Two men are dancing. A simple line dance: double step, step step; cross back, step step; forward, shuffle, back, scrape; heels out, toe down, turn and slap. Begin again: double step, step, step…
Two men are dancing. A simple line dance, the kind associated with barns and hoedowns, sawdust on the ground, beer on the table, women in gingham, men in cowboy hats. The two men wear cowboy hats, denim, suede gloves, fringed leather chaps. Every move they make in sync.
Two men are dancing. A simple line dance, for keeping people in line. The kind associated with a straightforward world in which men are men and women are women. Every move made in sync to build up a world that is neat and easy to understand. They are dressed the same. They move the same. They wear blindfolds. They pose no threat.
Two white men are dancing. There are streaks of grey in their hair, their beards. Their chaps are ersatz, home-made: you can see the jagged lines where scissors sliced into the fabric. On each of their bottoms, two strips of tape, white tape, in a cross. X marks the spot. Do not sit down. Kick here.
Two white men are dancing, and while they dance I talk. I talk with another man about futility. He is intrigued by the futility of this dance, its pointless circuit. I talk with a woman about its vulnerability. To me, in the moment of this conversation, it is not futile, or vulnerable. It is the dance of people who follow the herd; and so it is a paradox that they are also the people who control the herd. It is the dance of people who close their eyes to what’s around them and go through the motions, never breaking free or seeking change. It is the dance of people who are afraid of what is different, and so remain with the same, never stopping to ask whether the same might be even more dangerous. It is the dance of people who look very different when Trump is president than they might have looked when Obama was president. Who would have looked very different when Obama was president to how they might have looked when Bush was president. The dance is circular. The dance is timed to end, but the dance has no end.
Two white men are dancing, and while they dance, others dance too. I have been here for about 15 minutes when a group of women begin dancing with them. Two men dancing, four (white) women following their lead. Simultaneously, in another part of the room, there are two small boys, ignoring the dance, playing a game. The game they are playing involves shooting. They are playing cowboys. This is iconography with which they are already familiar. My guess is they are six years old. Two men dancing, four women falling in line with their footsteps, two small boys resisting the dance and playing a version of shoot-em-ups instead. I am so troubled by the ways in which this can be read as metaphor.
Two men are dancing, and four other men are dancing with them. One just can’t do it. He stumbles, missteps. He keeps on trying. How we struggle to fit in with this white man’s dance. How we fail.
One man is dancing. The other is tired. He stops, shakes out one foot and then the other. They are not dancing on sawdust: they are dancing on concrete. He raises an arm. An usher approaches him, hands him water. That moment of tenderness, of basic care for another, breaks my heart.
Two men are dancing and my feet are itching to dance. It takes a lot for me to participate in public space. It’s not so much a fear of getting it wrong as of being seen at all. I am happier here, writing it all down. I look up and realise that, apart from the two men dancing, it’s just me and four people volunteering with the festival in the room. I wonder if it matters that no one else is participating. I wonder what it means to them, if they can feel the difference through the floor, in the air.
Two men are dancing. I am eating dinner at the threshold of the room. I am sending a text to my daughter, via her grandfather, to remind her to do her maths homework. I am living beside them, living within the rhythm of their dance.
Two men are dancing and while they dance, I talk. I talk with another woman, this time about racism. How we have not confronted racism when it has been spoken around us, not taken that responsibility. We remember, earlier today, the artist Selina Thompson asking: where are you complicit? We each take a vow. She leaves. I join the dance.
Two men are dancing and I am dancing (stumbling, shuffling) with them. As my left foot crosses behind my right, I remember the vine dance that happens at family weddings. The rhythm of it so alien somehow; my body’s resistance to the expectation to join in. Here there is no expectation. Only silent invitation.
Two men are dancing and the idea of leaving them to go and watch another show is unfathomable. It’s not that I’m going to miss anything as such: it’s just a simple line dance, nothing about it changes, in the macro sense of change. But there’s something about the calm of it, the rhythm, the repose. Earlier today, artist/activist the Vacuum Cleaner talked about what he needs when he has panic attacks: for someone to sit with him and count breaths, breath in two three four, breath out two three four, slowing the pace gradually so he can get in sync. These steps have the same focus, the same reassurance. You’re not going to die. You’re not going to die. Keep moving. Keep breathing. This too will pass.
It is four hours later and the two men are still dancing. The light is softer now, a single bulb in the corner, warmth and shadows. I think about how exhausting it is, masculinity, what it is to feel you have to follow its motions, in blindness, in silence. I call my husband just before going back in, describe to him what I’m about to watch. That sounds so boring, he says.
Two men are dancing. They have been dancing since midday. It is 11pm. They still have an hour to go. I missed them sitting down to eat pizza, still wearing the blindfolds, a handful of women taking on responsibility for keeping up the dance. All around me, people are talking. I wonder what they hear of our conversations. I wonder whether they have achieved a state of grace. Enlightenment, transcendence. Lately I’ve been thinking about Buddhism, what it might be to breathe through pain and pleasure equally. What it might be to have faith.
Two men are dancing and the repetition is more than mesmerising: it is transformational. But how? In a blog about “10 performances that did it for me in 2016”, the artist Greg Wohead wrote: “I can see repetition as a way of wearing away at something.” Mostly my experience is of repetition wearing away at me, fraying my nerves. But mostly my experience of repetition is of telling my children to brush their teeth properly, eat with their knives, not wipe dirty hands on their clothes, do their homework. This is different. A different relationship with exhaustion. A different relationship with control.
Three men are dancing, and so are 15 women. I am dancing with them. I am thinking about how restful it is to submit. To cede control. To know a rule and follow it. I’m still uncomfortable with this as metaphor.
Two men are dancing. Midnight tolls, not as a bell but as a rapturous round of applause. The spell is broken and we return to who and what we were before. I drift out into the cold chill night and start walking home. I have no idea how to explain why I loved this piece so much. In my mind, I’m still doing the steps.
Ghost Dance was performed as part of the In Between Time festival in Bristol, on until 12th February 2017. Click here for more details.