In an isolated world, humans need to dance together more than ever – but we’re running out of places to do it
Over the last 10 years, the UK has suffered a huge cultural loss. To some extent, it is part of the great shrinking of shared and collective space, which takes in everything from pubs and bars to community centres and libraries. But this particular change stands alone: a striking example of how something that was once thriving and important can hit the skids, and precious few people in positions of power and influence will even notice.
In 2006, there were reckoned to be 3,000 nightclubs in the UK. By the end of 2019 there were less than half that number, and late last year, the figure was put at only 1,068. The reasons for this decline are partly about what has happened to our cities, and the mindset of many of the people who run them: a story of rising rents, authoritarian councils, and the kind of gentrification that involves people moving into bustling urban locations and then having the brass neck to complain about the noise. Of late, clubs’ finances have been made even more impossible by the effects of the pandemic, and colossal rises in running costs. But whereas last week’s budget saw Jeremy Hunt announcing a freeze in beer duty that he called the “Brexit pubs guarantee”, the fate of clubs is not something politicians really talk about.
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So it is that a whole chunk of our shared culture is falling away. And as takings drop, premises close and people lose their jobs, we are losing something every bit as precious: spaces where people can gather to dance. This is a profoundly human pastime that we have indulged in for as long as our species has been around, but it is now in danger of being pushed to the social margins.
For the last week, I have been immersed in a brilliant new book called Dance Your Way Home, by the music and culture writer Emma Warren, which throws all this into sharp relief. Weaving together memoir and social history, it explores dancing through stories that include her memories of 1980s school discos, moral panics in 1930s Ireland, and the grime and dubstep milieus of London in the early 21st century. The writing is often subtly political, but what really burns through is a sense of dancing not just being redemptive and restorative, but an underrated means of communication.
“Each time we move,” Warren says, “we share information about who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going, like the body’s version of accent or tone of voice … Each gesture, flex, slide or shape we make in response to music contains communication and history.” Music, she rightly insists, “sounds better when it’s danced, and when it’s communal.” She writes about many people’s anxiety and fear about dancing, but captures its inherent democracy: “The day-to-day art of moving to music is not about quantifiable excellence; it’s about coming as you are and contributing to the dancefloor.”
Just over 30 years ago, that inclusive vision was pushed into the cultural mainstream by the upsurge known as acid house, which decoupled dancing and clubs from the cliches that still dominate some people’s understanding of them – drinking, “pulling”, fighting – and was all about shared transcendence and self-discovery. “I was in jeans and T-shirt, recognising how my body liked to move, how it could stretch and contract on its own terms without having to consider how this affected my status as it related to being fanciable, as it had at school,” Warren says. “I was there to dance, and I would dance for hours and hours.” This was circa 1990. By 1994, she points out, there were more than 200 million separate admissions to UK nightclubs, which outstripped those for sport, cinemagoing and the other remaining “live arts”. In that context, what has happened since seems even more tragic.
Just to be clear: as evidenced by innumerable TikTok videos, the relationship between music and movement remains as indelible as ever, and dancing is hardly in danger of extinction. The problem is that we are losing places to do it in the company of others, and beyond licensing restrictions and costs lies a tangle of much deeper factors, from abstemiousness among the under-30s, to aspects of the way we now live which cut across the kind of letting-go that dancing demands – one example is social media’s culture of body shaming and enforced narcissism. Another is the fact that phones facilitate filming. Speaking as someone whose late adolescence was partly played out on the dancefloor, the idea of dancing on camera – let alone that the footage might then be freely available – would have not only have contravened clubbers’ etiquette, but completely killed the fun.
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Among age groups who would once have been on the cusp of getting into clubbing, there is also increasing evidence of a tendency to social withdrawal and introversion. Recent research from the US suggests that an increasing share of teenagers meet up with friends less than once a month. In a recent Prince’s Trust survey, 40% of young people in the UK reported being worried about socialising with others. On top of the personal anxieties sown online, Covid left a huge legacy of fears of infection, and a general sense that mixing with others risked harm and trouble. When people do get together, moreover, the possibilities of basic interaction sometimes come second to screentime. The observation of one London youth worker, reported last year in a Guardian news story, speaks volumes: “There are great hugs and shrieks when they get together, but then everyone goes on their phone.”
If all this isolation threatens a feedback loop of worry and self-doubt, the dancefloor might offer an answer. Among the many distillations of magic in Warren’s defiantly celebratory book, one of the best is the idea of dancing as “supportive togetherness”. Here, perhaps, is both a potential cure for the modern malaise, and even more proof of the precious things we lose each time a club closes.
• John Harris is a Guardian columnist