On the Saturday night of the conference, we danced. The organizers had hired some musicians and set up a dance floor and bar in the largest room. After several days packed with speakers and sessions, my body cramped from sitting in stiff conference chairs, I welcome the chance to move my muscles to music. Intellectual stimulation is wonderful, but my body needs more. And I love to dance. I'm not a particularly good dancer, really, but that doesn't matter. Dancing isn't about what you look like, I always explain to my friends, dancing is about how you feel.
When I was little, we'd dance around while my father and his friends were jamming, and dancing always puts me back into that mood of just a carefree kid letting music move me around the room. I don't even care if I'm the worst dancer on the dance floor: I figure my presence will help other people feel less self-conscious. And I'm not self-conscious in the least.
Artist Friend always claims that he doesn't like to dance. He rolls his eyes when I drag him into the music. And Philadelphia Guy, who plays in band when he's not being a professor, always says he'd rather be playing the guitar. But because they are my friends, they dance with me anyhow.
Of course, I dance with not just my friends but everyone: the group of young female grad students who are the first on the floor, the older guys who actually know some steps, my roommate, people on my panel, the guy I sat near at lunch, and strangers I don't even remember seeing at the conference. I feel it's my responsibility to pull the shy guys away from the bar and get them out onto the dance floor. You can tell when someone really wants to dance and just needs a little urging.
I love the energy of a crowded dance floor, where grad students teach cool moves to tenured professors, and long-time friends smile to each other as they twirl about. The nametags come off, and the academic hierarchy gets subverted. Even the most stuffy academic will loosen up after he's had a few drinks, taken off the tie, and jumped out in front of the band.
At a dance, you can see a new side to old friends. Take ShaNaNa Guy, for example. At lunch, I'd watched him accept a plaque for his contributions to this academic conference. At an afternoon session, I'd listened to him "interrogate the ongoing shift in biological paradigms towards a mind-set attuned toward systematic processes." But that night, he took off his button-down shirt, picked up the bass, and sang into the mike. He'd intended to play just a song or two, but he hit it off with the band, and ended up playing every set. He's been an academic for decades now, but a musician even longer (he was only 19 when he played Woodstock), and it was clear from watching him that music was his first love.
Dancing builds community. No matter how much I might bond with my friends over books and ideas, no matter how many long geeky conversations we might have over lunch, no matter what exciting plenary sessions we attend or sights we see in the host city, the conference dance is when we come together, without nametags or powerpoint or pin-striped blazers, to just act like humans who enjoy being together. It's a great way to end a conference.