I’m lying on the floor of a dance studio at the Broadway Dance Centre in New York City. I’m supposed to be working my core, but instead I’m hiding under the hot-pink lights, hoping the teacher can’t see me. We’re five minutes into the warm-up and my core has already left the building. For the next 90 minutes, I’ll be learning a hip-hop/house routine that involves a lot of throwing my body around while worrying whether the real dancers behind me can see my VPL when I reach for my toes. It’s like the nightmare of turning up to class naked, except replace the nudity with not knowing any of the steps.
*record scratch* *freeze frame*
You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation...
There’s a scene in the 2006 dance movie Step Up where Channing Tatum and his perfectly sculpted jawline step down from a ladder and boldly volunteer to help a beautiful young dancer practice her routine. “I’ll do it,” he says. That’s kind of what I was going for when I volunteered myself and three colleagues to train with some of the world-renowned teachers and choreographers at the Broadway Dance Centre in New York City. I thought our week would boil down to an endearing montage of progress. We’d be a bit rubbish at first, sure, but soon our raw talent would shine through, and basically we’d be bloody breathtaking.
I grew up loving to dance, attempting to perform the routines I’d seen on TV in the playground. Since then my dance experience has taken a nosedive, landing me on a crowded dance floor in my mid-twenties after exactly 1.5 glasses of wine. I was secretly thrilled at the thought of popping on some leggings and pushing my adult inhibitions to one side to get moving to some good music again.
The total panic, however, set in about a week before, taking shape the way a hazy memory creeps back into focus the morning after the night before. I began to realise that perhaps the few passionate months of learning hip-hop in a small community centre in Kent 10 years ago will not be enough to save me from two-stepping in spandex and shame behind the professionals.
Here goes. And 5, 6, 7, 8.
Stepping inside Broadway Dance Centre for the first time makes you feel like a total imposter. The studios are spilling over with students of all ages and from all over the world, stretching in the corridors and greeting one another with fierce dance moves. They are here to train in everything from musical theatre to vogueing.
Two of us will train in hip-hop and two in ballet.
We attend 1–2 classes per day with real dancers to learn the different components of our chosen style.
Aubree: I think, and my sister agrees, that because I am so weirdly confident in my ability and tend to smile and laugh (A LOT) while I dance that other people (solely nonprofessionals) walk away having bought the lie. The lie being that I can dance.
Priya: My dancing peaked at age 6 when I decided to force myself into the lineup of a Spice Girls routine at a talent show. I was a solid two feet and two years younger than everyone, but, when that music started, I kicked my leg in the air and yelled, “GIRL POWER! YEAH!” and launched into the choreography a full count behind.
Emily: When I was younger, I took beginner dance (basic jazz, hip-hop, and ballet) at my local community centre until I was about 11 and realised my body just didn’t move as freely as the other dancers’. I was also very shy and never wanted that moment in the spotlight all dancers seemed to crave. As an adult, the only experience I have with dance is moving my body in an awkward, robotic fashion and calling it “classic moves”.
Jasmin: I feel my relationship with dance has developed into the epitome of an “expectation versus reality” dance meme. What I think I look like is this coordinated mover and shaker, who could totally pass as a backing dancer to the latest chart-topping pop sensation. What I actually look like on the dance floor is an oversized child, trying some overambitious ~gymnastic-style~ move, who eventually lands, one way or another, on the ground.
Priya: I knew I was out of my depth 60 seconds into the warm-up. I didn’t think to consider the level of physical stamina this week would require. Learning choreography felt like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time. I danced better with music because my muscle memory took over and I stopped overthinking the steps so much. Still, I left feeling pretty disheartened that I’m not as much of a natural as I secretly thought I was.
Aubree: This class can be described with one word: humbling. I went left when I was supposed to go right – confused my feet in the “shuffle ball change” and really just looked like a total arse the entire time. It was fun, and I broke a good sweat. But ready for centre stage? I. Am. Not.
Emily: I was pretty self-conscious about wearing only a leotard and tights and having to stare back at myself in the mirror for an hour and a half. Luckily my insecurities vanished when the burning in my thighs flared up once we started to do pliés. Jamie focused on posture and how our bodies should move as we went through the session. Even though holding the positions and stretching my body in ungodly ways was painful, I looked 100% better than my usual “slouched over a desk” aesthetic.
