Chorophobia, the fear of dancing, is a real thing

Toronto director travels the world to meet other chorophobes like himself and understand this complex fear

Director Michael Allcock has a problem he’d like to share with the world.  At a Christmas party, he was asked to dance by an attractive coworker. “I knew right there and then that, if I was going to go anywhere with this woman, I needed to get on that dance floor — pronto,” he remembers. “But I couldn’t do it. I stood there, utterly frozen in my tracks. I was simply paralyzed with fear and anxiety.”

Allcock has chorophobia — in Greek, chorós means dance — which is defined as a fear of dancing. He has rarely danced in public since he was a child. “Dancing is supposed to be fun,” he says. “Dancing is supposed to be liberating. Don’t I want to have fun? Don’t I want to feel free? Why can’t I dance? But then I found out I wasn’t alone.”

He decided to turn the camera on himself and go on a global quest to understand why he is so terrified by the simple act of dancing — a story told in the documentary Channel film Fear of Dancing.

Chorophobia is more common than you think

Allcock estimates that there are hundreds of thousands of chorophobes. Among them is British actor and author Stephen Fry. “I really, really, really hate dancing and have not the slightest milligram of envy for those who can do it,” he says.

Another chorophobe Allcock encounters is American singer-songwriter Be Steadwell. She’s even written a song about it.

“The expectation for Black folks and Black women is to be a particular kind of dancer and to be good in a certain way,” Steadwell says in the documentary. “And I'm just not the person that, you know, someone's gonna see in a club and say, ‘Wow, you're a good dancer.’"

Humans have been dancing for a very, very long time

We may be the only species to dance for pure pleasure.  Nobody is exactly sure when we first started, but in Fear of Dancing Allcock takes us to one of the ancient places on earth where it may have started, Africa, a continent with cultures steeped in dancing.

It also appears the impulse to dance is an instinctual part of being human. Marcel Zentner, a professor at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, found that babies may be born with a predisposition to move rhythmically in response to music. “[Five- to 24-month-old infants] were ... played this music and then spontaneously, they would start to move,” he says.

Infants listened to a variety of sounds including classical music, rhythmic beats and speech. Their movements were recorded by video and 3D motion-capture technology and analyzed. The study found the better the children were able to synchronize their movements with the music, the more they smiled.

Fear of dancing develops as we grow older

So why do some people grow up to be afraid of it? “If you had 50 people who all had a fear of dancing, they'd probably have 50 different reasons for why they have a fear of dancing,” says Peter Lovatt, a dance psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K. The problem often starts during the teenage years when, “suddenly, dancing becomes about mate selection or about competency issues — moving your body in a way that your social group may find acceptable or unacceptable,” he says.

Allcock remembers that by the time he reached Grade 11, his lifestyle changed. He stopped going to class to front a band called Barbaric Fantasy. “It was all about partying,” he says. “I became a stereotype: the dropout metal-head stoner that's just too cool to dance.”

For a single guy back on the dating scene, the pressure to dance can be intense, and — like a fear of heights — chorophobia is real. “The only difference is no one would ever think of helping a person with that fear by dragging them to the edge of a building,” Allcock says.

Ways to help chorophobes learn to embrace dancing

Champion ballroom dancer and instructor Olé Burlay thinks Allcock could overcome his fear if he just had the right teacher. “I think that the fact that people are afraid of dance is just because they’re not capable of doing it,” Burlay says. “So, if you get the right instructor that introduces it right away [in a] gentle form, that can be overcome.”

Jorge Ortiz, once a reluctant dancer, and his business partner, Rebekah Diaz, have developed a virtual studio to teach partner dance steps. “Hopefully, you get the experience of being in a flesh-and-blood dance studio without having the anxiety to actually have to walk through the doors,” says Ortiz.

Chorophobes in Toronto have found a novel way to bust a move. They meet once a week to dance together in a dimly lit room. “Darkness is such an equalizer,” says Eric Allin, one of the organizers of the party. “With the lights off, it's no longer a visual event. It takes on ... a more abstract meaning. You're unable to perceive others, and you're not being perceived.”

There is, Allcock says, a lack of understanding about people who have a fear of dancing, and he hopes his film creates more awareness about the problem. “I kind of resent the fact that society expects me to dance," he says. “It's almost like this is an act of rebellion for me not to dance.”

Watch Fear of Dancing on documentary Channel.

Available on CBC Gem

Fear of Dancing

documentary Channel