Travels with my Tutu

November 2000 - Daily Telegraph

It seems that Jerry Lee Lewis was right. According to the latest research, an astonishing fifteen million people a week go dancing. Up and down the country, in studios and ballrooms, front rooms and church halls, there's a whole lotta shakin' going on.

I'm one of the few who dance for a living. I've been a member of The Royal Ballet since I was eighteen, and although I've tried a few different styles in my time, most of the dancing I've done has been based around classical ballet. Last year, I decided it was time to broaden my range. I packed up my tutu and embarked on a journey to discover just who these million people are, and what it is about dancing that has them hooked.

I set myself four specific challenges: to learn jive, belly dancing, break-dance and tango to a high enough standard that after a month's tuition, I could give some sort of public performance. It wasn't going to be easy, but I felt sure that my thirty years of dance training would give me some sort of advantage. I long ago mastered the difference between left and right and putting one foot in front of the other, in any combination of rhythm, direction and speed is not usually a problem. What I discovered, however, was that the real challenge was not acquiring a new dance language. It was losing the one I've already got. I've spent my life pulling up and turning out and now, I was going to have to relax my perfect posture, turn my feet in and throw my tutu to the wind.

I started out with perhaps the most familiar of the dances I'd chosen. Everyone would recognise jive: Think 50's post-war, handsome GI's and glamorous girls with seamed stockings and Betty Grable hair. It's laid back, syncopated and cool. It's everything ballet is not. The basic dance is relatively simple. 'Keep your feet under your body and follow me,' my teacher, Simon Selmon, told me. With subtle changes of grip, he twirled me under his arm, pushed me out, spun me round and wheeled me back in. So far, so good. The aerials – those death defying tricks where the girl is, quite literally, thrown between her partner's legs and up in the air – came later. I'm not unfamiliar with the space above a man's head: after all, plenty of ballet lifts involve the ballerina perching aloft on her partner's hand, eight feet above the ground. But I'm not sure I've ever been thrown up there and left to land on my own. It was terrifying. All around me, however, normal people – Telegraph readers, even – were leaping over each other's heads like so many spring lambs. Once I got over the initial shock, I loved it. The little trill of fear and the brief second of unsupported flight helped me understand why normally sane people take up BASE-jumping. The joy of my eventual performance, with Simon's Sugar Foot Stompers, was marred only slightly by the fact that he insisted I wore a dress of oversized red and white polka dots. I looked like a Genetically Modified Minnie Mouse.

Putting my fashion faux pas behind me, I entered the Aladdin's cave of veils, sequins, chiffon skirts, coin-laden belts and spangly bras that is belly dance. Arriving for my first class, in a Covent Garden dance academy, I found a room full of women aged from eighteen to eighty, with a breathtaking array of garments framing some truly magnificent bellies. It's a safe, all female environment and inhibitions are left at the door. A group of them kindly offered to kit me out in appropriate fashion. I felt like a virgin in a harem being prepared for duty. I emerged draped from head to toe in white chiffon, stitched all over with tiny gold coins. But no costume, however glamorous, could disguise my fundamental shortcoming. Like most dancers, I'm lacking anything much in the way of a belly. What I do have (and believe me, there's definitely a bump there after lunch) I'm trained to keep to myself. The minute I hear music or even think about dancing, I pull my stomach in tight. It's the sort of instinctive reaction Pavlov indoctrinated into his dogs.

The dance itself is a delight: understated, gentle on the body and sophisticated in style. It was relatively easy to master the footwork, but the frantic hip shimmying was not so simple. A ballet dancer's hips are usually kept firmly under control and while choreographers like Balanchine or Forsythe might jut them out from time to time, shaking them like a pneumatic drill is not, as far as I'm aware, part of the classical repertoire. I spent hours at home, in front of the mirror, trying to persuade my hips to shake while the rest of me stayed still. All I achieved was a terrible case of stitch. It was weeks before I got this entirely new movement under my beaded belt. My final performance was to a crowded Maroush restaurant on London's Edgware Road. The dancer I followed had the most exceptional pectoral control I've ever seen and suddenly, I felt more inadequate than ever. It must have gone well though, as afterwards, the manager, in all seriousness, offered me a job.

With two dances successfully completed, it was time to tame my newly wayward hips and concentrate on tango. The popular image of tango – all staccato head turns, flashing eyes and roses clenched between teeth – is nothing like the real thing. Spectacular fireworks are for the stage: in the intimacy of the tango salon, the passion subtly smoulders. Besides, if you tried any of those jack knife legs and deep, arching back bends in a Buenos Aires salon, you'd take someone's eye out. Tango is, in essence, a highly sophisticated development of walking. Backwards, forwards or round in circles, but walking, just the same. Get the walk and you've got the dance. I met dancers who had spent years mastering the smooth rhythmical stalk that is the basis of the perfect tango. Beyond the walk, the tango world divides into two camps. On one side are the teccies, who insist that there is a right and a wrong way to execute every step. On the other are the twirlers. The twirlers claim that there are no steps to be learnt and that as long as the woman follows her partner, it's impossible to make a mistake. Unfortunately, it was following my partner that I found difficult. For a dancer like me, who prides herself on knowing her own steps (and everyone else's) at all times, the lack of an advance agenda was deeply unsettling. For years, I've had the same anxiety dream the night before a major performance: I'm alone on stage, the music is about to start, and the steps, so meticulously rehearsed, have completely vanished. Learning to tango, I was forced to live out this recurring nightmare on a daily basis.