Jasmin: When I wasn’t too busy pulling my skin-tight leotard from my bum, I was intently examining Jamie’s ~basic~ ballet positions. We were told to imagine that cups of water were on our shoulders, a mimosa was in our hands, and a tiara was on our heads. So, for a curvy girl who is used to sticking out her behind to achieve a perfect squat, learning to sustain perfect posture alignment for the elegant dance of ballet proved to be a challenge. But a challenge myself and my behind were ready to accept.
Aubree: Today I went full into a lengthen and strengthen mode with back-to-back Pilates and flexibility training. Once I stopped comparing myself to the other dancers (guys, I’m a dancer now) in the class or focusing on how my shirt was falling or if my fat was rolling out, I was really able to absorb what the teachers were trying to impart to us – which is that you need to be present and read your body. Stretching beyond your ability won’t get you closer to your goal and doing a stretch incorrectly just to get your foot closer to your hand is only cheating yourself. Focusing for two hours on reading my body and helping those muscles that work so hard was really eye-opening. I walked out feeling loose in places that haven’t felt loose since the ‘90s.
Priya: In our popping class, I could sloppily follow the step-by-step routine. But when it came to “taking it from the top” and putting it all together, I would get the footwork down, only to have my brain completely fried when we had to throw in arm movements too. I never know what to do with my arms when taking a photo, so attempting to “pop” while remembering the whole routine AND watching the instructor in the mirror? It was all TOO MUCH. I confided to my mum that my body felt like a potato in comparison to the real dancers. To which I received the following words of wisdom: “Even potatoes have to be created to be purposeful. You can’t eat a raw potato.”
Jasmin: Uh-oh is the only thought that dawned on me today as I walked into the ballet class filled with real dancers. From the dizzying spins to the pointed jumps, let’s just say the amount of grace I exuded matched that of a toddler taking their first steps. Synchronising different parts of my body felt like a ~fun~ game of head, shoulders, knees, and toes.
After I finally stopped comparing myself to the other, obviously more experienced dancers, I felt a sense of empowerment from taking responsibility of my own movement. Let’s just hope tomorrow brings out a more refined, less fumbling version of myself.
Emily: I practiced pirouettes in my kitchen last night in preparation for today. However, it did me no good. Different teacher, different lesson, different moves. My spatial and coordination skills seemed to be at a simmering medium today, and despite my body feeling like it’s falling apart right now, I felt real graceful and strong as I extended my limbs and daintily poised my fingers in front of me.
Aubree: Even though this was a beginners class, which at BDC means people with three to five years professional dance experience, it might be my favourite class so far. Starting off with the warm-up, I immediately felt more confident than I had in any other class. I think my nerves were finally leaving, allowing me to focus on actually dancing. I spent the weekend trying to replicate Robert’s magic at home, and I can say without hesitation that it died as soon as I left his sight.
Priya: I was lucky enough to be able to watch an advanced student at BDC, Ryan Miller, teach his own Street Jazz fusion class in a small studio nearby. The dancers in his class were able to learn a chunk of the routine by watching once or twice. With their innate musicality, the dancers take cues from different parts of the track like the lyrics, vocal runs, or perhaps the snare – instead of using instructions like “right, left, step”, it literally sounded like “ha ha shoooom click click ha”. I was blown away and also very intimidated. Ryan, who has been dancing for nine years, left me with these words of inspiration:
"To me, there is no such thing as beginners. I hate that word. It is just about being okay with where you are in your journey and celebrating as you get better no matter how small the difference.”
Jasmin: I breathed a sigh of relief at the thought of giving my toes some time off, as I took a Pilates class to focus on the other areas of my body. The class involved some serious floor stretching and some core-focused exercises. Honestly, by the end of this week, I was just happy to be lying horizontally on the ground, even if my body was shaking when it was in certain compromising positions.
A different form of exercise allowed me to take a step back and really appreciate the all-encompassing approach required as a dancer. I learnt the importance of paying attention not just to how your body looks but how it feels. It’s your instrument and needs care.
Emily: I’ve never taken a Pilates class, and at one point my body dropped to the mat like a sack of potatoes with an audible thunk. On my “off days” during the weekend, I was still sore, so I stretched when I didn’t have bags of frozen vegetables on my legs. I made sure to work on my extensions and feel the right pulls in my legs and arms while working each vertebrae one by one to try and achieve graceful movement.
Aubree: A class on footwork was literally like the seventh circle of hell. I thought it would be perfecting ball changes, glides, slides, or making my leg stanky. I had NO idea it was more like house or street. The one thing I did know was that I was not ready. With my inexperience and palpable fear, I threw myself into class. Ninety minutes, six gallons of sweat, and a decent amount of pride later, the class was finished! It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t good, but I made it out alive!
