They’re Dancing in the Streets

On blistering hot days, American city kids like to cool off by opening up the fire hydrants and dancing in and out of the water jets. Songwriter William “Mickey” Stevenson saw them doing this one summer in Detroit. It gave him the idea for the song: “Dancing In The Street.”

The song (written in conjunction with Marvin Gaye and Ivy Jo Hunter) became a classic right from the start when Martha and the Vandellas recorded it in 1964. Since then, many more have covered it: notably the Mamas & the Papas, Van Halen, The Everly Brothers, Grateful Dead, Black Oak Arkansas, The Kinks, and, in an improbable double-act, David Bowie and Mick Jagger. It’s been a hit nearly every time.

So what’s makes the song so popular? Is it the words, the music or the subject? I think it’s all three, but the subject should take most of the credit.

Think about it: what could be more cool? The song was inspired by underprivileged city kids doing something harmless and joyful but nonetheless rebellious and illegal, literally keeping cool as well as being cool. Now, on hearing the song, the posh kids in the suburbs — playing in their parents’ swimming pools — want to do the same. They want to dance in the street.

Great Subject, Whenever
Whenever it happens, dancing in the street is a great subject for the street photographer. Normally a place of trade, passage, or quiet reflection, the street comes alive when people start dancing in it. For this to occur, some degree of organisation is necessary, as only rarely do people dance spontaneously in places where no one else is even thinking about it.

Dancing and photo ops come thick and fast at street parties, carnivals, and public holidays like Thailand’s Song Kran, or “water throwing” festival. Because water splashing seems to provoke people into dancing, maybe city planners should provide fountains designed specifically for this purpose. The ones we get (at places like Somerset House in London) seem to be purely decorative.

Organised Dancing
A photograph of organised dancing can never be a fully fledged street photo, no matter where you take it. For that, you need to find a spontaneous outbreak of dancing, which certainly happens now and again, although I’ve not yet found anyone who’s chosen to dance in front of an uncluttered background.

However, there’s one big advantage of an organised event: people expect you to take photographs, so you can bring out your biggest and best lens, such as a heavy zoom. On these occasions, zooms can be ideal, even essential. And unlike attending an indoor performance in a theatre, you can walk around the subject and find the best composition.

My featured image (above) is a shot I took when a salsa dancing club held a session in our local park. I was expecting to get at least a dozen good shots, but the subject proved to be more difficult than I anticipated, despite the advantages I’ve mentioned.

Why? Because many of the dancers were beginners, the background was cluttered, and the light was too strong. However, two of the dancers were terrific — and seemed to retain the spontaneity which is so easily lost when performers are trying to impress an audience. I hope my picture caught some of their grace and informality.

In Costume, Too
A performance by some costumed dancers at another local event (below) was more formal — but the setting made up for it by being overwhelmingly urban. Does this bring it closer to being a street photo, in spite of the fancy dress? I don’t think it does, but the town’s name, writ large, leaves no doubt about the location.

As far as I’m concerned, I don’t care if the dancing is organised (as above) or disorganised (as below), if someone’s dancing in the street I’ll take their picture.

“Callin’ out around the world,
Are you ready for a brand new beat?
Summer’s here and the time is right
For dancin’ in the street.”

(They were still doing it in February, in London’s Leicester Square, below).

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