Feature: Being a Dancer

Wednesday 5 August 2015

A new book, Being A Dancer (Nick Hern Books, rrp: £9.99), is packed with advice for aspiring dancers and choreographers from leading figures in the worlds of ballet, contemporary, S. Asian dance, musical theatre and hip hop. Author Lyndsey Winship tells us why she wrote it and shares a few extracts…

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Lyndsey Winship

When I was young, going to ballet classes every week, the world of professional dance remained mostly a mystery to me. There were only a few dance books in the library, and none of them told me how you might actually become a dancer. Fast-forward a couple of decades and I now spend my working life watching the dance world up-close, so I thought it was time to put together that book: a practical guide to a dancer’s life, in the words of those who are living it.

For Being a Dancer I spoke to 25 dancers and choreographers, grabbing an hour between rehearsals or a chat before curtain up – over 20 hours of interviews in total – to find out how they made it in this notoriously tough career. I sought advice from artists across different styles who had all taken different paths. Some had trained since they were toddlers, others didn’t take dance seriously until their late teens. Some had taken traditional routes and joined established companies, others had forged their own careers and created their own opportunities. Some had natural physical aptitude, others were told they didn’t have what it takes to make it. The (heartening) moral of that tale is there’s no single way to make a career in dance.

The contributors were unfailingly open and honest about their own experiences, revealing the good luck and hard knocks they’d had along the way. There were things they disagreed about – what you should wear for an audition, for example. One person’s ‘standing out’ is another person’s ‘trying too hard’ – but the one thing they absolutely all agreed on was that the non-negotiable key to success is hard work. Monumental graft. Complete dedication. And there’s no shortcut. But, there might just be ways to be smart about it, and those are the nuggets I wanted to uncover.

Although the book will be most useful for dance students and young dancers starting out in their careers, I hope there’s plenty to interest the wider reader, whether that’s discovering the rituals and dramas of the dance world, getting an insight into the working lives of some of the world’s top performers, or being inspired by their stories of discipline, resilience and motivation – things we could all use a bit of in our lives.

From Being a Dancer
…on the need to dance
Darcey Bussell
I think without doubt it’s the best job in the world. Using your physicality, your moving body, as a way of lifting the spirit; that buzz of exhilaration and inspiration, being able to express yourself. And creating a bit of magic, transporting people out of their everyday world. It’s a lovely escape.

Steven McRae
I remember my very first lesson. I was always that child who hid behind my mum’s leg. I don’t think of myself as shy, but I guess I was. But I can remember that first lesson spinning and jumping as high as I could. Suddenly I felt free.

Maxine Doyle
The best thing about working in dance is working with dancers. Dancers are amazing; they are generous, egoless, brilliant people. The best thing is being able to go to work and be inspired every day. It’s a privilege.

… on pre-show rituals
Aaron Sillis
Pre-show rituals are all part of the show. Setting out your costumes, getting your make-up and hair done – it is all the process of the show. Once you’re in that theatre, you’re at work, and it has a structure and I love that structure, it’s so exciting.

Tamara Rojo
I give myself time before the show. I will always be there about four hours before the show, doing my make-up, doing my hair. That’s always part of the transformation. I always feel that with make-up, you first erase yourself, and then you start building the character. So that’s all part of the process.

Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy
There’s this internal scream that I tend to do before I go on stage. It’s a roar that I do, then I go straight out and perform.

… on making mistakes
Matthew Bourne
I think the advice would always be to say that there’s no perfect performance. There will always be something you’re not happy with, and for a young dancer, accepting that is important. You will make mistakes, you will fall over or hit the scenery, or each other. It can seem a great tragedy, there are tears, but know that it doesn’t matter. Carry on, get on with it.

Melissa Hamilton
For a long time I used ballet as a way to validate myself. So if I did well, then I felt good. If I did badly, I felt horrendous, I would crumble. I’ve now got to the point where I don’t validate myself through ballet and it’s a lot easier to cope.

…one piece of advice for aspiring dancers
Carlos Acosta
The crucial thing is to dream big and work hard. Because you are only as big as your dreams and how hard you work to make them a reality. If you set your expectations very low, that’s all you’re going to be. The minute you say, ‘I’m satisfied,’ you stop growing.

Cassa Pancho
I wish I’d known that, just because other people talk like they know what they’re doing, it doesn’t mean they know anything. It’s okay to stick to your opinion. A lot of times I’ve been worried about offending somebody. I was usually the youngest person in the room and I’d think, ‘Well, if he thinks that and he’s forty he must really know.’ Now I look back and I can’t believe the absolute rubbish that some people talk.

Arlene Phillips
Never, ever give up. It doesn’t matter what happens – and there are huge disappointments – I think the best advice is give yourself a day and then move along. Don’t give up.

Being a Dancer is out now, published by Nick Hern Books. Get your copy for just £7.49 (25% off the rrp) plus free UK p&p – use discount code LONDONDANCE when purchasing via www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/beingadancer.
This offer is valid until 31 December 2015.

Lyndsey Winship is the Evening Standard’s dance critic and a regular contributor to the Guardian

Congratulations to Rachel Ong, Alison Gainford, Phi-long Le who all won copies of Being a Dancer in our competition last month.

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