Monday, March 10, 2008

Dancin' Fool

For several years, our across-the-street neighbor lady on Meadow Lane, Clara Miller, ran a dancing school. She taught mostly tap and ballet, but one year she branched out into ballroom dancing. I don't remember any conversation about it, but I found myself in that class, I guess some time in my pre-teens. I didn't really object to it--on Saturday nights, I'd get dressed up in my sport jacket and clip-on bow tie, my father would take me to some high school gym, and I'd box step, cha-cha and jitterbug with girls I'd never seen before, nor would I see again. The classes actually came in handy a few years later when I started watching the Milt Grant Show, DC's answer to American Bandstand (well, I watched both!). I knew what those kids on the screen were doing, anyway.

I held my own on the dance floor through early high school. I had fun at school dances and at the myriad basement record parties my friends and I threw for each other during those years. Then came The Twist. Suddenly, you had to stand there by yourself, a solo act, as it were, moving in ways I had no instinct for. And from The Twist, things rapidly degenerated even more into free-form, let-it-all-hang-out gyrating that was anathema to this gangly, waist-in-his-armpits, pre-gay adolescent. The jitterbug and the cha-cha were sent to the muscle-memory warehouse, never to be called on again, and the dance floor for me was terra incognita from the end of high school through college.

Then I went to Ghana. In Ghana, there are some things you just don't do halfway. One of them is drinking: if you sit down with a few beers, you mean business, because beer is sold only in litre bottles. And the other is dancing. Combine the two and An Occasion may just be in the offing.

The best dance floors in Ghana, indeed in all of West Africa, are truly spectacular. They are terrazzo, outdoor, under-the-stars affairs that invite true abandon. There is nothing, including a bottle of Star beer, more intoxicating than the sight of African bodies, dressed to the peacock nines, either moving sinuously to the traditional High-Life, or somehow combining innate grace with stomping and shaking to western imports. Still, aside from a single, notorious conga-line to Janis Joplin's "Half Moon" that snaked through Michele's school compound at one of her parties, my dancing muscles stayed dormant through most of my nearly three years in Ghana. Toward the very end of my time there, though, that changed.

I stayed in Ghana a few months longer than the rest of the people I went there with to serve with the Peace Corps until my 26th birthday (see Peace Corps entries in the archive). With all of my American friends gone and weekends free, I started making twice-monthly trips to the capital, Accra, just to have some fun. At a mere $16 for round-trip airfare, and with dirt cheap accommodations at the Peace Corps hostel, this extravagance was within the budget even of a Peace Corps volunteer. On these Accra trips, a new world opened to me, populated by traveling young ex-pats of all nationalities and stripes, and a community of urban Ghanaian ex-pat followers who all crawled the dance bars and hung out together. I attached myself to one of these groups and started seeing an Accra which up to then I had no idea existed. I'd go to the dance palaces and be awed by the experience, but still, I didn't dance. It was fun enough just to watch.

On one of these pub-crawl nights, a dance contest was announced. The crowd murmured excitedly and I looked forward to a great show. The band was fantastic, a full-sized Ghanaian cover band that sounded just like the real thing, whatever they played. Their speakers were huge, at least as tall as I was; the sound entered not just your ears, but your entire body. The contest started, and the music the band played, totally unknown to me, was the most compelling mix of African beat and rhythm and blues I had ever heard. You were propelled onto your feet, there was no choice in the matter, a corpse couldn't sit still. On that night all self-consciousness left me. There was one tiny English girl sitting at the table with me, and spontaneously we got up to dance, contest or no contest.

Ghanaian dance contests are elimination matches. Judges and the non-dancing crowd showed their favorites by sticking money, in this case 1-cedi notes, to the sweaty foreheads of the dancers. (A cedi was the equivalent of a dollar.) Suddenly, I, a gangling, 6"4" 160-pound white bag of bones and my pygmy-size female excuse to get out of my chair started collecting cash. It was too ridiculous for words, all we could do was laugh at it. But the music was still chugging away, we kept dancing, and we kept dodging the eliminations. Finally, it came down to two couples: midget girl and me, and a professional Ghanaian rocker named (I'm not making this up) Pee-Pee Dynamite and his date.

Guess who won? The grand prize was a case of Coca-Colas. Since the Ghanaians had graciously allowed the crazy white guy to win, and since we hadn't even intended to compete, were clearly a sympathy vote because we were no match for Pee-Pee's professional moves, and we had no use at all for the Cokes, we handed them over to Pee-Pee. Of all the fun times I've had in my entire life, that night in Accra is up in the top five, at least. And from that time to this, I've found the dance floor a welcoming space.

Postscript: I never forgot that incredible music, but I never thought I would hear it again. I assumed it was African-produced; I never knew the name of the band to look for their records, so I just packed the sound away as an indescribable memory. Then, a couple of years later, on the radio in Boston, there it was! Santana. The first cut on their first album. I ran to the record store that instant. When I put it on, I relived the entire Accra experience and was able to tell my dance contest story for the first time. And we danced!

I'd have posted that very music today, but this is Monday, after all. You need to be ushered gently into the week. If you want to hear it, pull out the old LP, or download it. You won't regret it, I promise.


Peewit said...

Never mind the Santana I dare you to post some high-life next time you blog about Ghana. It is about time the rest of the world realised what superb music is played on the African continent and that life is more than rock and roll

Ralph said...

You know, Peewit, I've wanted to, but I can't find my favorite songs anywhere. Charlotte Dada is a big jazz singer now, but she started singing Ghanaian high-life in the 60s. She had a huge hit while I was there, "Eno brebre," that I've searched high and low for.

OK, I'll gladly take your dare, Coming soon: high-life!

Kat said...

The picture I have of you on that floor dancing away is amazing. Oh to have been there!