Once a Dancer | Diana Evans | Granta

Once a Dancer

Diana Evans

One cold, dark Monday night in a March of my midlife, in that moment of winter when spring wants to hold on a little longer before arriving, I travelled across London to a bathhouse basement in King’s Cross to learn the dance routine to Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies’. The basement was part of an establishment called Drink, Shop & Do, and like several feel-good, eclectic pop-ups founded by twenty-first-century entrepreneurs, it no longer exists post-pandemic. The idea was that one might wander in from the urban concourse and hang out in the bright-toned cafe, maybe browse for a while the gift cards or jewellery on sale in a corner, and then, if the mood took you, or indeed if you had come especially, you could venture downstairs to the bare floor and the waiting music to get your freak on. There were many other activities offered under ‘Do’, as I recall, such as candle making, Lego robot construction and tea towel screen-printing. It was a nice concept, just flimsy in the face of a plague.

We gathered, us women – there were no men – in the subterranean dim, shyly at the edges, apart from the usual one or two dance-class regulars who knew the moves or each other or the teacher or just didn’t mind being upfront and visible while shaking it. We set down our bags by the wall and took off our coats. We were wearing leggings and fluorescent trainers, sports bras, scrunchies and ventilated T-shirts, and all of us wanted to move like Beyoncé in that monumental black-and-white video of 2008, while at the same time remaining respectfully aware that we would not. She was a recurrent theme at Drink, Shop & Do, her slew of hits headlining many a dance class – ‘Crazy in Love’, ‘Run the World’ – sometimes she even made a personal appearance (via an impersonator). Her dexterous, swift-footed routines were taught by resident dance teacher Jemima Bloom, whose repertoire also included tango, belly dancing and flamenco.

At that time I was missing dancing. It’s a feeling that still comes over me, the need to stretch, leap, shake, flex, snap, flicker, shimmy, mosey, step, strut and swipe in an open space with the air zipping past my face and music surrounding, directing. To lose control in a melody. To be fast and in flight, and in so doing, to escape the world. Having shifted occupations from dancing to writing some years earlier, thus now being a person who spent much of the working day in a chair where once I had been on my feet, in motion, I missed the abandon and swirl of the theatrical life, the waking up of a morning to the prospect of consistent, purposeful movement. And so I went to a class sometimes. I had tried African, Afro-Cuban, Caribbean, jazz, contemporary, African contemporary. I had been to The Place in Euston, Pineapple Dance Studios in Covent Garden, to the IRIE! dance theatre headquarters in Deptford to try a reggae fusion style, all in an effort to retaliate against my swivel chair and reconnect with flight. It never quite filled the movement void. It was never quite high enough. I was an outsider now, had conceded to gravity.

In the corner of the Drink, Shop & Do basement was a battered old grand piano next to a few stacks of plastic chairs. On the wall were five glittery, jumpy silver letters saying dance! Having set up her music system, Jemima announced that it was time, whereupon the majority of us positioned ourselves as close to the back as possible, away from the accusatory frontal mirrors. It can put you off your steps, glimpsing yourself fluffing the routine or struggling to keep up, getting a sense of what your body looks like in relation to other bodies. The attendees at the front are watched from behind as exemplars, demonstrators, and for a routine as complicated as ‘Single Ladies’, they would be referred to here with the utmost need and intensity. Street dance is hard. Of all the styles I’ve tried it’s the one I’ve found the most difficult. There is so much intricately timed coordination required, with the snapping of the head and the pumping of an arm and then the mathematics of the feet, hands and hips. Every time I’ve tried street dance I’ve felt like a marionette manoeuvred by a mismatched puppeteer – as cool as it looks in the videos, it’s not my natural language.

Diana Evans

Diana Evans is the author of four novels, including The Wonder, A House for Alice and Ordinary People, which won the South Bank Sky Arts Award for Literature and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

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