No one dances sober.
The last time I went to club with the intention to dance the night away was three years ago. I ended up waiting in line in -30°C weather, starting at 11 o’clock, in a not-so-good part of town with a couple of friends. I was wearing heeled sandals. The club had double-booked itself for two separate conventions, so there was absolutely no way we were going to get in; we stuck it out for two hours and then called it a night. I had to put my feet in the bathtub and run tepid water over them to get rid of the minor frostbite I’d developed. It was not my finest hour.
It’s been my experience that European and American teenagers have only-slightly-overlapping ideas of how to party. For one, alcohol is a whole lot more readily accessible in Europe, and it’s (usually) less likely to get you arrested / cited / sent home to your mummy in drunken shame. This means that EuroTeens don’t feel the need to slurp down every last drop of beer in one go. Americans, on the other hand, seem to be of the rather dangerous opinion that it’s a really good idea to finish off that vodka within the first five minutes, lest they be caught in flagrante delicto by the po-po–and hey, that makes room on the table for the rum (which only lasts two). This is the reason why binge drinking accounts for about 90% of underage drinking in the United States.
(I am not commenting on the “right” legal drinking age. Whether a soldier who’s old enough to die for his country should be old enough to drink in his country [which isn’t a great argument; it’s advocating giving alcohol to people with very big guns] is not really something I’ve got an intransigent stance on. Some countries do it one way. Other countries do it differently. They both have problems. Don’t drink and drive, kids.)
Case in point: I am an American who attended a Canadian university for my undergraduate studies. The province in which I lived had a legal drinking age of 18. This meant that “Frosh Week,” where new students tried to look sophisticated and savvy while frantically forming friendships and trying to get their cell phones to display stuff in English, involved a whole lot of really cheap-tasting (but free) beer. You signed up for orientation activities and in turn you were handed a tall plastic mug; this could be refilled as many times as you wanted while supplies lasted. (There is a reason my school was on Playboy’s Top Ten Party Schools In North America list that year.)
Although everyone had the same goal (complete inebriation), it was really easy to distinguish the American from everybody else. The Canadians, Australians, and Europeans (who’d all been more freely exposed to alcohol) casually sipped their beers, the Asians (whose alcohol tolerance depends more on their genome than on legalities) stopped after the first two, and the Americans–well, the Americans spent most of their time in the beer tent line with as many mugs in their hands as they could carry/borrow from their fellow drinkers. As soon as they got their refills, the Americans would go back to the end of the line and start chugging; by the time they’d reached the front again, all five mugs would be empty and the cycle would repeat.
(I’ve got a high tolerance for alcohol when it comes to intoxication but a fairly low one when it comes to taste–I hate beer. It’s gross. Yuck-ola. This aversion probably has its origins in the cute Italian boy who asked me out on a late-night date when I was 18 and spent three hours trying to persuade me to stop in at his apartment for a bit. Yeah, right. I’m American, not stupid, and no they’re not always synonymous. Anyways, he’d had a beer or three before he picked me up at my hotel, and he had no idea how to kiss–nor did he seem to have grasp of the social cues that indicate an unwillingness to continue or advance in romantic situations–so we ended up walking in circles around Rome for two and a half hours. I guess I just associate the taste of beer with bad kissing and obnoxious guys now.)
I’m not basing these observations solely on week-long collegiate bonding rituals: I’ve lived in two European countries (Italy and England) and traveled around several more, so I know just how easy it is to get alcohol there, as a minor or otherwise. Ostensibly they card; in reality, a low-cut shirt and a flirty smile gets you way farther than an I.D. ever will. I’m not a huge drinker–like I said, I don’t really like the taste–but I got to watch all of the Americans on my high school exchange program get completely sh*tfaced at every opportunity while in Italy. And then they’d create opportunities when none presented itself. The Mormon girl and I just hung out with the kids from Finland and Japan who were much less fascinated by drinking and far more enthralled by authentic Italian cooking.
(I only got carded once in England, and that was when I was 22. The bar was almost completely deserted and the bartender clearly had nothing better to do than ask for identification. He was only momentarily confused by the American driver’s license and military I.D. that my 25-year-old friend and I pulled out. The drinking age is 18. It’s a university town. All of the undergraduates had cleared out for the summer. I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or insulted that he thought I was underage.)
