Dancing fools!


Just give me a chance and
My tuxedo pants and
Presto! I’m a dancing fool.

– ‘Dancin’ Fool’ from Barry Manilow’s Copacabana.

I have mentioned before that dance is not my strongest point in terms of stage performance.  This is probably due to a lack of training as much as anything else (but when would I squeeze in time for dance lessons?).  Still, I do enjoy it and with each show enjoy it more.  I also appreciate more and more how useful my memory is when it comes to dance – no matter how much pizzazz I may or may not display, I am a fast learner and worryingly good at remembering things.  This sometimes leads to a strange situation where a trained dancer who has worked professionally in the field will ask me what the steps are – they can obviously do them an awful lot better than me, but can’t remember them as well as I can!

Luckily, as well as my memory, I have an additional secret weapon when it comes to dancing, and that’s my characters.  In shows which involve dance, I am almost always playing a character who is best described as a fool.  Of course, you have to stay in character at all times on stage, so if they’re a fool when they’re talking, and a fool when they’re singing, there’s a very good chance that they’re a fool when they’re dancing.  Sometimes they have a distinctive way of moving, which carries over into dance, sometimes they take themselves so much more seriously than others do and this shows in their facial expressions as they move.  Whatever effect the character happens to have, it means that I can dance with confidence, regardless of poise, elan or style – after all, it’s not me that’s dancing, it’s Gerald, or Prez or whoever else I am pretending to be.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t try to get things right.  It is a source of pride to get things right on stage (possibly to a near-neurotic degree, since I am very rarely satisfied with even a single scene), and dance is no exception.  It just creates a slightly different attitude.  In The Pajama Game, for instance, Prez is very enthusiastic when it comes to the dance routines (largely because there are women involved, and they aren’t ignoring him), so to stay in character, his movements have to be big and he has to be smiling.  And what does the choreographer want?  Big movements, and smiles.  I can throw myself at the dance with a lack of my natural inhibition because Prez isn’t in the least bit inhibited.  In a strange way, thinking about my character makes me worry less about the dancing (not that I’m *not* worrying about the character as well, just less so) and it certainly helps with the whole energy thing – the Singing Librarian may be tired, but Prez isn’t, and must not appear to be so.  Particularly when ‘energetic’ and ‘ethusiastic’ are about as far as his characterisation goes.

Of course, there are times when character gets completely overridden by dance routines (particularly for curtain call purposes) and the entire company must become a well-oiled, synchronised machine.  At these moments, I tend to hope that I’m stuck somewhere invisible and that I get things close enough to right that I don’t stick out.  The steps will be in the right order, and probably on the right beats of the bar (unless the choreographer insists that in a four-beat bar you do ‘run-run-drop’ on the beats, which in my mind leaves a beat left over – somehow the proper dancy people don’t seem to have this issue).  There are times when I want to scream because I just don’t ‘speak’ dance at all, so telling me the name of a step is likely to cause no more movement than it takes for a blank look to appear on my face.  And I often have to break things down to a quite ridiculous level – “OK, wait, so the left hand goes up and round, while the right foot turns ninety degrees, and…hang on, my head is in a different direction to his, so…”  Due to the lack of visual recall capacity, I have to rely on muscle memory during the learning process or essentially ‘sing’ the dance in my head as a series of steps which fit the tune.  Perhaps that’s common, I don’t know.  Once I know the dance, I find that I can’t consciously think about it too much or it evaporates.

I’m definitely getting better with time.  When I started, I was an awkward lump, and I’m definitely beyond that stage now.  And I’m not saying I’m a terrible dancer.  What I do is fine for what I am called upon to do.  Even if it wasn’t too late to start learning (and it really is), I’ll never be a graceful, controlled dancer who can pirouette in his sleep.  And that’s OK, I don’t need to be.  I can use my memory, my determination and my energy to attack a dance routine and really enjoy it.  And I think if I’m enjoying it, there’s a good chance the audience will as well.  That’s a definite plus side to being a dancing fool.

  1. Dance is the same as any other skill: the more you practice it, the better you get. I definitely found that, on occasions when I’d been doing a show that didn’t require dancing, if I then went to one which *did*, I would be falling over my feet on the simplest steps. It would always get better as I got back into it, but it just goes to show for how much muscle memory counts.

    The best thing about being someone who can pick up a routine and remember it well is that an audience doesn’t notice the people who get it right, but the people who get it wrong. You’ll blend into the background fine as long as you’re in time with the rest of the dancers!

  2. That’s fascinating, David. Really intriguing. I bet you are better at it than you thing, as well.

    Ben

    • Trish
    • March 18th, 2010

    It is interesting that you say that when you know the dance you can’t consciously think about it too much or it evaporates. It makes you wonder how much dancing is kind of ‘hard wired’ into the brain.

    In ballroom dancing, for example, sometimes you just know intuitively what the next step is going to be. The same applies to singing. Often you just know what the next note is going to be even if you have never heard the song before.

  3. I thought you were amazing on Tuesday and you were incredibly acrobatic 🙂

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