The Politics of Dancing

“I think that mortality salience is one of those things where you don’t know what it is until you get it,” says Andrew Nelson, a Minneapolis-based artist and musician who came face-to-face with his own mortality while still a teenager. “Once you realize that life is very fragile and you’re not invincible, you start living, not just for now, but to be the best version of yourself you can be.”

Although he still bears scars from the trauma, he says the event has changed his perspective for the better: “It was at that moment that you really realize what you have and what you’ve taken for granted.”

Nelson, 27, was born in South Minneapolis to a psychologist father and a mother who worked in publishing. As a child, he moved with his family to the suburbs, halfway between Chanhassen and Excelsior (“just down the road from Paisley Park”).

After graduating from Minnetonka High School in 2009, Nelson enrolled at Bethel University in St. Paul, planning to pursue a degree in environmental science. However, only one week into his first semester, he was hit by a car.

“I just woke up lying in the street. I tried to stand up, and when I put weight on my leg, it just snapped and went the other way. I witnessed it happening, but I didn’t feel any pain because your body goes into shock. My body’s next response was to crawl on my arms and drag myself out of the road.”

Nelson suffered broken tibia and fibula on both legs, a shattered kneecap, a broken nose and smashed teeth, which required several re-constructive surgeries, titanium implants, and four-and-a-half months in a wheelchair.

“It was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to face. I was on a lot of meds, and really suicidal sometimes. They put you on antipsychotics as a precaution, because they know the kind of depression you go through.”

The months ahead were arduous, and Nelson said the painkillers he was prescribed kept him in an altered state of perception. Eventually, he was able once more to stand on his own two feet.

“Learning to walk again is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and putting weight on your legs again for the first time after muscle atrophy, it’s a scary thing. It’s hard to recover from something like that, but music got me through. I would just have my headphones in and go to physical therapy, and that was life. Music was my only friend.”

Following his recovery, Nelson took up guitar and harmonica and now performs in the improvisational folk-fusion duo Odeology with hip-hop lyricist Sammie Bohme. Having dropped out of Bethel following the accident, Nelson would later graduate from the University of Minnesota in 2016 with a double major in art and design, specializing in kinetic sculpture.

He said the traumatic experience has also inspired him to become a more active participant at live music events.

“Before my accident in 2009, I was very much reserved about dancing. In Minneapolis, everyone goes to a show and tries to look cool. We’re so obsessed with the scene and everything is so self-referential. Everyone’s a critic, and there’s this weird energy I picked up on when I was very young.”

“I remember the first time I went to a show at First Avenue,” said Nelson, “I was out on the dance floor trying to blend in, and I bumped into someone who had a pint of beer, and it’s like, ‘If you’re going on the dancefloor, why would you bring a pint of beer?’ He got really mad at me, so I guess you just don’t dance at shows. It’s this really weird social environment.”

These days, Nelson leaves his self-consciousness at the door when attending local shows, taking every opportunity to show his support for the performers (he has become the de facto hype-man for his friends’ band, The Age of Being Good Together).

What Nelson lacks in grace on the dancefloor, he more than makes up for in spiritedness. The elevated energy, he says, quickly becomes contagious.

“You can’t try to have the best moves, you just have to cut loose, and that way everyone else is on the same page and it spreads. I’ve seen it happen so many times, where once I started doing it, it just opens up and everyone starts doing it, and then all of the sudden the music gets better and it becomes a more encompassing show.”

By showing his support in a visible way, Nelson hopes to shake up the wall of crossed arms and impassive faces that can be an all-too-common sight at Twin Cities music events.

“Going to a show, sitting back and silently judging everything, what does that do to a band? It makes them feel less appreciated, and it definitely affects their performance.”

A culture of passivity, he says, can ultimately only have a detrimental effect on the live music scene.

“When you go to clubs where people are dead against [dancing],” said Nelson, “where it’s just a bunch of crusty punk rockers that don’t wanna move, and it’s all about, ‘Impress me’, just imagine kids going to their first shows. What kind of message does that send? These bands are working their asses off to do something for you, the least you can do is move your feet.”

Nelson views the sensory overload from social media as one reason for crowds with increasingly blasé attitudes.

“I think, because of social media, people understand that dynamic less and less, like, ‘Well, I showed up, that should be enough’. I think it has kind of devalued the effort that goes into actually making something, because everybody is just producing all this effortless content. Someone can put a lot of time into making a piece of art and put it on social media to share, but it’s recognized with the same respect and affection as a selfie.”

Finally, Nelson views crowd participation as a political statement—call it a declaration of principles, made physically manifest.

“We’re in this weird time where there isn’t really a clear path forward for what it means to be an artist,” he said, “and we’re seeing a lot of people just turning away. There’s just a general sense of apathy, not only toward politics, but toward others in our social groups, where there’s just a disconnect and people being more shut-in. When you’re seeing really raw music and talent, those are the people that need support. If you like them, let them know that you like them.”

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