Birthright: To Dance
“Men dancing with each other was not new to me, but in America only a certain segment of the male population did so. This was something different, something new, and I was not aware of my place in the scheme of it until the Nigerian student who had invited me asked me to dance. My place was on the dance floor”.
By g.r. adams
It was 1950. It was a wet, windy afternoon in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. In the St. George's Park Tea Room, two Black men were slow-dancing to, "You're the Cream in My Coffee." Except for the two of them, the tea room was empty.
One man was, at that moment, profoundly sad and the other desperately wanted to lift his spirits. I was disconcerted by the sight. On the way home from the theater, that last scene of Athol Fugard's "Master Harold...and the Boys" stayed with me. Was that a natural response to that sadness, or had the playwright erred?
The old tinge of resentment that scene conjured was preceded by happy memories of the very event which had created that resentment. Like the characters of Sam and Willie in the play, those memories were of Black men dancing. Also like Fugard's characters, the dancers I remembered were Africans.
It was 1978. It was a warm, clear night in Brussels. At the Free University, the Nigerian students were showing a film of "Festac '77," the second World Black and African Festival of Art and Culture which had been hosted by their country the previous year.
I was particularly interested in the film because of all the wonderful stories I had been told about the festival by two friends who had attended.
One thing my friends had told me about their trip had made an impression initially, but had long since buried itself in the recesses of my mind. It was brought to the fore quite dramatically when the film ended and the after-party began.
As soon as the tables and chairs were pushed aside, and the evening's disc jockey put on the first record, the newly created dance floor was full. Almost all of the students in attendance were men, and they were all dancing with each other.
I sat in awe. What I was witnessing was completely beyond my realm of experience. Men dancing with each other was not new to me but in America only a certain segment of the male population did so.
This was something different, something new, and I was not aware of my place in the scheme of it until the Nigerian student who had invited me, asked me to dance. My place was on the dance floor.
It was while dancing that the rest of those stories told to me by my two friends came back to me. They had been stories of men who knew how to touch each other in ways we in this country either shudder at, or envision in vague utopias. It was while dancing that the resentment which has never left me began.
My own memories of cultural transgression and recrimination go back to early adolescence: I used to kiss my father. I didn't live with him, so I made it a point when visiting to hug and kiss him hello and good-bye.
While this may have been acceptable in some parts of town, it was not so amongst the older boys in my father's neighborhood. One of my older brothers pulled me aside one day and asked me not to do it any longer. He said it embarrassed him in front of his friends.
I could see nothing wrong in what I had been doing. It was true that the uncle I lived with used to joke about my hugging and kissing my aunt and not him. I think he was only half joking, but at that age the idea of kissing any man other than my father repelled me.
Now, my brother was conveying to me the idea that all of it was abhorrent. I was dutifully shamed. A few years after that, the same brother became the first male with whom I ever danced.