This post starts, as so many do, with a confession: I have recently become a dancer in the dark. No, this does not have any great metaphorical meaning, nor is it a reference to Lars von Trier’s millennial masterpiece. Of late, I have literally and physically been turning off the lights in my kitchen cum dining room cum living room, perching my headphones around my ears and careering around to the various tempos of my iPod. Sometimes I do it wearing socks, sliding up and down to the rhythms of new wave indie pop, and sometimes I go barefoot and pogo to the discordant beats of classic punk. More often than not, however, I just hit random and see where the mood takes me. This lasts anywhere from thirty seconds to a full hour, and seeing as my housemate has recently disappeared back to the mysterious climes of Gloucestershire, I anticipate doing it much more over the next few weeks.
Three facts about me are pertinent here. First, I am not a good dancer, no, not a good dancer in the slightest. I have little to zero sense of rhythm. Case in point: I went out in Leamington a few weekends back, determined to shake my stuff to the best of my ability. The whole debacle was slightly shattered when a stranger at the bar told me that I danced as if I was wearing high heels and I was worried I might fall over at any point. My sister once told me to dance as if no-one were watching, but I dance like the floor is slowly melting around me.
Secondly, I have form when it comes to dancing in the dark. In the summer of 2008, I used to cycle back from Cambridge late at night (to my eternal shame, without lights, the sound of my clunking unoiled chain my only company), and then, hyped up from who-knows-what, I would boogie in the backyard, behind my father’s studio. Sometimes the cats would come and watch me, and perhaps wonder why I was moving as if there were a wasp trapped beneath my clothes.
Third and finally, I am not averse to dancing with others. As already mentioned, I will go out and get down without any concern but my own inabilities, and I recently had a very moving episode where some friends taught me how to tango (after a few neat whiskies, I should add) at two in the morning. My sister and I have even devised a signature Bray-family move, and even if our parents refuse to participate in the genealogical choreography, we plan to perfect it step by faltering step.
If you've ever wondered like I look like when dancing, then wonder no more.
But why, you might wonder, am I telling you all this? What could my penchant for going footloose away from the lights have to do with PhD life? Why, the audience murmurs, is he dancing around the topic?
Aside from my newfound love for dancing in the half-light, I have also been pulling a few late nights recently. Not the extraordinary undergraduate ‘one-more-Red-Bull-™-and-I-pass-out’ kind of late, but certainly the kind where I am sat alone in the office, a single lamp illuminating my notes, only to glance at my watch and think ‘My, is that the time? I should cycle home while I can still balance on two wheels.’ These late-night sessions, on a campus which is politely humming with people coming and going outside my window, have been something of a revelation. There I am, just me and my research trying to produce something better than ourselves, the spotlight from the Ikea lamp (which I bought from my Mexican neighbours, so it always reminds me of drinking their very expensive coffee whilst playing darts) and the incoming Premier League results (I have taken to Fantasy Football like a duck to water, or like Alan Shearer to punditry) my only company.
I have talked in the past of how the PhD needs to be a social experience, how there must be a component of discussing ideas, mistakes, and revelations. I stand by this, and I always will: for me, there is nothing like presenting a paper at a conference and seeing people’s faces light up with excitement. But there are also moments, as I have recently discovered, where losing oneself in the strange and wonderful world of your own research, seeing all the pieces come together and watching an argument, really quite a good argument, emerging from your computer screen, is a deep and personal pleasure. You’ll sometimes slip, of course you will, and sometimes you’ll miss the beat and the break-down. You may doubt your ability to do this again, putting this flight of fancy down to luck, kismet, serendipity. But you will enjoy it in the here and now, this peculiar strain of brain-tango.
In the darkened office, your mind is dancing. There is no-one to watch you, no-one to applaud, but you don’t need anyone else to recognise what’s happening. You can’t wait to show off your moves. For the first time since I learnt to solve quadratic equations and perform a backhand winner on the tennis court (they did indeed happen on the same day, almost twelve years ago), I am making friends and sharing abstract pitchers with the technicolor ramblings of my fevered mind. It’s quite the sensation.
P.S. As a last minute aside, I want to share the most terrifying thing which ever happened to me whilst discussing the joys of academia. My mother did a PhD herself when I was in my mid-teens, so we’ll often trade experiences. Once, when I was ruminating on the pleasures of chasing an idea through to its conclusion, my mother chipped in with the immortal phrase, “Oh, Tom, it’s an amazing feeling, it’s almost like…(long pause)…almost like sex.” Thanks Mum, that was an easy image to get out of my head during late nights in the office.