This more lackadaisical approach to alcohol means that Europeans actually spend their time at clubs dancing and socializing, rather than bingeing. By “socializing,” of course, I mean “trying to hook up with the cutest stranger around,” because it’s a universal truth that if teenagers aren’t looking to score some booze then they’re looking to score elsewhere. As one ages, this obsession dies down–at least in public–and subtlety takes the place of desperation, but from about 16 to 22 it’s pretty safe to say that if you’re in a European “disco,” you aren’t there to get your groove on out on the dance floor. It’s not that alcohol doesn’t play a big part in EuroPartying–it totally does–but it’s less of a focus than it is in its American counterpart.
I don’t think I’ve actually gone dancing in an American nightclub, now that I think about it. I went in Canada and I went once or twice in Italy as a high schooler. In England I mostly stuck to pubs and cocktail parties–yeah, my university regularly held events that required cocktail dresses and evening gowns. We’re such nerds–although I once went to a club to listen to one of my flatmates play in his band. And, of course, I was in the Boat Club (BrEng–>AmEng translation: I did crew and they had raucous parties at least once a term), which meant that I got to sip orange juice and watch my fellow rowers get completely soused. (A “boat race”–not to be confused with an actual regatta–was the party game of choice: you line up two boats [8 rowers + 1 coxswain each] on either side of a table with a full SOLO cup and, starting from the bow seat and steadily progressing towards stroke, they sequentially chug. Ostensibly the point was to see which team could finish all nine drinks first; in reality, the objective was to get everyone really intoxicated really quickly.)
There wasn’t a whole lot of dancing going on, though. I’ve been to jazz clubs and bars in the U.S., and I may have hit up a Beijing bar once or twice when I lived there, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never done the “clubbing” thing in the United States.
And it’s not that I don’t like dancing–I totally do. I did ballet for five years, four of which en pointe. But even beyond that, there’s something concupiscent–almost chimerical–about a rhythm that electrifies your body and pulses through your limbs until you’re undulating to a beat that pounds through your blood and quells your logic. And a whole lot of good dancing is having a good partner; you can’t have one of those grabby guys who stands there and bobs his knees up and down to the music in his head. (You know, those guys: they’re cocky and presumptuous, just good-looking enough to not be ugly but not enough to be attractive, perpetually single with good reason, and always seem to be wearing a mesh tank top.)
I’m actually not a drinker at all–family functions and reunions excepted, of course–so it’s kind of a mystery how I ended up at a major party school for three years and then joined an athletic team with major party proclivities. (I’m also not athletic, which makes the last an even bigger enigma.) Most of the time, I contented myself with being a spectator to the epic sh*tshow that was my peers. Most of the time, it was funny. But it resulted in a lot of sitting down on the sidelines, because as much as I love dancing, there’s not a whole lot of fun to be found in fending off drunken 20-somethings who inevitably spill their beer on your best dress/expensive shoes/Really Great Hair Day.
It’s always awkward to be the sober one, though. If I say, “no thanks, I’ve had one already,” that means someone will press a fresh drink into my hands. (Aside from the desire to not spend the evening puking, I wouldn’t accept an open drink from anyone but the bartender. What a waste.) If I say, “no thanks, I’m not drinking tonight,” someone will ask “why?” in a really loud voice (since they’re already wasted, of course), and “I don’t feel like it” doesn’t ever seem to be the response they’re expecting. (That particular refusal also seems to encourage people to squint stealthily at my stomach, or as stealthily as possible after five beers and a vodka orange, as if I’d suddenly ballooned out into pregnancy without their notice. That’s the main reason I shied away from letting people know I was sober and intending to stay that way.)
If you’re not holding a glass, people think you need one; if you’re holding one, people want you to drink it. My very clever standby was to ask the bartender for a sparkling apple juice, which for some reason all English pubs seem to carry, and pour it in a cup before rejoining my fellow students/flatmates/rowers/friends.
To the inebriated mind, this looks just like beer.