Notes from the dance floor of Northern Soul’s Big Bang.
The most groundbreaking element of the Northern Soul phenomenon was/is not the music: no, the music existed before we found it, and cannot be replenished unless current Black American artists take a(nother) vow of poverty, and aspire only to be obscure commercial failures in order to keep a rare vinyl industry afloat (aouch).
So, unless Indiana Jones or Lara Croft discover a warehouse full of obscurities – Raiders of the Lost Demo’s or Tune Raider ? – the top-notch rare soul music is long gone. But all is not lost to innovative future generations, because the aspect of Northern Soul that’s ever-ripe for youth to take it up, break it up, (re)make it up and bloody-well own it – without interference or strings from the past – is the dancing.
Forgive me for again indulging in over-simplification, but there were three primary categories of youth who signed up for Northern Soul duty: – pill-heads, dancers and collectors.
Obviously, there was some of each in all of us (we were all pill-heads…except for the fibbers: ‘Did you take drugs at Wigan Casino, Gran?’), but – for the first few years – I just wanted to be off my nut and on the dance floor, simple as, and I was happy to let others obsess about dates, labels and producers (often those who couldn’t dance!).
Elaine Constantine’s Northern Soul movie contains a simple scene that captures the essence of the fearless, youthful Northern Soul dancer.
Antonia Thomas’ character Angela arrives at the club as her favourite tune is playing. Bristling with swagger and self-belief, she throws her coat (a gorgeous light tan leather) over the back of a chair and steps onto the dance floor with the look that assumes all eyes have waited for her to join the dance: ‘here I am – the center of all things soulful’.
It’s a youthful, ‘stimulated’ variant of the Peter Kay dad walk (towards the wedding dance floor), but whereas ‘dad’ has lost any magic he might once have owned – (and that which remains is usually illusion) – the tainted flower of amphetamised youth is willing and capable of earning that limelight and ruling the dance floor.
I’m now going to pigeon-hole two ‘schools’ of Northern Soul dancing and enforce a line between two time slots: – differentiating two dance philosophies with a timeline just makes it easier to explain what were nevertheless real developments.
1: Class of ’73 (from 1973 through to roughly 1977)
This era/batch of Northern Soul dancers was influenced by mod-cool and the best of those coming from the Torch and the Catacombs. Slippy-slidey footwork was set at the cornerstone (or pinnacle), and Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room hosted some of the best Northern Soul dancers I’ve ever seen (one lad in particular, whose name I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out).
Originality was key: you were surrounded by good dancers, who positively strove (and were not scared) to be different, rise above the crowd and from whom you could find inspiration, borrow dance steps and embellish them with your own artistic twists.
Backdrops and spins were plentiful, but you didn’t sacrifice footwork and lose the subtle shades of rhythm that only footwork (hands and hips) could decipher: and interpret – gymnastics were just icing on a cake of many ingredients.
Few – if any – of the current crop of dancers will have knowledge of the Class of ’73, nor reference points from which to once more push the boundaries, because footage of this lot dancing in their prime – the true Pioneers – simply does not exist.
2: Class of ’79 (from late ’78 until 1981 and beyond)
In this period, many of the quirky innovators had succumbed to their appetites (!) and retired hurt, or fled for cleaner air, whilst others defected to jazz-funk and disco, where you weren’t expected to conform to an increasingly (and unintentionally) burlesque
At Wigan Casino in particular, footwork was gradually reduced to a few cliched dance steps. The primary purpose of what I call ‘bridge’ steps were to act as filler; they kept you moving to the beat in-between backdrops and spins, but which had little intrinsic merit (these bridge steps dominate most Northern dance floors today).
This was the period in which Northern Soul dancing was shifting towards a rulebook or an acquired Badge of Honour, as opposed to a set of boundaries that – like muscles – must be ripped to be expanded.
Back drops, spins and gymnastics replaced footwork as the cornerstone (its all your fault, Sandy!).
And how many ways are there to do a backdrop or a spin?
Infinitely fewer than there are ways to shuffle (or tap) out original musical shapes.
After Tony Palmer’s documentary wedged Northern Soul into the mainstream consciousness, edgy Innovators were replaced (or outnumbered) by Followers, leading inexorably to the dancers of today, who have perfected hand-me-down dances (often from parents or older family members) whilst adding little in the way or original interpretations.
This isn’t meant to be a criticism – to my eye it is just a fact – because some of these dancers are amazingly talented (see Stephen Cootes and Aaron, later). But the depth of their skill is largely untested – and to my eyes, even wasted – because when they take to the dance floor, it isn’t to outdo hundreds of other youthful dancers in reaching the next level of physical artistry and innovation: rather, it’s to pay homage to the past.
Anyway, if they became too innovative with their moves, they’d be anathema to the Guardians of the Galactic Past, who won’t relinquish the Northern dance rulebook without a tussle, so there’s no real incentive to step up in originality.
