applying any type of motor skills related to the performance on stage. (For the record, this is not to ignore the obvious enthusiasm and energy displayed at local shows where reggae, salsa, and drum music are played.)

The danger with blanket statements, of course, is that an exception (or two or twenty) always comes to mind. What about Nil Lara shows at the Stephen Talkhouse, when the entire area in front of the stage is jammed with swaying bodies? Or the mosh pits that formed in hellholes like the (late) Plus 5? The mad rush for the exit that ensues when any band that includes Rat Bastard in its lineup takes the stage? What about the idiot who invariably ambles up to shout "Free Bird!" during any given show? Even after discounting the obvious cultural explanations, the exceptions are still not easily explained.

Fuck it. The scales are still out of whack. There are still too many instances where the opposite has been the norm: From the incendiary Charlie Pickett performances at Churchill's to foot-stomping Holy Terrors shows at art galleries to roof-raising For Squirrels concerts at Rose's to classic Natural Causes shows at the Talkhouse, the overwhelming majority of local audiences have a tendency to ponder performances with furrowed brows and intense gazes, rather than rush the dance floor with maniacal glee the way you might expect an audience to act after watching a few hours of MTV. Geez, even the Moody Blues generate a more enthusiastic response from the Prozac-and-white-wine-laden crowd in that damn Red Rocks amphitheater concert that public TV runs during fundraising drives.

I used to think it simply reflected the fact that South Florida generally sucks when it comes to supporting original artistic endeavors, whether they be musical, theatrical, or conceptual in nature. That some people down here were just too uptight to succumb to the process of artistic creation. In a place where CocoWalk serves as the center of the cultural universe for far too many residents, rock musicians labor with the understanding that the atmosphere for true artistic breakthrough and acceptance is very thin indeed. But now I know I was wrong...I think.

It's complicated, but essentially this reluctance to participate fully in the rock experience stems from several sources, including (but not limited to) lingering Christian hangups about the body, European court traditions, and an overpowering human need for rules and order. In other words, as members of modern Western society, we're a bunch of stiffs.

"We're one of the few cultures where dance is separate from life," says Andrea Seidel, an assistant professor of dance at FIU and head of the Isadora Duncan Ensemble in Miami. In other cultures, says Seidel, "dance expresses significant aspects of religious, social, political life, and is almost a metaphor for the world view in society. Everybody participates in the dance, so you might see 200 people dancing, tiny little children and old people are participating together, and it's not something done for spectators, it's something done as a ritual."

As if that wasn't enough psychological baggage to carry into Churchill's with you, there's also the matter of traditional Western attitudes about the separation between performers and audience. "That certainly goes back to the great courts of Europe," says Brent Cantrell, folklorist at the Historical Society of South Florida. Rock and roll, says Cantrell, is an "art form that takes European balladry and African rhythms, and puts both into a formal court setting where the promoters are bringing the groups into a very formal stage setting, and the audience is paying the ticket to come and listen. They know their place is to receive."

Electronic media, from the earliest days of radio to Alternative Nation-era MTV, have further emphasized the gulf between audience and performer. Cantrell cites the example of old-time square dancing: "Fiddlers and strings and dancers were playing off each other, and they knew they were all working together to produce an event." When broadcast radio entered the mix, Cantrell notes, the dynamics between performer and audience fell apart. "No matter how much the dancers wanted to dance with the fiddlers, they weren't going to see each other."

Interwoven with these historical developments is an underlying human need for order and rules, whether they guide our behavior in line at the supermarket or when a band is on stage at the Talkhouse. Don't believe the hype: Despite the massive self-delusion that's taken hold in America, where nearly everyone considers themselves to be hip with a capital H nowadays -- rebels with mortgages, cellular phones, and ponytails -- most of us are still prisoners of convention. "If it's a formal situation where someone has already set it up so that the space is set aside and the public has paid the money to come in, in many cases, especially with Anglo crowds for example, they don't know what the rules are," says Cantrell. "Are we supposed to dance, are we not supposed to dance, can we dance, can't we dance?"

Coral Gables sociologist Bob Ladner concurs. "If you look at the various types of dancing when I was a kid, ballroom dancing, the twist, the frug, there were still identifiable steps and movements for urban contemporary dancing," he says. "Even if you're doing things like the mashed potato, the frug, a lot of disco from the 1970s, essentially the songs were recognizable as dance tunes. But if you go to a club where an experimental band is playing, people don't know if they're expected to dance or sit there and listen to the words.

"I would hate to be a rock musician today and have to depend on the audience. It was so much better when it was drug induced."

Author and local-rock aficionado Jeff Lemlich, for one, has taken rock and roll rebellion to heart A and feet. "The thing about rock and roll dancing is it doesn't matter if you dance well," he says. "Who cares? That's what disco's about. I deplore disco, I absolutely hate it. Anything where you have to take lessons to learn how to dance, that's not natural. Dancing is about moving. If I look silly, I don't care.... They're going to say 'that guy's enjoying himself.'

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