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I could’ve danced all night (if only I knew how)

As the names of the participants in both Dancing With the Stars and Strictly Come Dancing have been announced, it seems natural that our thoughts should turn to the dance floor and all of the associated terminology. The difference between an Olympic sprinter and a performer on DWTS, or Strictly, or any of their thirty-two sister television programmes around the world, is not how much energy they use but in whether they’re allowed to collapse in a panting, exhausted, grimacing heap after ten seconds. How do the dancers keep smiling? It is not enough just to get the moves right; they have to make it look easy. The names of their dances reflect this: the harder a dance is, the easier it sounds.

How difficult can it be?

Most experts tend to invent complicated words for what they do. Dancers do the opposite. Breakdancing? Well, I can break things, so I’ll give it a go. And how hard can it be to move in a way described with such baby talk as cha-cha-cha?

Fancy the quickstep? For the ‘quick’ I’m reading ‘casual’, ‘needing little or no thought’, as in ‘a quick coffee’. And a step? Anyone can do one step. Keeping it in the singular keeps it simple. The two-step admittedly sounds a tiny bit trickier but it’s a long time now since my first step so I ought to be OK.

And one two three, one two three

What about the waltz? A simple job to translate it from German: step out onto the dictionary dance floor with a few elegant key strokes to a throbbing Latin beat, finish with a perfectly executed lean back in my chair, smiling all the while, and there it is. It means roll. As in ‘rolling off a log’, ‘rolling down a hill’. This sounds my sort of dance.

‘Don’t think you can just waltz in here’ means that you’re not making the effort you should, it’s all too easy. The ease of the waltz is also implied in the Australian phrase, familiar from Andrew ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s 1895 song but which predates this by a few years. ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is what a bushman does when he makes a bundle of his belongings with his blanket and carries it on the road.

Given this you wouldn’t think it were possible to have lessons two hours a week from January to June and still get in a muddle after four bars, but I assure you that it is. And I admit, when I leant back in my chair just then, after I’d discovered what waltz meant in German, I toppled a bit and had to grab the spider plant on my desk. (It didn’t hold my weight.)

Making it look easy

Mambo, lambada, bolero, rumba, samba, jive… all such simple words that trot off the tongue so easily. Talking of trotting, that’s easy too, isn’t it?

Foxtrot has been used in English since at least 1872 to describe the easy gait of a horse between walking and proper trotting, the way a fox trots across your lawn in the moonlight. So when Harry Fox invented a dance in 1914 foxtrot was the perfect word to convey the effortlessness that plays no part in its mastery.

The Lindy Hop extends the principle of dismissively making it all sound easy to the achievements of aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh, in whose honour the dance is named. One could say that Lindbergh danced with the stars—his only way of navigating. Six aviators had already died trying to ‘hop’ across the Atlantic when Lindbergh took off in his fabric-covered single-engined plane for a 33 ½  hour battle with storm clouds, icing, and fog. By implying this was all a simple hop, the dance’s name surely implies that just as it’s easy to get to Paris by air so it’s easy to imitate the Harlem acrobatics of the 1920s.

One giant step

The name given to Michael Jackson’s dance celebrates another American achievement in leaving firm ground. Not only is walking easier than dancing but, whereas getting to the moon might be difficult, once you’re there walking is easy. Remember Buzz Aldrin’s giant steps? Logically, you’d think that if you can bench press a dozen helium balloons you can do the moonwalk.

I’m not sure which is more deceptive, to have an easy thing sound difficult or a difficult thing sound easy. Either way language with no link to reality is not a thing to trust. But then to have reality without language would be a barren way to live. We need both. After all, it takes two to tango. But watching it on telly is easier and much less tiring.

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