Almost everyone I met in the various salons around London spoke about tango as a life-changing experience. I could see their passion but I didn't experience it for myself until my partner arrived for my grand finale. Antonio Soares Cervila – known on the scene as Junior - is everything a tango star should be. Dangerously handsome, olive skinned with deep black eyes, dancing with him made me feel like the most beautiful, the most desirable women on the planet. Suddenly I understood why devotees travel the world in search of the perfect tango.

So far, I'd conquered three out of three of the dances I'd tried. The biggest challenge – and the biggest surprise – lay in store. Break-dance. I have to confess to harbouring all the usual preconceptions about break-dance and its parent culture, Hip-Hop. What I discovered was that of all the techniques I studied, it was break-dance that shared the closest links with ballet. Of course, on the surface, it's everything ballet dancing is not. A ballet dancer's domain is the ground and upwards; B-boys operate at ground level and below. We leap; they squat. We spin on our toes; they spin on their heads. And whereas ballet involves mainly lower body strength, B-boys need phenomenal muscles in their arms and shoulders to master the power moves that are fundamental to the dance. What we share, though, is a demanding technique that requires years of dedicated study at the very highest level and specific muscle adaptation to make it work. There are moves in break-dance, essential to the art, which the man off the street – or even the ballerina out of the studio – simply cannot do. As with ballet, the body God gave you has to be tailored for the purpose.

Watching my teacher, Banksy, throw himself into yet another sequence of breathtaking dance, I began to suspect that this was the one at which I would fail. I guess attempting to turn myself from ballerina to B-girl in just over a month was perhaps a mite ambitious. Determined not to give in, I threw myself wholeheartedly into our practice sessions and gradually fell in love with break-dancing. My technique slowly improved as my strength increased and I came away from each class with a new badge of honour – usually two bruises the size of an apple on both hipbones.

My break-dance 'challenge' was to attempt a 'throw down' – a short solo spot – at the Funkin' Pussy in London's Covent Garden on the eve of the UK Break-dance Championships. By the time the club got under way, at around midnight on a September Saturday, the Funkin' Pussy was hot and very, very crowded. Towards the back of the room, a tight circle had already formed. I wanted to be anywhere, absolutely anywhere, other than in that circle. A veil seemed to descend over my life. I felt as if I was looking at the world through an opaque shower curtain. Every one of my senses was, quite literally, paralysed by fear. Across the circle, I could see my mentor, Banksy, urging me in. With my heart in my newly acquired and very hip sneakers, I launched myself forward. I started well, but the tightness of the circle threw me and my front spin – an original move, which only a dancer's flexible back would allow – became a bottom spin. Pants, as they say in Hip-Hop. I slunk away, too embarrassed to face Banksy and determined that I was not going to try again. It was all over. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, I felt a gentle hand push me forward and I was in the circle once more. This time, I was determined not to mess up. I heard a roar from the crowd, and then another as I went into my full plié on pointe and yet another as I slid forward on my head. When I finished and moved aside, there was a general cheer which, from where I was standing, sounded like a thunderclap. Underneath my red woolly hat I was grinning from ear to ear. I've danced for Kings, Queens and Presidents, but the audience's approbation has never, ever sounded so sweet.

I'd done it. Four new dances and four passable public showings. I might not have travelled very far geographically, but in dance terms, I'd crossed continents. On route, I'd discovered an army of devoted dancers who pursued their particular passion with the dedication of professionals. I'd met men and women who had given up suit and tie careers to spend their days dancing. I'd shared a trip to the supermarket with a woman who couldn't help but tango down the aisles. I'd danced in a Hampstead garden on a portable floor, stored under the veranda ready for use. I'd met amateur dancers – in the real sense of the word - whose practice schedules would put professionals to shame. I'd found couples who had met on the dance floor, and entire families for whom rock and roll was not just a dance but a way of life. My travels with my tutu convinced me that inside every human being – bus drivers, picture restorers, computer programmers, stone masons and lawyers – there's a private dancer longing to break out.

You're probably left with one question: just where does the tutu come into it? The answer is simple. The tutu is a metaphor: it represents the pull up, the turn out, the flat stomach, the pointed feet, the host of automatic responses that come with years of dancing in layers of tulle. I'm not sure I managed to shed my tutu completely in my efforts to jive, belly dance, break-dance and tango, but I sure shook it up a bit.