INTERVIEW. “Dancing at the ball, a very lively popular culture”

The 14th of July ball is not quite like the balls where thousands of French people go to dance every week. This is what explains the sociologist, specialist in couple dances, and himself a tango dancer, Christophe Apprill. He is the author of The prom worlds, at the Paris Nanterre University Press. And publish soon Slow: desire and disillusion, at the Harmattan.

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Christophe Apprill. © DR

Go dancing at the ball in the wind in its sails?

After having been out of date for a while, between the 1960s and 1980s, the ball experienced a revival. But it has become “monomaniac”: salsa ball, tango evening, country evening, traditional ball, fest-noz, folk ball, rave-party… The July 14 ball is something else. It’s a somewhat folkloric ball, where we officially celebrate a National Day. People come to “dance”. It’s a more festive ball. The important thing is not so much to dance as to find oneself.

Are there many ballroom dancers?

Very. There may be one, two, or even three million dancers every week. It is considerable. But surprisingly, the ball is hardly taken into account by the public authorities. It is not a political object.

We have statistics from the Ministry of Youth and Sports on sports activities, statistics from the Ministry of Culture on attendance at museums, theaters, etc. But not on prom practitioners. The ball is considered a subculture. It is not part of scholarly culture. But it’s a real popular culture.

“The ball is a space of touch”

For what reasons is it discredited?

One hypothesis: the ball has become invisible, because it has been replaced by a form of official culture which is that of contemporary dance: dancing bodies on a stage, according to an official technique. While all year round, very lively forms of prom are held every week in France, without any visibility.

What happens at popular balls?

The ball is an assembly of people dancing. What occupies all the space at the ball is the movement of the bodies and the relationships that are woven between these bodies. The ball is a space without words.

It is also a space of touch. But touching, in our Western societies, is taboo, a fortiori, in the current health context. At the ball, we touch each other. We take each other by the hand in collective dances, we embrace each other in couple dances, we brush against each other in solo dances. We touch the other and we are touched.

“Dancing at the ball feeds the imagination”

What are we looking for at the ball?

There is the pleasure of dancing, and also the pleasure of meeting people. That’s what those who go to the ball say. But a third element is omnipresent, it is a kind of low intensity trance, which is also found in sports activity.

People do not go into a trance, but find themselves in a slightly altered state of consciousness, in a bodily and psychic state where suddenly everything is taken for granted, everything is easy, nothing is calculated any more. There is a kind of surrender to the present state. It is a kind of very fine, very intense perception of the present moment, in the presence of the body of the other.

It is a completely marvelous state, which one does not meet every night. It mobilizes all the senses, except taste. And proprioception, this 6e meaning, the one that makes us feel, for example, a drop under our feet, etc.

Is the ball a meeting place?

It was a “marriage institution” until the 1970s, but this is no longer the case. French people first meet in the workplace.

On the other hand, the ball is a place where the dancers will find contact with other bodies that cannot happen elsewhere. And then there is this somewhat taboo dimension that nobody talks about: the ball is an erotic staging. There is an eroticization of the bodies, a circulation of desire at the ball, which is not only sexual.

Very powerful energies are expressed there, in a collective movement but in an improvised way. Dancing at the ball feeds the imagination, brings fantasies to life, circulates desire.

“At the ball, the men have the good role”

By depriving us of a ball, what is the health crisis depriving us of?

The Covid crisis comes to reinforce the civilization of the screen which has imposed itself since the 2000s. So this possibility of experiencing things virtually, in terms of entertainment, games, exchanges …

The ball, among other activities, is a time when one can escape this omnipresence of virtuality. It is a space of touch that adults lack. It puts us back on the same level in a corporeality, which, in many social situations, is today put aside.

Are men and women equal at the ball?

It is a subject of controversy for prom practitioners. Traditionally, we say “the man guides, the woman follows”, which is very violent. In reality, in couple dances, the man proposes the first movement, but then there is reciprocal listening, it is much more egalitarian.

The protocol of the invitation, inherited from the XIXe century, which belongs to men, is also defeated, but not everywhere. In addition, as there are often more women, it is they who are called upon to “make wallpaper”.

And then there is age: the dancers, at the ball, are “devalued” much more than the men who, on the contrary, increase in value with age. At the ball, the men have the beautiful role. For these reasons, the ball remains, from my point of view, a place of male domination. The dances are, moreover, essentially heterosexual dances.

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