I sat at a table in a grand old dance hall in the heart of Edinburgh’s “New Town.” But even Edinburgh’s New Town dates back to the Georgian 18th Century, and…at least to the eyes of an American who cut her eye-teeth on rugged individualism…the Scots’ rather tribal way of socializing dates further back than that.
I sat at a table with the group of people I’d come with, somewhat huddled together as if still outside and seeking shelter from the blustery Edinburgh “summer.” We’d arrived early, so had plenty of opportunity to observe the arrival of others.
It seemed strange to my American eye that no one appeared to arrive singly or even very often as couples. Only whole groups came crashing in, as blustery as the weather outside, to pick a territory they quickly secured for themselves. When the dancing began no one danced with anyone outside their own group, even if the man-woman ratio wasn’t favorable. So there I was, dancing with another woman from my table, wondering if Scotland’s low population growth might have something to do with exclusionary courting rituals.
On the plus side, everyone .within a group was accommodated and cared for. Here the less socially adept and the physically challenged were treated with equality and respect. Truth be told, they might well have been deserted on the sidelines in my country…where so many people would have arrived individually or in smaller groups with no sense of obligation to accommodate others. I felt I was witnessing the social solidarity in Scotland that had run so counter to Margaret Thatcher’s allowing the heartless loss of jobs through ruthless capitalism.
Finally, as the evening wore on, I did see some intermixing: some men from another group approached and spoke to our group. But there was something slightly bristly about it, as if all were prepared to fight at a moment’s notice should the pleasantries go south.
In the midst of this…oh miracle of miracles…I spotted one blazing exception: a young woman dancing alone.
She had a grace and a sensuous, free-spirited style of dancing that made me think a tree nymph had come in from the woods. Or at least that the clock had been turned back to somewhere in the 1960s. Even the way she upended glass after glass of whatever she was drinking spoke more to me of a Pan-like sensuality whilst darting about under a full moon than, say, under a bare lightbulb in some sordid, dime-a-dance-romance hall.
She danced every dance, always alone. She only paused as briefly as possible to upend the last drink and order the next. Lights swirled across the dance floor, confusing my vision…or perhaps enhancing my insight. As I watched her, I started to imagine the lights were headlights. Could I just barely make out the air horns of large trucks rushing through dangerous mountain passes to meet heartless delivery deadlines? Or was the moody swirl on that dance floor the steam of some massive engine hurrying a train over a treacherous gorge?
What was she running from?
Heartbreak. It had to be.
I could feel it in my bones: The one absolute in her every move was a determination so strong if could only be the determination not to feel unbearable pain. Losing herself in the sensuality of her dancing, and never stopping dancing, was…like breathing…the only way she knew to survive.
Then she was gone. I hadn’t seen her leave. A man with the group I was with told me the lone dancer had finally been kicked out of the place…after it wrote her “peculiar behaviour” off to being high on drugs. This American, rugged individualist, thinks that…in Edinburgh…her real crime was being alone.