TasDance in Launceston staged its end-of-year show over the weekend and I went because our son does the hip hop class there. It quickly became apparent that dance, like music, can inspire all manner of grace in every part of the population.
If you’ve had the chance to see the Australian television program Don’t Stop the Music, you’ll know the effects learning music can have on a school population – everything from firing young imaginations to completely revolutionising attendance records. There can be no doubt that dance has the same kind of power.
I feel a little bit qualified to talk about performance because my degree is in Theatre Studies and Dramatic Arts (darling). I do still work partly in the creative arts so it wasn’t a complete waste of time or like writing your name on a piece of toilet paper, as an accountant friend once suggested (I don’t see much of her anymore). And sometimes when I see a piece of performance, it all comes back to me and I remember why the arts are important.
The TasDance show was perfect in one particular crucial way and the very first piece exemplified it. The music began, and a crowd of little girls in simple pale green outfits, leggings and a t-shirt, trotted onto the stage on graceful tiptoe. Two of them towed a single long stretch of white satin behind them. For the next five minutes they worked as one, their average age all of about five, circling with the satin cradled in their arms, sitting with the satin over their legs and wiggling them so it looked like a river, flapping the satin over their heads so perhaps it was like rain. They kept discreet eye contact, and beamed helplessly throughout with a kind of quiet glee. I’m smiling as I tap this out and remember it.
This is the best kind of performance, because it relies not on expensive props, costumes or staging, but on simple presentation and the performer’s art. I’ve seen fantastic work done this way, by cash poor but talent rich theatre companies, and by major dance companies. It keeps the choices simple, and lets the work and the talent shine.
The show just got better from there, and there was so much to like. Slightly older groups of girls in simple leotards and ballet skirts performed with an elegant adult ballerina. She danced among them, and then they all played out a scene in which she pretended to be their teacher, fluffing their skirts down and appraising their work. The theme of nurturing and passing on learning was then continued so beautifully, when an girl of about eight stood just ahead of a group of tiny tots in little pink leotards and sparkly skirts and slowly led them through their simple, graceful movements, looking back all the while to make sure they were keeping up.
TasDance has a strong community focus and offers open classes for grown-ups as well, and so next a line of ladies with parasols brought a slow serenity and romance, playing out their piece against Renoir paintings projected onto the back wall.
The simple costume choices and showcasing of the craft continued when teen dancers appeared in primary coloured shirts. Because the artistic direction and the choreography was so assured, the piece was as every bit as watchable as any mature-age dance ensemble. Contemporary dance is particularly expressive and mesmerising, and the beauty of it is that you can mix accomplished performers with enthusiasts and not only get away with it, but produce a piece that sings.
It was great to see boys as well as girls doing this form. Moving in this deliberate and powerful way gives you a sense of confidence and coordination, self and identity, and that’s incredibly valuable for teens. There were one or two performers whose work stood out and it’s a precious thing about dance and music that all levels of talent can work in ensemble, support and showcase each other. That’s inclusiveness for you, writ large.
By the time the little girls had been on, I had turned into the weeping second-row tragic I always am, and had accepted the inevitable loss of my mascara over the remainder of the show. As each short piece ended there was a round of applause. I often find myself wishing that parents would clap more warmly and for longer than they sometimes do at these things. Don’t they know, can’t they imagine how hard these small people have worked and what courage they have mustered to be there? I have no self-restraint in these circumstances, so it was no surprise to me when there was a sudden whoop during the hip hop piece. It escaped me unbidden, I couldn’t help myself, people were doing things on stage that were just grand, very exciting, and which would result in a gastric torsion if I myself tried to do them. Fair play to them. And fair play to the rest of the audience too, because by the end of the show there was whooping and effusive clapping all round as everybody got caught up in the mood.
Finally my own son, who only joined the hip hop class because his very confident friend did, took his spot mid-stage and threw some fancy footwork and a line of cute street moves that he’s been doing around the kitchen for the past few weeks. Cool as a cucumber. More whooping.
So if the ladies had elegance, the little tots had sweetness, the hip hop kids pulled some attitude, and the teens showcased what self-possessed talents they are emerging to be, what does it all mean ultimately and why is it important?
Because apparently when human beings first got going many thousands of years ago, emerged from Africa and made their way east around the globe populating it, at some point they met up with themselves. And it’s believed that the way they created détente and went on to form tribes and get on with life was by sitting around a campfire and doing things like singing, dancing, telling stories and laughing. So the arts aren’t just a pastime, they’re survival mechanisms, they’re things that define us as a species, draw us together and help us communicate. That’s why they’re important. They are amongst our most ancient, most deeply ingrained and most defining instincts.
So don’t stop the music, and don’t stop the dance. Vote for people who understand these things at the next election. Send your kids to dance as well as sport. And sign up for one of TasDance’s classes next year. They’ll bring out moves you never knew you had. And whooping. Don’t forget the whooping.