Too cool to dance: have we become too self-absorbed to throw some shapes on the dancefloor?

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When did Saturday night stop being about getting dressed up and hitting the dancefloor? With nightclubs closing at a dramatic rate, Alexandra Jones asks why we’ve stopped throwing shapes

It’s Friday night and I’m relaxing in a bar with my friends. Filled with a new energy brought on by some truly caustic white wine, I’m trying to entice everyone out of their post-work torpor. “Guys,” I beam, “let’s go dancing!”

I love to dance. I love the fuzzy, halcyon glow that two large glasses of pinot occasions (and three ruins), when it feels as if the beat is in total control of your limbs and your hips have caught the exact rhythm of a song. That precious moment when you are Beyoncé or Madonna.

My efforts, though, are all too often repaid with sly eye-rolls and thwarted by another round of sitting. On rare nights when we do dance, we play pool until we’re just drunk enough to put down our cues and shimmy, apologetically, around the table with a vodka, lime and soda in one hand and our jackets in the other (as if preparing for a quick getaway). So, tell me, when was it that we became too cool to dance?

After all, even dinosaurs danced. I digress, but earlier this year, scientists found evidence to suggest that, like birds, our fossilised forefathers performed energetic mating dances. And they know because it turns out that dinosaurs not only danced, but they did so with such enthusiasm that they left fossilised footprints behind, as evidence of their moves.

Dancing is having less impact in 2016, though. The long-held tradition of spending the night miming Big Fish, Little Fish, Cardboard Box at your local nightclub appears to be well and truly over. The number of nightclubs in the UK has shrunk by almost half since 2005, from 3,144 to 1,733 last year, and total revenue for the nightclub industry has decreased by nearly 25% since 2011.

I don’t feel like dancing

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. Back in the Eighties, the rise of the music video popularised dancing so much that a Saturday night became synonymous with throwing shapes on the dancefloor. It was all about the ritual – and not just the sheer joy of re-enacting professionally choreographed routines as seen on MTV (Michael Jackson’s Thriller I’m looking at you), but meticulously planning the perfect outfit a week in advance, getting ready with friends and, eventually, dancing until your heels came off. Not only that, you’d pride yourself on being deemed a ‘regular’ at your favourite haunt. In 2016, we crave a far more individual identity. And frankly, there’s so much more on offer. Fancy spending the evening at a Fifties-themed bowling alley that doubles as a cocktail bar? Or perhaps you’re more of a gluten-free, underground dining experience type? Googling ‘nights out in London this weekend’ instantly brings up over nine million results. It’s no surprise that dancing near the speakers doesn’t quite cut it.

But for some of us, let’s be honest, it comes down to image. Many of us are far too busy curating our Facebook personae to run the risk of being seen letting go and having an unedited good time. “Social capital comes down to bragging about your experiences and putting them on Facebook,” agrees PR guru Mark Borkowski. Perish the thought that a snatched, sweaty photo of you mid-shimmy makes its way onto Instagram. We spend more time than is necessary curating the perfect shot worthy of a future album cover, all the while missing out on hours of bust thrusting, body shaking fun on the dance floor.

Yet it’s not just our own self-awareness driving a generation away from the dance scene, argues Dr Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in California. “The current generation tend to be more socially responsible and aware,” she explains. “There’s a tendency to meet and talk, and save clubs for special occasions because it’s not possible to have a chat and get to know people there.”

I had no such qualms the night I met my now boyfriend, back in 2006, while – you guessed it – dancing. The floor was sticky, his jeans too baggy and I was dressed like a cow (don’t ask), but we jigged and bopped and bumped along – and 10 years later we’re still together.

Now, I’m not saying it was all down to his moves but, as Charles Darwin theorised, dance forms a fundamental part of the human mate selection process. From the chaste hand-clasps of Renaissance courtly dances to spirited Edwardian jigs where Jane Austen’s heroines first set eyes on potential suitors, throughout history, dance has provided a heady mix of stress relief, sexual tension, social interaction and matrimonial opportunity. In fact, I don’t think it’s over-stating the case to say that dancing has proved essential to the evolution of human life.

“We are intrinsically rhythmic animals,” says Dr Peter Lovatt, head of dance psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. “Our heartbeat is a rhythm, our brains function rhythmically and we walk in a rhythm. The evolutionary basis [of dance] is social bonding – we know who the ‘in’ group are and who the ‘out’ group are.” In other words, dance is hard-wired into our DNA and our society. And now we’ve become so enslaved to our rigorously controlled lives, there’s nothing we need more than to break out and enjoy ourselves. Surely nothing in the world can beat the sunshiny endorphin rush of pogoing like a maniac to Shake It Off by Taylor Swift?

Blame it on the boogie

Not only that, but because dancing in a group creates a bond, we experience a natural emotional high, which isn’t produced in other solo sporting activities. Any exercise causes our bodies to produce endorphins – brain chemicals that are secreted when our bodies are put under physical stress and lessen our perception of pain and make us feel optimistic. But a recent University of London study shows you produce significantly more endorphins dancing than you would sprinting or doing yoga.

We’re actually hard-wired to seek out this high. Humans have evolved a system in our brain that directly links our hearing to the part that controls the urge to move. A study by the University of Amsterdam found even two-day-old babies can perceive rhythm. It explains why we spend our 18th birthday celebrations on alcopop-soaked dancefloors and sway along dewy-eyed to the first dance at our friends’ weddings. You only have to look at carnivals around the world – from Rio’s celebration of dancing and wild costumes to the exuberant carnival season in Spain – to see these social institutions have been around for centuries.

Dr Imogen Aujla, senior lecturer in dance science at the University of Bedfordshire, believes dance has multiple benefits. “When we dance, our brain is engaged in a number of processes,” she explains. “It is calculating steps, coordinating different body parts and syncing our movements to music. We are completely absorbed. In studies, people emerging from this state often report feeling as if their life’s stresses have fallen away. They are relaxed and happier with a strengthened sense of self-worth.”

In fact, with Britain voted the loneliness capital of Europe in 2014 (one in 10 of us often feels lonely, says the Mental Health Foundation), dancing could be a vital tool in our quest for happiness. So, next time you get the chance to forget your stresses and pretend – for just three minutes – to be queen of the dancefloor, don’t fight it. Just face the music and dance.

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