Dancing with Strangers: Fierce Festival’s Slow Dance

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Slow Dance Image

“Would you like to dance?”, her voice calm and inviting. An extended hand towards me, I stumble nervously to put my bottle of beer to one side. Reaching the dance floor, the mirror ball spins fleeting lights across the walls and ceilings, the music soothes itself into a low rhythm and together we take position. She’s leading, a gentle shifting of feet from side to side, our hips swaying in time and her eyes sparkle, and for a moment we are lost to ourselves. Conversation follows, explorative and unbiased questions on why I’m here, and why she’s dancing with strangers tonight.

Sherwin Sullivan Tjia’s Slow Dance at this year’s Fierce Festival has played upon my mind constantly since Saturday night. A sort of nostalgic yearning, a young child tugging at my sleeve or a confirmation of something I’ve always knew. It’s a piece that lingers long after the music has stopped and the dancers have found their way to their beds. It stirs emotions in places long forgotten, teasing out of the participants an openness and acceptance of the slow and intimate. Quite simply it manifests the beautifully tender and awkward desires of human interaction.

Across an evening of four hours, Tjia curates a series of sets comprised of songs that spin their tunes in slowness. At times compering, at other times a gentle nudge of ‘no regrets’ Tjia builds a space in which participants are encouraged to no longer be wallflowers clinging so beautifully to the comfort of the side of a room but to embrace the intimacy of the slow dance with (more times than not) strangers. With a dance card to book your dancers in or just to keep track of those you’ve had the pleasure of twirling for a few minutes with the simplicity of the work is perhaps its most powerful and provocative asset.

Standing arms crossed I sway gently to Adele’s Someone Like You, mouthing silently to those words I’ve sung so many times before. “You look like you want to dance” comes a voice from behind me. “I can’t decide if I want to dance or just listen to the song” I reply. “Why don’t we do both?”, taking my hand she leads me the dance floor, “let’s not speak, let’s dance and listen”. Arm in arm, hand in hand, we gently ease ourselves into the music and I find myself staring off into the distance, silently singing. The song comes to an end, “Thank you” I say, “thank you”.

Anyone who has found themselves reading one of my recent Tumblr posts about how romance is dead will perhaps understand why Slow Dance tugs at my heart. These fleeting encounters with strangers offer an openness far more accepting than the everyday encounters we experience in the turbulent world that revolves around the bygone years of courting. Dancing for me is expressive, it’s rooted in sexual desire and expression and it allows me to connect to music, friends and strangers on many levels. Whilst I can be easily found dancing in the dark clubs of London’s LGBT venues, (and my word I love getting lost in the music and dancing until I can’t dance anymore), there’s a inherent disconnect with the world and with my fellow dancers when I do. This isn’t seduction for love, bodies that find themselves drawn to each other through a compelling need and desire to be close, to live, to breathe, to dance and to love. This is seduction for sex, where every stolen look across a dance floor is another notch on your bedpost, another awkward morning conversation and a slow walk home. This isn’t romance.

Tjia’s Slow Dance takes us back to the carefree and joyful time of school discos and family gatherings, of proms and balls and young love. With carefree twirling on a dance floor, the gentle offer of “will you dance with me?” is exhilarating; it’s political, a stand against the technological age we live in. It’s pure, and at times it’s alluring and seductive, but even that is carefully constructed in giddy innocence. It feels important and immediate, it feels romantic, and above anything, it feels special. Slow Dance makes your heart soar countless times. Smiles sparkle from every face and the enthusiasm and kindness is infectious.

With two songs to go I finally build up the courage to ask him to dance. He’s striking in looks, gentle in personality and has mostly stuck to the side of the dance floor for most of the night. His hands are soft in mine, and I lead this dance, and stare into his eyes, nodding and offering comments upon his increasing conversation about his love of this song. I don’t want the dance to end, and I hope you don’t want to either. I want to hold onto this moment. I want to slow dance with you until the streamers have come down and the DJ has gone and the lights have been turned off. I want to melt into your arms and for you to hold me strong. I want you to lead the next dance and every dance after that. I want to fall in love and be reminded that romance does exist, and we’re living it right now. I want to dance with this stranger forever.

Perhaps the most embracing part of Slow Dance comes from the construct of the event. Billed as a ‘queer slow dance’ it embraces everyone within the dancing, a non-judgemental framework of acceptance. I see two men happily dancing in each others arms as many times as I see men and women. I find myself increasingly feeling empowered to ask men, straight or gay is irrelevant, to dance with me and I find the encounters enthralling. Intimacy between two men (or two women, or anyone really) is such a beautiful feeling. For me it feels whole, I know no other. I see two men on the streets of London holding hands and I can’t help but to smile, an image that becomes too much of a statement for equality instead of an image of normal occurrence. At Slow Dance it feels less like a statement and just what is done, a non-statement, an openness. It feels right, oh how it feels right.

For every teenager that has suffered from bullying because of sexuality, and every geek who found themselves shunned by the popular gang. Of the misfits and oddballs, of the ‘normal’ and society-accepting everyday person, Slow Dance brings people together in a rich and inviting environment. Yes, it’s romantic, and yes it played upon my desperate-heart strings but it was also bloody good fun. Slow dancing is inviting and playful, it’s about a giving over of character and complications. It’s a pure dance, one that eases the best out of people and tells you that for tonight you can be who you really are, no questions asked but “will you dance with me?”, and you can’t help but to reply, “yes, yes I will”.

Encounters with strangers is not easy. We’re told we mustn’t, we must keep our guard up, never look vulnerable or open, but for once, I wished I could have met every stranger at Slow Dance and encountered them. I can feel it already; it’s made me a better person. A slow dancing king of kings. A wallflower no more.

Amazing image taken from Jane She Is a Clerk on blogpost (internet home of Sherwin Sullivan Tjia)