I NEVER MET the dancing man. I watched him plenty of times in a Hobart mall, but not once did I shake his hand or ask him his name. He was just the dancing man. I suppose, though, without ever speaking to each other, we had a friendship of sorts. Each day when I walked past him on my way to work I would smile and nod. I never could tell if his head-wobble and body-shake in reply was a reciprocal greeting or just another wacky dance move, but he always seemed to boogie with an extra burst of enthusiasm when I went by. I liked to think the additional little flurry was an acknowledgment of my presence. And I liked to think this was how he communicated with the world.
The mall was much like any other mall in Australia: a busy sliver of garish consumerism ripping through a city block. Full of chain stores and smoking teenagers and anxious-looking old folks walking their wares in tartan-covered carts. To most, the mall was simply a place to shop and sit and enjoy the one hundred metres of respite from the cars grinding impatiently through the streets. To the dancing man, however, the mall was a stage.
Each day he arrived there wearing an ill-fitting tracksuit and worn-out running shoes and he positioned himself next to the speakers blasting Top Forty tunes from the music store. He made sure he wasn't too close to the front door. He knew that the staff and some customers didn't like the look of him – not with his crazy beard and hair and his wild eyes. He was aware of what would happen if he overstepped the mark and deterred a potential customer from buying something. At a safe distance, he took off his shoes, placed them neatly next to his bag, stretched for a brief minute and then the dance spectacular began.
TO WATCH THE dancing man dance was to witness a man unleashed from the constraints of the world. It was a frenzied, untamed affair. Arms and legs, hips and fingers flailed wildly. He popped and pumped and twisted and jived like a shopping bag caught in a strong breeze. Just when you thought he'd come to land back on earth, another gust would grab him and propel him back into orbit. It wasn't dancing like nobody was watching. It was dancing like nobody ever existed. It was unbridled and joyful. It was pure genius and absolutely insane.
He danced in this way in the mall almost every weekday. He was dedicated to his work. He didn't speak, he didn't get in anyone's way, he didn't ask for money. In fact, whenever someone placed a coin in front of him he would pick it up and politely hand it back. He just wanted to dance. Even when people walked past and yelled at him, called him a bum and spat at his feet, he kept looking straight ahead, never blinking, and danced.
While most people saw him as a lunatic to be avoided and spoken about in whispers, a freak who had gone beyond the borders of convention, I was a dedicated fan. To me, he was a measure of sanity in a world turned upside down. I imagined that he was so confounded by the dumb march of progress – the incessant consumption, the panicked rush to work, the blind trust in the status quo – that dancing was his quiet protest against it all. In a way, it helped me navigate the madness that was all around. Through this simple act, he offered a mirror and he gave hope. He danced because, to him, it made more sense than what everyone else was doing. And he was right. But he didn't judge, he didn't fight, he simply danced.
The last time I saw the dancing man I was watching a band play at the Republic Bar in North Hobart. In front of the stage, a mob of punters danced and yelled and spilt drinks on the floor. Outside on the street, I saw the dancing man looking in through the window. Knowing he wouldn't get in past the bouncers, but feeling the urge to move his body, he dropped his things and got down to the business of dancing right there on the footpath, feeling the hum of the music through the walls. A few of the revellers inside raised their glasses to him as he set his limbs flapping in the crisp winter night. Some pointed and laughed. I tried to catch his eye but he kept his gaze on those who were dancing to the music. When the band finished, he gathered his things and walked off into the dark. I never saw him again.
I WASN'T IN town the day the police took the dancing man away. A friend who was there told me he didn't go quietly. 'I'm just dancing!' he screamed, spitting and struggling with the cuffs that shackled him behind his back. Some onlookers booed and hissed, others cheered and said good riddance. I was told the cops dragged him to the paddy wagon. As far as I could tell, dancing was his only crime.
A week later, amongst the news of Australia going to war in Afghanistan, I read that the dancing man had died. He took his own life. Reading that article was the first time I knew his name.
If you go to that same mall all these years later, you'll still hear Top Forty tunes playing from the same music store. Of course, the fast food and the franchises and the jewellery and the junk are still there. And we are still at war.