As well as picking up something of batholiths and synchrotrons, Rutherford and Hutton, I learnt to dance at University. Prior to the tutelage of my college dance mentor I hated dancefloors and the mysterious transformation that occurred to those that strayed into their grasp. I was shamefully unable to move my body like Gary Barlow on Top of the Pops and I despised friends for trying to drag me into their swaying circles at rubbish birthday discos. Jigging to crappy Abba and Europop tunes wasn't fun, it was just a mechanism for humiliating me and my poorly co-ordinated geek comrades. Fortunately, the social life of a small-town boy did not hold many occasions organised enough for dancing, particularly when all events were a reluctant parental taxi ride away.
University life increased the embarrassment opportunities, Thursday night was dancing night. Everyone in college congregated at The Pav, a free disco in the cricket Pavilion and the night out partner to Super Hall; the formal dinner for the drinking societies. A non-drinking, non rugby player, I couldn't access the apparent elite of the drinking societies, and I sure as hell didn't want to dance, but to maintain my giddy position in the college social hierarchy I needed to somehow get involved. So I volunteered to run The Pav. Perfect. I felt an integral part of the evening without drinking or dancing, I just cued up the records and weekly watched my friends incomprehensibly enjoy themselves on the crammed dancefloor.
Unlike me Simon S_____ could really move. Not for him the white man's overbite and off-beat shuffling that sufficed for the masses, he stood on the plinth and let fly with kick steps, syncopated arms, the works. Smoothly keeping time during the verses and breakdowns, when the chunky breaks hit the speakers he cut loose; crazy long blonde hair and baggy trousers energetically frozen in the strobe light as he stepped and slid. He was mesmerising and I was awestruck.
One Thursday he helped me carry the the sound system and record boxes up to the deserted pre-disco pavilion. I put on his favourite record and he decided to teach me to dance like him.
The first lesson was easy: simply step in time to the beat. Snare snap - step with the left foot, snare snap - step with the right foot.
Delighting in my previously hidden ability to accurately keep time I stepped across the empty dance floor, trainers stubbing the dusty floor. Left, right, left, right.
Good he said, now mix it up, change the order you move your feet. Beat - right foot right, beat - left foot right, beat - left foot left, beat - right foot left. Repeat.
Now I'm moving I thought, now I can dance just like the others and not feel a fool.
And then, the third lesson: the running man. Bounce he said, bounce and jump a little on each beat. Now on the same beat, one foot goes forward to land on the heel, the other goes back to land on the toe. On the next beat bring the back foot forward and up and the front foot back to the middle, swap feet and repeat.
WOW. It was hard to keep balance at first but then... then... not only could I hold a rhythm, not only could I dance better than all of my friends, not only was I now free of embarrassment, but this was fun. From nowhere a smile appeared on my face and wouldn't move.
More lessons followed: clear a space for yourself, keep your movements controlled, adopt different styles, but I'd already learnt the most important part, that dancing was enjoyment.
With my new skills Simon and I owned The Pav, we ruled the top step with our top steps. Our peers applauded when we both cut loose at the big moments in the big tunes.
It's ten years since I left University and I've forgotten the intricate details of the late Cretaceous mass extinction, I can no longer find a solution to the simplest form of quantum wave functions, but I still know how to dance. I can still draw admiring glances on those rare occasions when I persuade friends go clubbing at decent club nights instead of the lager fuelled chart fests they prefer.
When the music's right and the speakers are loud and I'm on the dancefloor everything clicks into place. My mind fills with joy and beams an uncontrollable smile from my face. My feet trace a complex co-ordination across the dark floor, my hands and arms clutch and wave at the light and crowd, sweat pours from a face that won't stop gurning with happiness. There is nothing else, no world, no time, no people, no problems, just my body and the music weaving an intimate pattern.
And you don't get that with Abba.