Priya: With Ryan’s words of encouragement in mind, I celebrated the tiny bits of progress I noticed. Today I didn’t forget the steps as quickly as I learned them. I tried to have a little more fun, so instead of freezing when I made a mistake, I just did my finest two-step and jumped back in.
From watching other dancers, it’s clear that you can’t dance well without confidence. No one chooses to show up at dance class without truly wanting to be there, and that passion shows. Confidence means scrapping the timid movements in the back of the class and just going for it – making a movement your own and trusting your body to follow through.
Jasmin: Taking the basic exercises we've learnt in ballet and practicing them horizontally on the floor is what people in the ~industry~ call “floor-barre”. Undertaking this class was a welcomed change from our regular ballet sessions. We focused on stretching, flexing, and pointing the feet, as well as strengthening and lengthening the back. The exercises complemented the positions we had worked on in ballet, and being able to carry out these movements lying down was an added bonus!
Emily: We returned back to the first basic ballet instructor from last week. I was a little anxious, but muscle memory took over during the warm-up routines, which let me focus on the posture and extensions I had learned in the barre class. When it came to turns, I still struggled, and at one point I was just spinning and kicking up my leg in the back row praying no one noticed. By the third time, my feet snagged the rhythm, my pirouette spin wasn’t nearly as sloppy, and I didn’t get dizzy because I was spotting. All in all, major improvement.
Emily: I’ve never liked having the spotlight on me, and my shyness makes it very easy to meld into the background of many situations. But with ballet I feel the exact opposite. During my time as a ballerina-in-training, I found that dance isn’t necessarily about striving for the spotlight but making your own instead. Despite my lack of coordination and rhythm with ballet, I learnt that each day I need to muster up the same poise and confidence I did in class this week, constantly telling myself there’s something to improve.
I thought ballet was a moving train you could only jump on when you were young, but with enough practice, anyone can strive for graceful perfection. My biopic of this experience, where I go undercover as a ballerina and fall in love with a hunky dancer, Dance With All Your Heart 2, will be hitting theatres this Christmas.
Jasmin: Honestly, I’m going to miss having to hold my head up high, extend my hands, and point my feet – because when can you normally act like there’s a tiara on your head or a mimosa in your hand?! OK, maybe I won’t have to pretend to act out the latter. Undertaking daily ballet and supplemental exercise classes taught me the importance of poise and posture. Now, I’m not saying I’m going to carry myself like a ballerina from here on out, but I definitely have a greater understanding of how to lengthen my body and improve my form.
For now, at least until my calves stop aching, it’s time to hang up my ballet shoes, but this adventure has given me the confidence to try new things and really go beyond my comfort zone, especially because you never know what you’re capable of until you try it.
Aubree: This week was amazing! I would give this week a gold star if I could. I spent half the time sweating my arse off and looking a fool and the other half feeling like I was in some sort of buddy comedy, where older people are undercover at a performing arts high school. Think 21 Jump Street meets Never Been Kissed – with a dash of Step Up (cause you always need a dash of that!). There were points I was so embarrassed I wanted to curl up into a ball and die, but I pushed through and tried harder to learn the step or the beat or stretch – whatever the hell I was trying to learn. I know I’m probably making everyone gag, but, seriously, it was a great way to kick off 2017! And BDC, you haven’t seen the last of me! Sorry not sorry.
Priya: When was the last time you felt proud of your body? Beyond dropping a few pounds here and there before a milestone or successfully running onto the tube as the doors close? This week didn’t leave me with the killer skills I secretly hoped for, but it did leave me with a deeper appreciation for my body that came from an understanding of what it can do, rather than how it looks.
As you get older, not only do your inhibitions sometimes get greater, but the idea of having a hobby becomes less common, especially a new one. Earlier this week, I admired how the youngest and oldest students danced in classes with the least inhibition. I’ve had to push myself both mentally and physically to adopt this approach even slightly. I’ll look back on this experience with a different kind of montage of progress to what I had naively expected. Less popping and locking, and more aching, stumbling, and stifled laughing with Aubree. Maybe that’s what my mum meant when she said “a potato has to be created to be purposeful”.
Dancing requires constant development of your flexibility, stamina, and coordination, but it also requires respect and confidence in your body along the way. Thanks to the sense of community at BDC, I left feeling more inspired than disheartened.
Photographs by Lennon & Stone