A good example of this controlling mentality was in evidence when I was shooting pictures at the Tower Ballroom in 2013. As Lauren Fitzpatrick was throwing backdrops into her dance routine, two ladies from Yorkshire (who at the time were eating a big cake!) could be heard complaining up on the stage area:
‘Why is she doing back drops? Girls never used to do backdrops!’
It seems contemporary Northern dancers are expected to defer to someone else’s memories and like it… or face the wrath of ageing ladies (we never used to eat cake, either, but that malpractice somehow slipped past the censors)… when in truth the original Class of ’73 saw themselves as the main event and were going to be nobody’s fuckin’ tribute act.
There was a randomness and audacity about the Class of 73 that defied simple labels – they were dancing on the crest of Northern Soul’s biggest and best wave, which attracted the kind of people who took risks.
But one of the current crop of dancers who rises way above set routines, and captures much of the Spirit of 73, is James Whitehead. His freestyle interpretations of music is fueled by well-practiced technique and a heap of born ability, and he is always a joy to watch because he makes it his own.
Elaine Constantine organised and turned out a fine crop of dancers for her Northern Soul film, and there’s ‘film extra’ and ad work aplenty if you get the right agent (Gucci, Juliet Naked, Inspector Gently, Emmerdale and many others have plundered the genre, and added sweet F.A. in terms of artistic stimulus). But, like the scripts and tawdry ads they are expected to act as filler for, these dancers were also backward-looking: obviously, their job was to represent a place and time – Wigan Casino, and the cliched Class of ’79.
Why did Northern Soul dancing hit the wall?
Primarily, because Northern Soul ceased to be a groundbreaking music scene – a music scene led and inspired by the young – and the waves gradually became ripples without the rejuvenating power of youth and superior new music to inspire them in droves.
You can of course see Northern Soul influences in body popping/breakdance, and the similarities between Northern Soul and the illegal rave scene of the late 80’s and early 90’s has oft been highlighted – certainly, the first throes of House Music begged to take great footwork and gymnastics to the next level of artistry.
But the dancing did not – could not – travel from the Northern dance floor to the Rave because of one fundamental difference: the drugs.
Dancing on Drugs: Amphetamines v. Ecstasy
Amphetamines (speed) afforded the user an inflated degree of awareness: you were hyper alert, hyper sensitive to detail, hyper self-aware – particularly of your own limbs – just hyper hyper, and you would (and could) work that dance floor all night to achieve obsessive perfection of your chosen moves.
Again, you were both willing and able to work for the limelight.
MDMA (Ecstasy), however, furnished the fantasy that you were the center of the Universe and capable of greatness… when the truth was more pedestrian. And under the weight of such a trance-like illusion, why bother making dance floor efforts you could neither perfect nor sustain?
So, the manageable dance routine for incapacitated, mangled heads became the ‘big box – little box’ (I’ll find pictures….wouldn’t you just know it, I have plenty!) and to go with the tranced ebb-and-flow of the crowd.
In short, Northern Soul drugs empowered individual efforts, physicality, coordination and put you at the centre of your (perceived) dance floor universe:
House Music drugs were trance-inducing (hence the trance music spin off – which nevertheless produced some of my favourite dance tunes) and did not empower the individual; certainly not to anything more coordinated than a state of chemical ecstasy and flailing hands.
Dancing into the here-and-now
Core Northern Soul dancing is one of the most mentally demanding, original (when fully let off the leash), physically taxing, limitless in its potential for reinvention and – when you get it right – exhilarating of dance genres.
Stephen Cootes, Aaron (??), Lauren Fitzpatrick, Laura West and James Whitehead and quite a few others (as far as I know) prove you don’t need to be off your tits on speed to achieve the highest standards, and that you probably perform better without it.
How ironic would it be, if a new generation of Soul dancers could flip everything the right way up by dedicating themselves solely to the dance, switch up the music, throw down a gauntlet and raise the bar so high you couldn’t possibly compete unless you were fully ON your head, and reclaim some of the world’s dance floors from the latest generation of coke and chemical heads (currently at epidemic proportions).
Better still if they worked together and move in a new direction (which would be the ultimate test of their true potential).
But for this to happen, Northern Soul Dancing would need freeing from a dead-weight past, and it would also need a group of young practitioners bold enough to forge new directions, which might require the nudge of an original, youthful script for the future, not (one more) homage to an ever-receding past 😉
Breakdancing in the Olympics
The Olympic committee have taken some flak over the years for their dodgy practices. But bringing breakdancing into the Olympic fold is a stoke of genius, because it gives youngsters from any walk of life a direction in which to push and excel, and a platform on which all their hard work can eventually shine.
If it hadn’t got stuck in the mud of its own entrails, it cudda-wudda-shudda been Northern Soulies dancing up their dancing beneath the Olympic rings, rather than Morning of Owl (see below – they’re on the left).
Oh, and if they got arsey about our talc we could move to the nearest ice rink!
Morning of Owl (left). Now THIS is how you raise the bar on the dance floor – boundaries are there to be broken, and the ‘team’ nature of breakdance crews, which fosters innovation within a small youth group, and competition between each group, means this happens all the time – but it cudda-wudda-shudda been Soulies!