Midnight, April 1, 1994: I have officially just turned eighteen. With all the wisdom of his twenty-something years, the bouncer looks at my drivers license and wishes me a happy birthday before letting me pass inside. My year-older friend follows behind, the one who’s agreed to accompany me on this rite of passage, the pilgrimage I’ve been yearning to make for as long as I can remember. We have entered the dance club, and I am fulfilled.
What was that overpowering need to dance that took up so much of my young life—that imperative thrown down by the music, that inability to sit or stand still, even in the face of superhuman effort? What let in that rare affirmation of life and self, what about all this movement swept away even the most tenacious teen anxiety or insecurity when I shut the door and played the Violent Femmes, the Beastie Boys, Depeche Mode, or James Brown, even if only at parent-approved levels? And to amp up that individual delirium by throwing into the mix others possessed by the same spirit: it was one stroke of good fortune if a rare adolescent party popped up where everyone just wanted to dance, where someone’s kind parents and tolerant neighbors let them take over the garage for the evening. But a club: an entire space dedicated to serving this enchantment, to bringing together everyone who wanted nothing but to give themselves over, nothing but the rhythm and the right to indulge in responding to it: this was the dream. This was freedom.
College: it was like movement unleashed. Music all around, and community and motion freed from high school strictures, from a teen oligarchy that called the social shots and could nix a good time with a mere sneer. Suddenly, pockets of people who affirmed you were not a complete freak, who didn’t parry enthusiasm with irony. Shame shed its grip as I moved further away from childhood, as I joined joyfully in impromptu dorm dance parties, sang along with local bands, thrilled to the brilliantly lucky break of a frat or sorority parading a step routine across the lawn you were sitting on. At some point, you realized those musicals where people spontaneously broke out into song and dance didn’t seem all that farfetched.
I don’t remember when the imperative ceased, when I started sitting to the side at weddings or leaving the stereo off for an entire day, even two. My innate need to move was eventually fulfilled by compulsive walking: around neighborhoods, to and from work, to get groceries, wherever. If I could walk, I could keep my head relatively clear; I could stay sane. If I needed to cry now, or to work out frustrations, I found myself zipping furiously down city sidewalks with no destination in mind, or setting personal records running along popular trails, over bridges and paths. Music formed no part of these treks, except for a refrain that might seep into my head, its beat helping me keep my pace.
Until the virus hit. Until every molecule of air outside the door took on the aura of a deadly predator waiting to attack. Until the conviction descended that every pedestrian was out to infect you with their heat-sensing germs, until that fear had me vacating sidewalks in favor of pacing the floors at home. But it soon grew absurd, making figure eights around the stuffy one-bedroom apartment, scuffing a path into the laminate and wondering how much of my deposit would eventually be subtracted for this form of wear and tear.
I couldn’t just sit there all day, though. I had to get up and move, and move for more than a few seconds. And so I put on the old music, the reliable stuff that had always turned even the blandest space into a glorious dancefloor. I moved, sure; I guess some would even say I was dancing. It didn’t feel anything like it, though. I’d keep at the dutiful routine for twenty minutes, sometimes thirty, taking some low-grade form of pleasure in the music. But that demand that had once come along with the melody, with the beat, was nowhere to be found.
If I’d been with others, all of us trying to put some sort of spring back in our step, the exercise might have felt more convincing. Some goofy, accepting smile exchanged between creaking middle-aged faces thinking they still had it: it might have served as enough of an encouragement to keep going, even to enjoy it. It might have gotten close, I thought, to those youthful highs when the dancing was at its best, when you were surrounded by so many others doing the same thing. When you were sharing something, without having to state what it was, or that it was happening: affirmation through movement, wordless communication. Communication, period. But unless the apartment walls were taking it all in now, gaining some enjoyment from this clumsy show, there wasn’t even a message to share here, a feeling to offer up.
I’ve mostly gone back to walking around the apartment, even venturing out onto the sidewalks at off times of day. I’ve found myself conjuring up friends who didn’t live to see the COVID disaster—of a nurse who would have shone under all the stress, of a musician who would have sung her finely crafted songs to anyone who needed them. I’ve been aiming one side of a conversation at ghosts who seem more likely to respond to my thoughts than any of the frightened living, the ones we’re supposed to keep away from. And I’ve been thinking of that other friend, the one who saw me through the door of that first dance club. He’s been gone for maybe a decade now, the one who was always willing to dance alongside me, to make sure I wasn’t alone. He, those other shades: they are my temporary companions, the crowd where I’m safe, at least until we’re allowed to revel in and among the living again, to share a sound together, a breath. Maybe then, the relief will be so strong, the ones left alive won’t be able to keep from dancing. Maybe then, I’ll feel it again, that demand—and maybe then, the movement, the old joy, will reawaken, will take its stand once more.
Katy Scrogin is a Chicago-based writer, editor, and translator. Her most recent work is featured in Sobotka Literary Magazine, The Book Smuggler’s Den, and The Bookends Review. She can also be found at Katy Scrogin Writer, Editor, Translator.