On Dancing and Drinking

I’m obsessed with this video for Sia’s “Chandelier.” At first, I couldn’t take in much beyond the brilliant Maddie Ziegler, who is the only reason I watch the otherwise very trashy Dance Moms. This kid is hella talented, and it’s so cool to see her in something more sophisticated than a children’s dance competition.

But on actually listening to the lyrics, it started to dawn on me: this is a song about alcoholism! Sure enough, Sia is sober and doing the 12-step thing. I admire her a lot for revealing this, considering she’s an intensely private person who rarely does interviews. That’s another reason I love the video for “Chandelier”: it’s an ideal collaboration between two artists (one camera-shy and the other visually magnetic) playing to their individual strengths. I also love this live version where Maddie dances and Sia sings the whole song facing a corner.

Why the song/video combo is a stunning visual interpretation of alcoholism doesn’t really need explaining. But I think what I personally love is how well it illuminates the false but irresistible promises alcohol made to me.

I’ve secretly always wanted to be a dancer. Physically, I look like I could maybe be a dancer. I’m small and flexible, and when I was younger, people sometimes asked if I were a ballerina. But the truth is, I have no rhythm, and I’m hopelessly cerebral. As a kid, I once performed the role of the Cheshire Cat in a musical version of The Alice in Wonderland, a role which required me to do a little song and dance. I had some trouble with the dance. “Get out of your head!” the director kept barking. “You’re thinking too much!”

But I couldn’t not think too much. I’m a writer, not a performer, as much as I’d like it to be the other way around. As much as I want to be the Maddie of the “Chandelier” duo, nailing perfect pirouettes in a skin-toned leotard, I’m destined to be Sia, more comfortable behind the scenes, writing pieces I don’t necessarily want to sing.

Except when I drink. And this is the catch. This is what made it so hard, for so many years, for me to want to stop. When I drink, I become the performer. I shed the self-consciousness that normally prevents me from shimmying to the center of the dance floor and taking my place there. Of course, I can’t actually dance better what I drink. At least, this is what people in the program have assured me while encouraging me to join them sober dancing (so far, I haven’t had the guts): you don’t actually dance better drunk, you just think you dance better. This is backed up by further evidence from my boyfriend, who assures me that a lot of my drunk dance moves involve me jumping up and down and falling on people. But before I get to that blacked out place, there is usually a window of hope and opportunity, when it seems like I can still become anyone I fancy myself to be.

Before going away to college, I lived for a few months in Tanzania, teaching English and trying to escape myself. I never got super drunk there, and I used this relatively moderate period for many years to prove to myself how I wasn’t an alcoholic. Remember Tanzania, I’d tell myself. You just have to refind whatever you had in Tanzania.

I never refound it. Who knows what it was. Maybe it was the sense of responsibility that came with being mostly on my own in a foreign country. Maybe it was the beers served by the bar next to our house, which were both very big and very weak, so it was hard to physically drink enough to get drunk. The vodka came in little plastic baggies, which I avoided until my last night there, when I did get sort of drunk but nothing extreme.

I didn’t get drunk in Tanzania, and I didn’t dance there. I was intimidated  by the locals, who could fucking dance. There was no way I was going to get on the dance floor with people who could dance like that. I would look like an idiot.

A couple years later, however, a friend from Tanzania came to visit me when I was living with a boyfriend in D.C. Now my friend was on my turf, and I was going to show him a good time. We went to the bar where my boyfriend worked, a fancy place with a jazz band headed by a elderly gentleman. I did coke with him and then some shots and then started dancing with my friend. “You’re such a good dancer,” he kept saying, and I felt it must be true because he’s Tanzanian. We tore up the dance floor for hours, and although I kept drinking, the coke kept me away from that sloppy, falling-down place.

That night, encouraged by my grinding, my friend tried to kiss me, making the rest of his visit very awkward. I was sick and sad the next day. My boyfriend was probably mad at me. Less than a year later, the elderly jazz musician died of a heart attack.

But for a few hours, I was a great dancer. In my head, I looked something like Maddie in “Chandelier,” gracefully on the verge of out-of-control. It couldn’t last of course; it never did. But that was what I kept coming back for, what I couldn’t get enough of. And I know there’s a part of me that still wants it, which is the part of me I have to watch out for. Maybe I’ll get up the courage to go sober dancing some day. For now, though, it feels risky. I don’t want to lose everything I have to a few hours swinging from the chandelier.


2 thoughts on “On Dancing and Drinking

  1. Lots to chew on here. We played the part when we drank, didn’t we? Either we thought we were something we weren’t, or played up to what we thought others wanted us to be. The authentic self got drowned out. And it goes on for so long that often we don’t know who we are once we get sober. I can define my life by what I am not, but that’s not always fun, is it? But breaking through what I thought I was or wasn’t in sobriety has opened me up to a lot. I still have fear about things, but hopefully I can move through those too. Like that sober dancing you talked about. I have read a lot of sober bloggers who walked through that fear – who thought that they could never do it, but they would go up there, and who’d a thunk it – they had fun. So who knows?

    Great post…thanks for sharing 🙂


    • Thanks, Paul! I relate with what you said about breaking through restrictive self-definitions being a big part of the recovery process. I’ve definitely broken through several self-imposed restrictions these past few months–e.g. sober calling people on the phone–but am still working on others… I have no fear of sober dancing in my apartment, so it’s just a matter of transferring that mentality that out in public! I think the main thing I’ve learned in so far sobriety is that my brain is by far my biggest obstacle. 🙂

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