I danced several times a week from the age of 3 until I was about 20. After that I could still be found tapping at the occasional jam session or with the jazz band at Dartington each summer, but after time it kind of ground to a halt. But even now, many years later, I still regularly realise ways in which dancing has made my life better. I’m going to try to find a way to get back into dancing – I’m currently trying to find a class or two I can fit into my schedule – but in the meantime, here are a few things it taught me.
- The human body is amazing. It can make the most beautiful shapes. And ugly ones. It can move in a million ways. And once you’ve danced and done some of these things yourself, you’ll untap a whole level of appreciation of the theatre as you’ll realise quite how impressive it is when a pro does it.
- Muscle memory is incredible. Even now, when certain tracks play, I can remember choreography I learned 12 or 15 years ago – if Usher’s Yeah plays in a club, you can bet I’ll be tapping along. And it applies to flexibility too. If I don’t workout for a week or two, it will hurt more, but I’ve never lost the ability to touch my toes or do the splits.
- I like pain. The kind you get the day after a really tough workout. It’s your reminder that you did something good for yourself and your body – your gold star or smiley face sticker. Sure it hurts, and I might moan about it, but it’s also kind of delicious.
- You can’t out-exercise a bad diet. It’s a cliche, but it’s true. At the peak of my training I was doing about 10 hours of classes a week – quite a lot given that was part time on top of regular school hours – and I played tennis a couple of times a week too. But I didn’t really start to shape up until I started eating better.
- Good posture makes everything look better. I have a pretty weak lower back (thanks boobs) and a tendency to round my shoulders and try to “hide” (thanks brain) but when I notice I’m doing it, in my head I go right back into my dance class and can still see my teacher, Sheridan, prodding bits of me til I straighten up and stand correctly, and instantly I look about 3 inches taller and 7 pounds lighter.
- Discipline, discipline, discipline. Hard work isn’t the only key to success. Sometimes it takes a huge dose of good luck and fortunate timing. But disciplined and considered study and practice will certainly tip the odds in your favour. I was not made for ballet – certainly too tall and broad to ever consider doing it professionally – but with a load of hard work I still passed all my exams with merit or distinction.
- You need to give yourself a break. From studying, from your career, from other people. Dedicating some time to doing something you love – whether it’s dancing, painting or knitting – will make you better at whatever it is you do. And fully engage with it. Don’t do it while you watch telly or listen to someone offload about their terrible day. Revel in it.
- Sometimes, just doing it is a victory. Not every performance or every workout or every painting will be your best work. Sometimes there’s no good reason for it – it just sucks. On those days, just get through it. You might learn something, you might not, but at least you’ve completed it rather than given up.
- Never stop working on your technique. Whether it’s spending hours at the barre or practicing scales, get to know your instrument, and keep checking in with it so you know if it’s changing. You need to know what it can do before you can start to push it.
- If you love anything enough, you can make time for it. There were always girls in my classes that disappeared for weeks during school exams, or skipped a lesson to go on a date, but I never missed a class unless I was really ill. I’d cram all my homework in as soon as I got home so I could get to class. I’d stay up super late after a class, or get up at 4am to cram for an exam. I passed up part-time jobs that would require me to miss class, as I’d rather be poor. My priorities changed over time and I stopped dancing, so maybe, like the leading man in a terrible romantic comedy, I didn’t realise how much I loved it, or was scared to open myself up to the possibility of that kind of relationship. But now I’m realising the error of my ways, and this resolve to write, make music and dance again, is my big gesture to win it back.
I should add the most enormous shout out to my teachers here. Bette Clark and her daughter Sheridan Nicol taught me several times a week for about 18 years between them, and there were some fab ballet classes with Raymond and musical theatre with Joanne. I’ll be forever grateful for them giving me not only the joy of the performing arts, but also the life lessons that came along with it.