Academics on the dance floor: The curious practice of the conference disco

In this post James Burford reflects on the magic and mystery of the academic conference disco.


We are seated at circular tables in a large room with lurid carpet. It’s the conference dinner and I have old friends to my left and a new friend to my right. There is wine on the table and wine in my glass. I’m glad for the wine because conference dinners aren’t easy going. Partly it’s a noise thing: all the clinking and clattering of cutlery, and the hum of other people’s conversations. Then there’s just the talking to strangers thing. I reckon I’m much better at big talk than I am at small talk and sometimes I struggle to find my footing. Tonight it’s going OK though. At first I talk with my friends to the left, and the conversation is camp and comfy. Finally, I introduce myself to my new friend on the right. I feel bad that I didn’t notice that the person beside her had turned away and their conversation had lapsed. By that time she may have been sitting quietly for some minutes.  As we talk we realise we share another friend in common and begin tracing our connections to each other.

The small menu in front of me declares that dinner has three courses. Entrée: textures of onion, parmesan crackling and wasabi peas. Main: a vanilla duck nugget with duck breast and mashed potato with a foam of something. Dessert: chocolate mousse. The hot air of the descriptions is punctured by the reality of the food that arrives before us. It’s all beautifully presented but also really huh? After dessert there are short speeches from the conference organisers, jokes are told, laughs are had, prizes and research grants are awarded. And then it is time for what I’ve been considering the main event.

The lights dim and the music starts to play, Bowie: Let’s Dance.

At first the floor is empty. And for a moment I think that no one will ever be brave enough. Then the table in front of us, senior feminists, explodes with movement. I see a right arm shoot forward and hands are suddenly clapping. An arm slinks its way across the shoulder of another. A hand is lowered to encourage a seated guest to join the revelry. These women are animated, they’re moving. A head cranes itself upward and catches the light. A shoulder shimmies.

I look to my friend on the left and she nods for us to get up there. Actually, I can’t wait. I strain over the music to tell my friend on the right that she’s welcome to join us, but she’s a bit confused by the whole thing. Later I see her standing off the side taking a photo with her cellphone. I see another academic scooping up unfinished bottles of wine from the empty tables to continue the party somewhere else.

My friend and I make it to the dance floor. We are up by the DJ booth and it’s all red and purple light. We’re dancing. Everyone on the floor is. The music is like a school disco, or wedding. Mariah. Boy George. Backstreet Boys. Whitney: I wanna dance with somebody. 

I’m in it and enjoying it but somehow I can’t quite be 100% there. I am watching, noticing. I am thinking about gender. What I mean is: how am I supposed to move? I think about my hips, my legs. Last time I was here I somehow ended up alone. Two young women approached me. One introduced her friend and I realised too late that I was an unwilling participant in a heterosexual dating ritual. Eventually, I managed to extricate myself and made my way back to my room. 

Looking around me tonight I see a slim man in his own world. There’s a senior feminist I’ve been longing to talk to, eyes closed, shuffling. There are people who are holding hands. These academics are into it. There is a tall lady who I met last time, but I haven’t had a chance to talk to yet. We lock eyes and exaggerate our movements. There is a new friend. I clasp her hand and we swing our arms from side to side. She looks happy and I think about how the queerness of my gender can materialise certain possibilities for connection. The currents of the dance and music also materialise things. Sometimes there are circles where we are looking at each other. Sometimes I am dancing in the center of the circle.

Sometimes I am wondering what to do and also telling myself to just do it. Sometimes we are in twos. I notice two (possibly) gay men dancing separately. As one song dies down and fades into another a cheer goes up: this song is always someone’s song.

My friend has a presentation at 9 AM the next day, so I know she won’t be here for too long. I am trying to take it all in. I know I want to write about this disco. I keep thinking: what do they mean? What’s going on here? I think about things like: blowing off steam, academics being in their bodies as a remedy to all the head work. I think about ritual and how lots of these things were probably started once and no one has thought about not doing it since. I think about how dancing on the same floor is important for academics who often encounter each other by reading texts. I do find myself judging all the things that are corny about it. Music, lights, dancing ability. But I am also trying to let them go: it doesn’t have to be cool to be meaningful. I am tiring, my feet are beginning to hurt and the crowd is thinning, but not by much. My friend tells me that this will have to be her last song. Then she changes her mind – we make it the next one. Then George Michael comes on and we can’t leave. We dedicate the next six minutes and thirty-five seconds to dancing. Freedom! 

Putting on my dancing shoes

The writing above emerges from my dance floor reflections from the 2017 SRHE conference in Newport, Wales. This was my second time attending the conference, and also my second time on its dance floor. I find this disco to be particularly magical for some reason. I’d been looking forward to going back to it for actual years. But I should point out that this was not my first time mixing dance with conferencing.

The first conference I remember attending I was a Masters Student helper at a geography conference in around 2008. Our main job as conference assistants was to hold the registration desk and occasionally scoot into session rooms to check that presentations had been uploaded.

There were three key attractions to the conference assistant gig. The first was the opportunity to participate in the conference for free, the second was the free meals, and the third was that it sometimes involved an honorarium.

My friends and I ended up doing quite a lot of this work while we were studying, working for various academics in our department. During conference sessions, we’d sneak into things that looked interesting. My friend Monica was also often a conference assistant. Somehow Monica’s exuberance was always catching and we giddily skipped around the venue, high on free coffee and muffins. During one particularly dry stretch in the conference program we choreographed an epic synchronized handshake/dance that involved high fives, jazz fingers, sun salutations and quite a lot of free dance. Every time Monica started dancing she’d set me off and away we’d go giggling and squealing. We did it heaps and eventually got caught by some academics sneaking out of a session early. Now I am an academic, I am wondering what I’d think if I happened upon my own student performing such a spectacle. I hope I’d be cool with it. Actually, I wish that conferences had a little less professional restraint and bit more exuberance. Often conferences are boring and shaking it out is a good idea.

