Full Participation

My friend Anderson and I have created a tradition of visiting Harbin Hot Springs about once a month. It’s a hippie-fueled nudist hot springs resort. The cafeteria serves really good healthy food, the library is a nice quiet place to catch up on reading, and the sun deck is a nice place to sit out and get your vitamin D. What draws me, though, are the large warm pools and the lack of internet access, a combination which conspires to give me a chance to stare off into space and ponder things.

Harbin also hosts events every day, most of them reaching so high into the hippie scale that I can’t imagine showing up for them. Last week was an “unconditional dance party”, which I’m told is a room full of free spirits dancing around as bizarrely as possible. Needless to say, I watched the clock carefully to make sure that we were busy during the hours of the dance, so that there would be no chance of attending it.

When I brought it up to Anderson, he told me a story:

Some of us, including his girlfriend, went to Bay to Breakers, an annual foot race / citywide party which is characterized by blisteringly fast Africans running and drunk revelers in furry costumes walking down the racecourse.

We were neither running nor costumed, which ended up causing a bit of a situation. When Anderson’s girlfriend spotted some friends getting drunk and marching around in costumes, she left us to hang out with them. When he asked her about it later, she told him that she didn’t want to spectate; she wanted to participate. We weren’t part of the event like her friends, we were just watching it pass by.

This affected him, because he realized that it was true. So, he told me, he didn’t really want to go to the dance either, but if he did go, I could count on him dancing as hard as anyone else. Full participation.

I sat in the large pool after hearing that and pondered it. When I travel I’m never content to spectate. I always participate as fully as possible. Back in the homeland, though, I do sometimes just spectate. I decided that I would make a point to recognize the difference and act accordingly.

My opportunity to do so came sooner than expected, at an event called the Superhero Street fair. My friends were all going to the event, and I had joined with no knowledge beyond the fact that I’d get to make and wear a cape. When we showed up, I realized that I had just paid to get into a techno dance party. Four stages with an equal amount of DJs blasted out electronic music to the schools of people clustered around them.

Full participation would mean dancing.

I have an uneasy relationship with dancing. I had never danced until one night on a cruise ship in 2006. My friend dragged me to the ship’s nightclub, and a pair of girls we’d befriended were dragging me onto the dance floor. They had exceeded the amount of prodding that was polite, and I was nearing the limit of polite refusal. And there was one more factor at work: on the stage was a guy named Sean who was the worst dancer ever recorded. His movements assaulted the music and insulted the rhythm. He stationed himself at the front corner of the stage in his sweat stained polo shirt and danced as hard as a human could dance. I knew that even if I was a terrible dancer, all eyes would be on Sean.

So I danced. And it was fun. Lots of fun. At the end of the night the last girl left the dance floor, and only Sean and I remained. We awkwardly finished out the song and went back to our rooms, both happy to have danced. Something about this event happening away from everyone I knew, save my friend, and in the middle of the ocean, made it feel like a secret. I never danced again, even though I knew how much I enjoyed it.

But there I was, at the Superhero Street Fair, with Anderson’s words of full participation ringing freshly in my ears. I saw the spectators standing off in the edges, making fun of the dancers, and could see that they were having far less than the dancers. Anderson and Todd were in the middle of the dance floor, flailing around with giant smiles on their faces.

Full participation.

I’d like to say that I gave it some thought and decided that dancing was the right move, but I didn’t. My body acted on my subconscious’ authority, not mine. As I thrust my hands into the air, clutched them into fists, and pulled them down to my hips while smashing forward with a pelvic thrust, I thought, “Uh oh. I guess I’m dancing.”

Once I pelvic-thrusted across that point of no return, I danced the night away. I left with blisters. Score one for full participation.

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