Written by Tia Giles
Deep breath in, deep breath out. My stomach would churn every time I had to wait in the wings of the stage. Occasionally, I’d peak round the corner ever-so-slightly to catch sight of the hundreds of eagle eyes in the audience. I’d anxiously anticipate the final note of the song and the final ball-change before it was my turn to go on stage and perform the dance that I had been practicing every day and night for weeks. Several corrections, technicalities, and facial expressions to remember. Can I do it? What if I forget something? I might not dance well. Look at all those people watching, I don’t think I can-. All this anxiety and self-doubt would vanish the second I stepped on that stage. Why? Because I was free to express myself.
From a young age, I have always loved to dance. Whether that be ballet, tap, modern or contemporary – I’ve tried all the genres at some stage. As someone who never had any self-confidence, dancing was (and still is) where I feel most comfortable. It became my escapism over the years. Whenever I felt stressed, sad, angry – dancing was what released these emotions for me. I think we’d all be lying if we said that we haven’t danced when no one has been watching. People boogie in the shower, in front of the mirror to their favourite song or round the house when they’re home alone. OK, dancing isn’t for everyone so you might not have done this, but I know when my favourite song comes on, I find it near-enough impossible not to dance to it – even if that does mean a slight tap of my foot under the table or a discrete shoulder wiggle. Every dancer speaks of a ‘turning-point’, a moment where a dance defined them. For me, that was a tap dance in secondary school. I was supposed to perform the dance as a duet, but I was told on the night that my partner wouldn’t be able to make it and that I would have to dance it solo. Bear in mind, at the time, I was not the most confident person in the world. I panicked. The first thought that came to my mind was that I can’t do this. I was never forced to do it, but I knew that I needed to – for me. I stepped out onto that stage, my clicking tap shoes filling the silent room. My clammy hands had gripped the parasol. I was holding it so tightly that I can remember the plastic digging into my palm. I forced the biggest smile I could muster, and I danced the routine better than any of the rehearsals. So much so, that I won an award for being the most improved dancer. Having said this, not every routine goes to plan and although this took me a long time to understand – I have come to realise that it really doesn’t matter. I have been on stage before where I’ve forgotten steps, or I’ve simply been in the wrong space, or I’ve had a costume malfunction. It’s life - not everything goes to plan. But I came to realise that no matter what anyone says – if you can leave the stage knowing you tried your hardest, then that’s all that matters.
Another thing I find fascinating about dance, is that whatever the routine or song – every individual will dance it slightly differently according to their style. The dance becomes unique to them. I’ve seen it myself. You could give everyone the exact same routine, with the same song and the same costumes and you would still see endless variations. The movement may be different or perhaps they’d use facial expressions in a slightly different way – nevertheless, it is demonstrative of the fact that dance can be self-expressive without even meaning to.
Looking towards more deliberate forms of self-expression, across the world, people use dance as a way of embodying their culture. For example, in Ireland, citizens relish the tradition of Irish dancing. In Africa, dance honours ancestors and celebrates ancient rituals using masks and other musical instruments – varying depending on the community. In Spain, you have the flamenco dance, which is said to be ‘highly expressive’, ‘characterised by hand clapping, percussive footwork and intricate hand, arm and body movements’. In New Zealand, the Haka is the county’s well-known dance, which is typically demonstrated at rugby matches. The list is endless. With dance being used as a medium to express and embody the culture of a country, it therefore comes as no surprise that it is also demonstrative of one’s personality and feelings.
According to a placement student at The Dance Ability Movement (DAM), ‘dance can be used as a vehicle for expression. It can help tell a story, convey feelings and emotions, and connect with others and with ourselves’. Dance, to me, is a version of verbal communication. Without sounding too cliché, dancing (for me, at least) makes the worries of the world disappear, even if it is only just for a few minutes. It’s a chance to breathe. An opportunity to escape. The way someone dances, I believe, is an expression of how they feel. I remember dancing a routine at school. It was a slow, contemporary dance. The song was by Calum Scott, titled You Are the Reason. At the time, I was grieving the death of my grandma and prior to the night of the performance, I had always envisaged her sat there in the audience watching me. She had always been my biggest supporter of my dancing and so, performing it without her there was the hardest thing. Like a magic spell, everything that I had bottled up was suddenly released in that moment and I was so proud of myself afterwards. When I have been to watch dance shows, I can see the passion, pain, happiness, and nerves ingrained in the faces of the dancers and this is translated seamlessly into their movements.
There are rebellious forms of dance – i.e., dancing that pushes against the boundaries of society. For example, the striptease show Magic Mike is an expressionist form of dance, capturing the attention of women (and men) across the globe – directed and created by Channing Tatum. Calling for the audience to ‘free [their] magic’, the show consists of male strippers giving it their all to send heart rates racing. Following on from this, pole dancing has also sparked interest and is becoming increasingly popular. Reaching as far back as the 1920s, pole dancing has developed dramatically over the years – moving towards a more mainstream audience. Pole dancing (or pole fitness, as it is sometimes referred to) is now held in gyms and dance studios, advertising strength and conditioning – whilst also remaining a prominent feature inside strip clubs.
Although I’ve lost count of how many dance shows I’ve participated in over the years, from primary school through to sixth form, the thought of dancing in public for me at least, is still a terrifying thought. The BBC show The Greatest Dancer demonstrates this to a point. Competing for a large cash prize, dancers begin their audition in front of one-way mirrors. If the audience likes the dancer’s technique/routine, then they will press a button. A certain percentage of ‘likes’ from the audience are needed for the mirrors to be lifted. Sometimes, contestants flourish dancing in front of the live audience, other times they don’t, but you see it in films - I’ve seen it before in real-life – dancing in a public space looks as though it would be a magical experience. That feeling of not caring what others think and dancing as though no one is watching. Watching someone dance and express themselves makes people smile, it makes people stop and think. It’s a domino effect. I think everyone should give dancing a go (even if it is just in front of a mirror to begin with!) – I reckon you’d be surprised with how much you enjoy it.
Photographed by Caitlyn Raymond
Modeled by Isis Tribolet and Holly Gardner-Hall