Things dancing taught me

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.

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Musings on Punchdrunk and stuff

It’s a week since I got back from New York, and I’ve been mulling over my visit almost constantly. So this post is literally just a list of stuff I’ve been thinking about.

  • It’s really nice to be selfish sometimes. For me, that meant leaving my husband at home and going away with friends, doing whatever I fancied, whenever I fancied. I won’t do it lots, but once in a while it’s a real treat.
  • I bloody love my husband. A week without him was wonderful, but I also couldn’t wait to get back to him.
  • Everyone experiences things differently – and everyone’s correct. There are a multiple, possibly infinite, interpretations of Punchdrunk shows, and every one is valid if they mean something to someone. To paraphrase Dumbledore, just because it’s happening inside your head doesn’t mean it’s not real.
  • I should take more steps into the unknown. I’m an introvert, prone to bouts of crippling anxiety. This is where Punchdrunk has, without exaggeration, changed my life. It’s not easy for me to do some things without company – either as emotional support, or as witnesses so I don’t chicken out and break my word. But with only the mask for protection, I’ve been experiencing the theatre in a way that that would once have made me really uncomfortable, and not just surviving but loving it. It’s led me to take more chances, and it’s been transformative.
  • I need more creativity in my life. Dedicating a week to chasing characters around the McKittrick, trying to understand them and appreciate the artistry of what I was seeing made me realise that I don’t do enough things like this. As someone who used to sing, dance, play instruments, write, draw and read amongst other things, I need to start prioritising these so I can feel like me again.
  • Always thank people if you get the chance – door staff, bar staff, performers, your friends, your family, your colleagues. Anyone in life who does something that makes you smile. It’s nice to be nice.
  • I really quite like writing. It doesn’t matter if no one reads it, the process itself is enjoyable. I’m not sure what I’ll write about next – suggestions on postcard! Will need to write about something while I save up to go to Shanghai…
  • Don’t feel guilty about doing things that make you happy. I spent the weeks and months leading up to the trip feeling rather sheepish and making apologetic, self-deprecating jokes about the amount of money I was spending on it. People who don’t know me well didn’t understand why I was going that far and spending that much money to see a show I’d already seen several times several more times. But it was worth every penny. If it makes you happy, and doesn’t hurt anyone else, crack on.
  • I can wear a green sequinned minidress, fairy wings and green lipstick and look awesome doing it.

 

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And so I have a blog…

It’s not actually my first blog, but it felt like an opportunity for a fresh start, and boy do I feel like I need one.

I’ve recently returned from a wonderful trip to New York. I went away for a week with two friends, leaving my husband at home, and spent 7 glorious days being utterly selfish about what I did and having plenty of “me-time”.

I walked for miles, I danced, I ate well, I drank (moderately), I laughed a lot, and I even cried a little – but in the good, cathartic way (apologies to the waiter that wasn’t sure what to do as I cry-laughed alone at brunch on my last day. I tipped him really well to make up for the awkwardness, but I was fine, really!). All of this time spent inside my own head led me to the glaring realisation that my life and career have been suppressing my artistic side of late.

So lets go back to the start. When I was 3, I started dance classes. Along the way I learned to sing, play the saxophone, and act (a bit). I loved it. I lived for it. And I was pretty good at it. I rushed home from school and ploughed through my homework so I could go to my dance classes. I read a LOT, I sketched (especially theatrical costumes), I painted, and I dabbled in writing. I finished school as a straight A student and went to university – choosing an academic course over performance, perhaps because it’s what I felt I should do, perhaps knowing that a career in the arts left me vulnerable to failure and judgement, perhaps thinking people would think I was crazy or delusional for ever thinking I had a chance at making a career out of performing. Perhaps I knew deep down that I didn’t have a chance. Whatever the reason, now I can’t help but wonder “what if?”.

And I absolutely loved university, but it was there that I made one of my biggest mistakes – I stopped my dance classes and singing lessons, and thus all but closed the door to a career in the arts. I moved out of my parents’ house and into a flat with a friend, and got involved with university politics. I still played my sax in the uni jazz band, but I didn’t practice enough.

After graduating, I moved to London, completed a Masters degree, started a career, and met the man who later became my husband. Now I certainly don’t regret that, but despite promising myself I would join a band or an amdram group or a dance class, somewhere along the way my career became so all-consuming that I could never guarantee I’d leave work on time to get to a rehearsal or class and I pretty much gave up.

The one thing I did continue to do was attend theatre, and my life was changed when a university friend and theatre director – one of the friends I was in NYC with last week – came to London one weekend and invited me to see Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man with him. An immersive production where you wear a mask to encourage anonymity and voyeurism, and follow the characters around, changing your perspective on the show depending who you follow, it really opened my eyes. It was a really heady atmosphere, all dark corridors, full of betrayal, jealousy, sex, murder, and some of the most incredible dancing I’ve ever seen. It made me feel something. It was full of multiple meanings and opportunities for endless interpretations and raised as many questions as it answered. And I was hooked.

I found myself back there a couple of weeks later, lying on a bed as a performer told me a story, inches from my face, crying real tears which landed on my cheek, before leading me into a cold, dark scary place where we discovered something horrific on the ground, my heart racing. I discovered the show not long before it closed, but still managed to squeeze in 11 visits in just a few weeks, and I’ve made countless friends through the show’s online community of worshippers.

A side note on the name – Two shots of happy, one shot of sad is a beautifully melancholy song, performed by Nancy Sinatra, which featured in The Drowned Man. It always really spoke to me, and the choreography that accompanied it in the show was stunning. I don’t have the heartache she sings about, but to me it’s also a realisation and acceptance that it’s ok for life to be a bit rubbish sometimes – after all, sometimes the sad times are the most inspiring, and the blues wouldn’t be the same without them – as long as there’s more happy than sad. And I guess me trying to give my artistic side a new lease of life is my second shot of happy.

Anyway, since my discovery, I’ve been trying to see more theatre, re-capture that feeling that I got at The Drowned Man, and also to make sure I don’t miss any new opportunities. I’ve seen some great productions since then, and a fair few not so great ones, but every time I’ve got in with the hope that I could be about to witness something great, and I’m thankful to Punchdrunk for making me seek out new experiences like that.

Punchdrunk is essentially why I was in New York last week. Sleep No More, which takes place at The McKittrick Hotel, is another production by Punchdrunk, and having seen it once in 2014, and a couple of times in 2015, our intrepid trio made our way across the pond to attend one of their epic New Year’s Eve parties and squeeze in a few more shows. I’ll cover these in posts over the next few days while they’re still fresh in my mind, but that brings me to where I am right now.

All that time to mull things over and analyse (and over-analyse) my visits to the McKittrick led me to the realisation that I really miss performing, and while I do genuinely enjoy my job, I want to live in a world where things are less corporate, more creative, and experiences like the ones I had last week are plentiful.

So this blog is to help me chart that – the performances that move me, and my own adventures (and misadventures) as I try to find ways to squeeze the arts back into my life.

Wish me luck!