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Animated Edition - Spring 2006
Watch me, watch me!
Penny Greenland, Director of JABADAO reflects on the phenomenon of Strictly Come Dancing that captured an avid television audience for dance earlier this year
We were divided in our house - down the middle. Two of us loved it and two of us groaned, moaned and exited hastily whenever it was on. The two who loved it turned down invitations that they would normally die for in order to hit the sofa by 6.29 every Saturday evening. These two looked forward to it all week, exchanging delicious mid-week debates about who's reverse-turn was more delectable than the next, (covertly, unless they started the other two off), and nothing would have persuaded them to miss a moment. The two who hated it, however, planned to be out. Whenever it hit the screens.

Strictly Come Dancing is an extraordinary phenomenon - a popular Saturday night TV programme (with further nightly instalments and a dedicated website or three), generating a powerful national interest in dancing. It is an in-depth study of a group of people discovering the huge pleasure of dancing, often starting from a pretty negative viewpoint. Surely I should love it? Isn't it doing my job for me? The nation is at last transfixed by the same thing that transfixes me - the extraordinary delight of people discovering how to take up full residence in their body.

Or is it? Isn't this just another celebrity nightmare, more about the personalities involved than the dance itself? Nothing to do with creativity and everything to do with competition. All about ratings, nothing to do with dance? Isn't this really just a platform for an extraordinary array of unnecessary comments from the judges, designed to undermine the contestants in ways that tickle the baser instincts of the watching public, bringing them back hungry for more?

Oddly enough I once worked with Arlene Philips. She won't remember me personally you understand, but she might remember the occasion. I was working not as a dancer, but as a 'Speciality Act' (a fire eater actually), in the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life. Arlene choreographed Hot Gossip, a whole troupe of children, and a motley bunch of jugglers, stilt walkers and fire-eaters, in the wonderful 'Every Sperm is Sacred' number. During the filming I watched her rehearse with the children, as well as the professionals, before we painstakingly shot each bit of the scene. I saw her (and I think she may willingly agree) as an absolute ogre. I watched all the same kind of things she dishes up on Strictly - demands for work, work and more work; harsh comments and threats, and total commitment to a sink or swim culture. It was familiar to me from bits of my previous dance training and career; such behaviour from a choreographer had always brought out the worst in me - tears, rage and bodily collapse - and never stimulated my creative juices or my ability to produce better dancing. Watching the children make their way through this working process raised these emotions all over again. I had to be restrained from facing up to Ms Philips and challenging her working methods! But the kids seemed better able to protect themselves than ever I had been. At least on the surface. In fact they protected themselves in all the same ways as the celebrities on Strictly appear to - they told each other they were really great, they passed the tissues to mop up the tears when necessary, they disappeared into corners to practice again the things that had been criticised - and they loved each other to bits. And as long as they worked as hard as ever they could, Arlene loved them to bits too. In the end every child was fabulous, dancing beyond themselves. Because she cared passionately...

So it's time to declare my colours. Was I on that sofa at 6.30 every Saturday or out of the door? Well, despite all the reasons that I could hate it, I adore Strictly Come Dancing. In fact I love it so much I very nearly phoned in to see if I could win the lesson, and performance, with Anton Du Beke. If I hadn't been busy that day I would surely have tried my luck. Throughout, I was happy to join anyone in the Darren, Zoe or Colin discussion. (Which was your favourite? Or are you aghast at the very thought of giving credence to such tosh?)

So what on earth is the attraction for a dancer who's first love lies closer to the esoteric and entirely process-oriented form of Authentic Movement? A dancer who spends her days entirely committed to creating non-competitive, supportive environments that aim only to empower? Well, it's the very particular kind of focus on the body. All that support, that passion, being poured into willing those people to find the dancer in themselves. That arena on the Saturday night is the ultimate in 'Watch me', 'Watch me', and I think adult humans long to say, as simply as children, 'Watch me! Watch me do this!'.

We human beings long to be seen, not just heard. And yes, ultimately we long to be seen 'without judgement, interpretation or projection' (to quote Janet Adler from the Authentic Movement world). Failing this, however, being seen with such focus and intensity - including all the judgements - will do. Yes, I know those judges are tucking away fat cheques and revitalising lost television careers, but for all that, I believe they really care about the dancing and the dancers. And the watching nation ends up seeing more, and caring more (about the dancing as well as the celebrity personalities), as a consequence. The judges' focus is on the end result, but the real interest of the programme is in the process; which is presumably why it can support so many weekday programmes as well as the competitive event itself.

And this gives Strictly something that the other celebrity competitions don't have. A focus on the body and movement that has got lost, indeed become embarrassing, in our culture. And for that reason I love it. Darren Gough - 'fat lad from Barnsley' - involved millions of people in a process that is close to my heart. From a starting point of embarrassment and accompanying jovial dismissal, he fell in love with the challenge and pleasure to be had from engaging with an expressive - rather than sporting - physical task. We watched as he found a felt-sense of his body that enabled him to change the way he moved, and the way he thought and felt about it. And that's what grips me. Not the speed of the foxtrots or the snipe of the judges, but seeing people ease into their bodies - and the way they love it.

And what of the celebrity culture? The celebrities' professional backgrounds and media savvy gives them a way of coping with the pressures that this programme exerts, allowing us to focus on the process. They are able to reveal what is going on for them beyond the competition. But more than that, because we know that their first interests lie elsewhere - athletics, snooker, journalism - we see people coming afresh to dance as an addition to their lives, not the be-all an end-all, as charted in programmes that start with amateur enthusiasts. It is the discovery that is important, therefore, not the form or the technique.

So when a place becomes available at my local ballroom dancing school (guess what, it's fully booked), I shall be there. Because, although I have many ways of satisfying the 'watch me' desires in my life, and I have spent a life time discovering the pleasures of expressive physical activity, I want to soak up a little of the focus and passion that this programme has generated for myself.

Oh. And then there's those dresses ....

Penny can be contacted at JABADAO on 0113 236 3311 or email info@jabadao.org

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Animated: Spring 2006