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Critic on Stage: Why I'm Taking a Modern Dance Class

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This week I found myself standing in a chilly dance studio in leggings and a scruffy t-shirt, racing through memories of the past twenty years of my life, hunting for a highlight - to choreograph. This was the challenge set in my first ever dance class.

For the past two years I've been an arts journalist, writing about everything from classical ballet to wildly abstract modern dance. But I've never had any actual hands-on dancing experience myself, and thought it was about time I got some. So when browsing the website of The Lowry, a theatre and arts centre in Salford, looking for shows to write about, something caught my eye. Ten weeks of contemporary dance taught by a professional choreographer, followed by an on-stage performance - all levels welcome. Details were sparse, but I gave it no more than a minute's thought before signing up.

Buyer's remorse quickly set in; the closest I'd come to performing was a clumsy salsa routine at a Zumba class I was dragged to against my will. I spend my time critiquing how dancers move and what choreographers create, but what would it be like to actually dance in front of an audience?

Day 1

I head to the dance studio, tucked away in a corner of the sprawling Lowry, and get to know my 12 classmates. There's a casual, relaxed atmosphere in the studio, which has sweeping night-time views across Salford Quays and the striking Imperial War Museum.

The course is led by Ruth Tyson-Jones, a choreographer who has run a number of community dance projects over the past two decades and is known for her site-specific work - dancing on escalators, in supermarkets, outdoors. After a brief introduction, she begins with the warm-up. Floor exercises and simple stretches where we're encouraged to think about the shape of our spine, use the weight of our bodies to balance and stretch, and strengthen our core.

"A dancer doesn't move with their shoulders scrunched up around their ears," instructs Ruth. "Your shoulder blades should come right down your back." Contemporary dancing is also very grounded; we learn a gentle but firm plié where the weight is in the lower body and the spine is never curved. These are all simple techniques and methods that I've been told about by people I've interviewed, but now I'm really thinking about them and knowing how it feels to hold my body in that way.

"I can do contemporary dance," I think smugly, balancing on one foot with ease. But applying these techniques while standing is one thing; they soon fly out of my head when given a small routine to follow. I'm entirely focussed on just remembering the steps of the exercise, let alone where my shoulder blades are or how straight my spine is. As I try to keep in time with the others, my arms and legs flail around in a horribly ungainly manner, and I move unsteadily around the studio like a kitten learning to walk. I'm suddenly very glad I have ten weeks of class before the performance on stage and wonder if that will be enough...

During the final part of the three-hour class, we're told to pick a highlight of the past two decades, a happy memory that makes us smile. My mind races through holidays, family gatherings, nights out, successes at work, but I settle on my decision, after finishing my law degree, to break into journalism instead of qualifying as a solicitor. I feel this might be cheating just a little: not something I purely associate with happiness, this memory also brings up feelings of confusion and uncertainty.

We stand in a straight line, eyes closed, while coming up with a short dance routine set to the highlight. This is the bit I had expected to dread - the creative, imaginative bit. To my surprise, I just get on with it, despite feeling self-conscious. But four minutes of 'exploring choreography' is a long time, losing my balance and changing my mind about how to move. Knowing everyone else has their eyes closed certainly helps.

I settle on spinning around a little to represent confusion, then a sort of taekwondo thing for the happier bits of the memory. I'm sure it's too strictly interpretive and literal - choreography 101. But for first attempt I think it's not half bad.

We split into two groups and perform for each other. My fellow dancers are brilliant - expressive, witty, agile. At the end of the class, as I gather up my things and get ready to leave, a classmate asks: "Is this your first time dancing?"

Is it that obvious?

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