I also recall the dance at the end of the 2012 Academic Identities Conference in Auckland which was held in the Fale Pasifika on the city campus. A group of Pasifika dancers came in to perform following a wonderful meal, and then they got the whole conference crew up and taught us some new moves. I liked this because it kind of shifted up the power dynamics. It took it from a performance where (the mostly white) academics were witnesses to the cultural knowledge and practices of an other, to academics being active (and mostly inexpert) learner-participants. 

Years ago I wrote a poem about some dancing I witnessed at a conference dance much like this one, which I called “At the conference”:

At the conference

Delegates dance

Like gates unhinged

In a storm

They were led

By a large wild woman

Who threw her head back and grooved

Arms whirling

And she

Was followed by other large women

Who shook off shoes and sweaters

Then a few men

Spindly and cautious

Most didn’t dance

Sat stoned

Bodies bloated with desire

Refusing to budge

I also remember a dance after a conference in South Africa. I was a PhD student and feeling really shy. I’d been to conferences before but I think this was my first time at an overseas one. A new and senior friend was insistent that I would dance! Actually a lot of women there were. Being gay maybe they thought I’d be used to it? Or maybe they thought I’d be fun on the floor. Many hands reached out to me, trying to pull me up, but I shrugged them off. I couldn’t dance, I didn’t dance. Or maybe I did, but only briefly. One of my colleagues has never let me forget it! She has mentioned it subsequently when we have seen each other at conferences.

The conference disco is a thing.

When I have spoken to other friends of the existence of dancing at higher education conferences they often react with surprise or disdain. What? Ugh. Dancing professors? It’s as if the movement of the academic body is in some way embarrassing, as if academics should be properly be talking heads at the front of the room rather than embodied persons jiggling and wiggling in the semi-darkness. It’s as if they have bought into an idea that academics are a separate class, somehow unlike everyone else.   

If you Google “conference disco” the first relevant results you get is coverage of political party annual conferences. There are reports of macarenas, sing alongs to Rage Against the Machine and Yellow Submarine. An even more useful search is “conference dinner and disco”. This reveals more academic events. After some deeper digging I have found out that a diverse array of fields including Psychopharmacology, Radiotherapy, Environmental Chemistry, Medical Sociology, Theatre and Performance, Disability Studies and Women’s Studies maintain these rituals of dance at academic conferences. There have even been attempts to represent these practices. In their book Between the Two: A Nomadic Inquiry into Collaborative Writing and Subjectivity Ken Gale and Jonathan Wyatt have a short story called “Conference Disco Blues”. This melancholic piece involves red wine, evocative songs, and listless dancing that never really gets into the groove. It also involves thoughts about how moves and connections on the dance floor might instigate other kinds of moves in one’s career. The conference dancefloor is foregrounded as a social space that materialises boundaries: in/out, participant/observer, connected/disconnected.

I remember a while back I told an academic mentor that I was fascinated by things like conference discos, and conference meal times. She laughed and told me she didn’t really share my interest!

I wonder if my curiosity has something to do with being an early career academic who is trying to figure out the strange new professional world of academia, with its unspoken expectations and ways of being. My mentor has been around the block much longer than I have, so maybe she no longer experiences the minutia of academic life as intensely as I do. Or maybe it’s just a me thing – I am, for whatever reason, very interested in noticing the strangeness of ordinary things. And when I’m out of my comfort zone it is my tendency to turn discomfort into observation (see my earlier post on this).  

I don’t have any firm ideas as to why the conference dance or disco endures within the conference communities I participate in. They certainly seem to be rituals that a significant minority of participants are attached to. I asked one of my friends Paveena Chamchoy, who is a scholar of ritual studies, if she had any ideas. According to Paveena, conferences are just one of many kinds of events that culminate in dance. If you see the conference as a ritual space you might understand dance as a marking of the boundary between the sacredness of the communitas (spirit of community) formed at the conference and the non-sacred space of everyday life. Often conference discos are on the last night of the conference, before delegates return to their normal routines.  If you see the conference as ritual or conference space, after everything ends they are in the same ritual space which is different from everyday life.

Paveena sees the dance as a way of shaking all the remains of the conference spirit out of our bodies before we depart and go our separate ways.

Then again, maybe it is just that academics are people with conventional drives and desires. Lots of people like dinners and dancing with their mates. Lots of people like dressing up and being connected, or being sexy, or moving. Lots of people like Abba and Michael Jackson and Fleetwood Mac. Why should it surprise us that academics do too? If at the outset of this blogpost I was interested in what might make conference discos unique and spectacular, at the end of writing this I am thinking much more about what is ordinary and unsurprising about them, and why that is also important. Whatever the answers might be, I’m happy that those who tend to the existence of conferences also maintain these curious rituals. Hope to see you out there sometime, on the dancefloor.

James Burford is co-editor of the academic blog Conference Inference – he tweets as @jiaburford. His recent publications include pieces on contemplative approaches to graduate writing development, the use of poetry in academic practice, conference pedagogies and Fat Studies conferences, and the contemporary conditions for academic aspiration


Author: CI_Jamie

Academic at the University of Warwick. Interests: higher education, sexuality, gender, equity. PhD in Doctoral Education from Auckland University.

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