Theresa May has a tough job.
In addition to guiding the UK through the unprecedented and arguably un-winnable task of leaving the EU, she keeps having her dancing scrutinized by the public. It happened on her visit to South Africa, among adorable school children no less. And today, on stage at the Tory Party conference, she briefly bopped to the tune of ABBA’s disco classic “Dancing Queen.”
The Twitterati pointed out that the song choice was a self-referential nod to her stomping in South Africa; they disagreed on whether that move was clever or cringeworthy. But either way, because we live in the year 2018, May’s spontaneous dance was meme-ified and pilloried on Twitter within seconds. (After the South Africa incident, the Guardian pondered whether May’s moves were a “threat to international diplomacy.”)
But why do we find it so strange when top politicians try to get down? It’s a question worth examining, in British culture, where the quality of stiffness is often associated with respectability. What with those “stiff upper lips” and “strong and stable” slogans, this is not a nation that fancies itself fluid and light-footed. Everyday Brits don’t pride themselves much on dancing, either: A 2016 YouGov poll found that just 10% of Britons describe themselves as “good or great” dancers.
Even outside of the UK, stiffness often functions as a shorthand for power. Think of the suits that politicians wear, their rigid posture behind bulky podiums, and their remarkably narrow range of socially acceptable gestures or movements. (When was the last time you saw an American or European head of state sit cross-legged on the ground?) It’s part of the reason Barack Obama seemed such an outlier as a president, whether he was grooving to Stevie Wonder or sinking a jump shot alongside former NBA players.
Psychiatrist and trauma researcher Bessel Van Der Kolk has studied the effects that movement and “embodiment” have on our mental and physical health, as well as the differences among countries and cultures when it comes to movement. In an 2014 interview with Krista Tippett, he argues that a lack of physicality is associated with status in some cultures.
Western culture is astoundingly disembodied and uniquely so. Because of my work, I’ve been to South Africa quite a few times and China and Japan and India. You see that [Europeans and North Americans] are much more disembodied….North American culture continues to continue that notion. If you feel bad, just take a swig or take a pill. And the notion that you can do [physical] things to change the harmony inside of yourself is just not something that we teach in schools and in our culture, in our churches, in our religious practices. And, of course, if you look at religions around the world, they always start with dancing, moving, singing…Physical experiences. And then [in the West] the more respectable people become, the more stiff they become somehow.
While he uses a somewhat nebulous and arguably problematic term—”the West”—as differentiator, it’s true that movement norms vary around the world. Consider how much more sitting a person tends to do in high-status, high-income professions. Or the fact that many people in developed countries have lost the ability to squat, in part because, as physical therapist Bahram Jam, put it, “we think we’ve evolved past that—but really we’ve devolved away from it.” To a large degree, our culture and lifestyle determines how we move—and then the way we move shapes who we are, and how we are perceived.
So sure, Theresa May is probably not going to win the UK’s Strictly Come Dancing anytime soon. But most other UK politicians would probably find themselves dancing the exact same way. So if you’re going to critique her, focus on Brexit—not her moves.