Dancing on the Roof

(Written in haste on the morning of 27th March.)

She is dancing on the roof. I am watching a stranger dance, at a distance, across the rooftops of other buildings, from the window of a house in Bristol. She is on the tiles, a strange awkward stepping dance with 90 degree turns, stepping over the backbone of the roof.

But I am not there watching her, I am watching a video, recorded earlier, posted on social media by Helen. I am in lockdown, in isolation, in my house many miles away, practicing social distancing.

And it only ‘looks’ like she is on the tiles. On closer examination she is on a flat roof, doing step aerobics. But appearances matter; the distinction between what we see and what is happening can be no distinction at all, especially now:

At any moment she will fall off.
And yet all the time she is safe.
As she dances this is Art.
And yet all the time this is ordinary.
At any moment the roof will collapse.
As she dances, she might yet fly.
And so this moment is extraordinary.

Matthew Goulish has said that Culture is the formation of attention; and so, her dance, as I see it, is Culture in the moment of Covid-19. A broadcasted, site-specific, risky little appropriated dance. An intersection of ideals, aesthetics, politics and the ordinary; and a suspension and transgression of rules of space and time and body. It is also a fiction, an illusion: A performance of the thing we cannot have – a live performance.

(It was the best of times it was the worst of times…)

In ‘A Paradise Built in Hell’ Rebecca Solnit argues that disasters are generative, they allow for small temporary Utopias, spaces for progress. It is only in our current crisis, that the roof dance appears. I agree, but even so I feel survivor guilt, it seems distasteful to say right now, ‘We can learn something from this’ while people are still dying, while people have not yet learnt to stay inside. I also think there is nothing to learn – only to remember. We already know how to be kind, to take care, how to be selfless. As Sven Lindqvist says in ‘Exterminate all the Brutes’ – “It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions”.

This is a critique of culture: that it is just a rationalisation and ‘making pretty’ of our actions. That as Claire Dederer argues, one way or another, all art is monstrous. But I won’t believe that entirely, as last night we all stepped outside of our houses to give the workers of the NHS a round of applause. To extend Solnit’s argument – Culture is also Hope, wishful thinking, the expression of what we do not have, and the summoning of will, for the effort to reach for something we do not have.

While I write this my son is drawing in his bedroom, my daughter is downstairs, my wife is working for the NHS. I am alone, but I also have on my phone a live feed to Nic, who is playing music from his home in London. I can see all the comments of others listening. I am not socially distanced at all. I am close to everyone.

Just before complete lockdown Grandma arrives outside the house, she has come with a small delivery of books for the children. We talk from the upstairs window, to her on our lawn below. Long ago a village with the plague isolated themselves, and people left food for them at the boundary to the village. Today the healthy have isolated themselves. I am not trapped in my house, she is trapped outside, but she has had the courage to be generous.

I watch the video of the roof dance again. Try to imagine it with me now. Can you see her dancing on the roof? Good. Soon we will all be dancing, just like that.

Thanks to: Helen Cole, Nic Anderson, and Caroline Francis.


Claire Dederer (2017) ‘What do we do with the Art of Monstrous Men’ The Paris Review.
Matthew Goulish (2003) Exhibition notes for Live Culture at Tate Modern – Paraphrased from memory.
Sven Lindqvist (2018) ‘Exterminate all the Brutes’ Granta
Rebecca Solnit (2010) ‘A Paradise Built in Hell’ Random House

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