Lionel Popkin's 50-minute piece "There is An Elephant in This Dance" blew my mind on Sunday. Check out this LA times review by Victoria Looseleaf. (That's her real name? Wow.)
I'd like to draw your attention to the fact that There is A Snake in this Photo. We'll return to that. During Popkin's "Elephant," one dance refrain, repeated to the point of comedy, was the placing of a finger in the mouth. Specifically, a woman placing her finger in Popkin's mouth, and him accepting it, then trying to push it away, then accepting it, then pushing it away. When he tried to put his finger in her mouth, he was rebuffed effectively. I could write many paragraphs about how this triggered some rumination on gender-power-dynamics.
What I'd rather focus on, though, is how odd it was to see someone putting their hand in someone else's mouth, in public. At another point in the piece, one of Popkin's other dancers licked his own hand, sniffed it, then licked it again. I was delighted. I was reminded of The Toledo Show, with which I performed for three years. The frontman, Toledo, often used to hook his thumb in a dancer's mouth and pull her up from the floor in an incredibly sour-tasting, sexy display of force. We'd come backstage ecstatic, and spitting.
I remember being a pre-teen, watching some rated-R movie with my dad, and feeling utterly confused by a scene involving a woman licking a man's fingers.
"What's she doing that for?" I asked Dad.
"It's sort of a way to say, 'I think you're sexy,'" he answered.
I thought this was preposterous.
The Purell Generation would agree--albeit for different reasons. Pre-adolescence, I was unaware of the nuances of sexual communication. The Purell Generation simply thinks bodies, but hands especially, are dirty. I suppose it's true, in a throw-everything-under-the-UV-light way. But I realized watching Popkin's piece that one of the great attractions to dance, for me, is not only the fundamental sense of powerful embodiment dancers develop, but their lack of squeamishness about things such as dirty hands, farts, blisters, bad breath, etc. This is why I love reading Henry Miller. This is why I like self-proclaimed "Butt Men" over "Boob Men," if a man must fetishize female parts. This is why working with young kids is a joy.
I recently met The Nightwatchman--aka Tom Morello, a powerhouse songwriting guitarist who spends a good deal of his time being a political radical. He's fighting the good fight HARD. He's also stunningly gracious to his fans--most of whom are men, he says--in the way of handshakes, back thumps, and photos. He carries a small bottle of Purell in his pocket.
"Are you serious?" I asked him, about the Purell.
"Hell yeah!" he said. "Do you know how many hot, wet man-hands are on me every night?"
"It sounds like working at a strip club," I said.
"Possibly," he said.
And so I return to the issue of "gross" as I have many times returned to the issue of "fun." I think "gross" is a lie. This is not to say that some evolutionary biologist couldn't describe for me how, when someone near me vomits, I also feel the urge to vomit because in prehistory we all were eating the same poison berries together. (Morello's Purell is mostly comedy, to me, as I imagine someone like Mick Jagger developing a hand-washing compulsion in the 1970s.)
Freud already did so much of the work for us here: everything human that is "gross" in visible culture has a special area of porn devoted to it--fat, puke, feet, shit, and so on. What I'm talking about is something much more subtle--a cultural delineation of objects of disgust that are arbitrary and sometimes deeply irrational. Most people have no idea what is actually "dirty" in their lives. They touch money, which is much nastier under a UV-light than most human hands, with impunity. They think restaurant food is "clean." They have mass aversion to certain textures, too, which is one of the weirder manifestations of this cultural phenomenon of "gross." Take snakes, for instance. I like touching them! I used to hate touching rat tails. Now I like them too!
What if Lionel Popkin wanted to make the "Elephant" dance but couldn't, because he didn't like feet?
I have an embarrassing, insane, patently prudish disgust-response to the sound of chewing. I really believe that once I figure out why I want to punch people when they eat too loud, I'll be cured of "gross" forever!