Whenever I see pop singers who dance in tandem with choreographed dancers, I often cringe. Synchronized dancing is “serious.” Even though it is “fun,” it often lacks the comic touch. To be sure, the only kind of dancing I like to watch, if it is to be worth my viewing time, must be comic. Although this is my present view, I didn’t arrive at it overnight.
When I was growing up, I loved to dance. And my brother and I would often dance in front of the TV to Michael Jackson, Soul Train, and, yes, John Travolta. I loved Grease and Saturday Night Fever.
I also liked MAD magazine. So when I first saw the issue parodying John Travolta and Saturday Night Fever, I was introduced to a new type of dancer: the dancing fool. Alfred E. Newman as John Travolta. This parody of a serious dance film also caught on at Sesame Street.
Although this blipped on the screen of my youth, the shock didn’t settle in until I was in Junior High. When I first heard Frank Zappa’s “Dancing Fool,” it struck me how powerful a parody of serious disco could be.
This song altered how I looked at music and dance. I moved my body differently. And this made me rethink the Disco Genre that I so loved as a child. I wanted to alter it and I changed my moves to something more “funky.” One of the things I noticed, in dancing in a “funky” and comical way, was that I was happier and my friends around me were happier when I danced in a comic fashion. I felt some kind of liberation form main-stream culture in this kind of musical parody.
In university, I had a group of friends that loved to play with movement and we would have dance parties. Many of my friends were from NYC and they introduced me to a new movement that was brewing. They showed me a new way of parodying disco culture that had a Jewish and urban flavor. Out of this urban cultural movement emerged projects like Heeb Magazine, Jewcy, and Reboot. It produced books like Bar-Mitzvah Disco, Cool Jew, and projects like MODIYA at NYU (which looked to chronicle it). These magazines, books, and websites were looking for a new way of making Jewishness “cool” and ironic.
The “unlikely hero” of this endeavor is the dancing fool.
This, for me, had a lot of resonance because the dancing fool is not simply a figure that is novel to this new movement; it is also found in the secular culture and even in Hasidic culture. There is something deeply spiritual and deeply secular about dancing like a fool – yet, in such a way as to open up new ways of moving.
We see this at work in Woody Allen’s Zelig where a schlemiel named Zelig spurs a new movement based on his ability to change at the drop of a dime. The song which expresses this: “The Chamelon.”
I want to end this blog entry with a clip from Betty Boop entitled “Betty Boop and the Dancing Fool.” This, I think, is one of the main sources that Allen draws on. It epitomizes a time of great change in America in the early 20th century, and it brings out how some of this frenetic and revolutionary energy was wrapped up with a new medium: animation and film. There was an animism at work that had something comical, so to speak, built in to it. Perhaps what made it so comical was the fact that movement – which has no norm or else breaks with the norm – is comical. And this kind of energy moves like a foolish electric current that plays with and transforms different cultural trends.
Through this kind of animation a new kind of dance and a new kind of dancer emerged. And although much of this had to do with a medium, we cannot ignore the fact that that medium was created and advanced by many Jews. In this medium, many things can be parodied, but what remains throughout is movement, animation. This came to the fore for me when I met my first dancing fool through MAD magazine. He had the body of John Travolta but the face of Alfred E. Newman. The comic face displaces the serious body yet, in the end, what remains?
…the dancing fool..
To be continued….