Thursday, March 10, 2011

A discussion on disco casts new light

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher decided to teach us some disco.

By today’s standards, at least at my kids’ school (which is, of course, the same school where we did the disco-dancing), that’s a fairly preposterous use of classroom time. My kids’ teachers have organized schedules: they allot their classroom hours carefully, and the results show with well-prepared kids who get good standardized test scores and are effective learners.

Things were different in the mid-1970s. It was a progressive time in general, and in our school particularly so. Even though it was a public school system, we were part of an experimental structure called an open classroom. The classroom space was configured non-traditionally, but so was the way we spent our time in school. So it wasn’t particularly unusual when our teacher decided that he was going to teach us some of the line dances he’d been learning in his disco class.

At the time, I don’t remember finding this strange at all. We students were perhaps mildly amused by the idea that our teacher was taking a dance class, but in general we didn’t give much thought either way to how he spent his time outside of school. In that respect, little has changed about nine-year-olds: questions about whether our teacher was busy or bored, happy or lonely, satisfied in his personal life or depressed really weren't on our radar.

But sometimes it’s possible to look back more than thirty years and see a situation differently. Earlier this week I heard an On Point podcast on which an American studies professor at USC named Alice Echols was interviewed about Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, her recently published book on the disco trend and its impact on American society.

According to this author, one effect that the widespread popularity of disco had on American culture was that it made gay men more comfortable dancing. Previously, it was seen as inappropriate in many circles for men to cut loose in general and with other men in particular. But disco was different: it gave everyone a reason to mingle on the dance floor together. And as I understood it from the interview – having not actually read the book – this gave some men the chance to be out in the public eye enjoying themselves while also hiding their affinity for dancing with men behind the fact that in disco, doing so doesn’t look strange.

But as the researcher talked, I realized that maybe in some sense we fourth graders did sense a newfound delight in our teacher when he brought dance moves into the classroom to the tinny strains of a Sony cassette player. He had told us a lot of stories from his childhood (this is yet another example of how loosely formed the curriculum was back then; my children’s teachers would never devote hours of classroom time to stories about their past): he grew up very poor as the only child of a single mother in rural Kansas. He told us he had very few friends, and we assumed it was because he lived out in the countryside, but looking back as an adult, I can imagine how emotionally isolated he probably felt in that particular part of the country at that particular time. Moving from the Midwest to the East Coast in his adulthood may have represented an improvement in terms of open-mindedness and tolerance, but he still must have felt somewhat lonely, a single male schoolteacher commuting to a suburb where the school was populated almost entirely by children growing up in affluent two-parent households.

Most of this is speculation, of course, as far as how he felt and what disco meant to him. He didn’t stay at our school much longer, but many years later, one of his former colleagues told me that he ended up back in Kansas living with a life partner and that his life had turned out settled and happy.

But really the point is less what disco did for him as what hearing this interview did for me. It put a situation from a long time ago into a new perspective and made it interesting all over again, more interesting than it had been when I actually learned to do the Hustle and the Bump. I like the idea that disco might have made his life a little more enjoyable than it otherwise was. And I like the way it’s possible to learn something so many years after the fact that can change one’s understanding of the past, even in a very small way.

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