Thursday, 13 June 2013

Teaching memories - early days at Croydon's Fairfield Halls

It’s true the room isn’t the most salubrious. There’s a bar at one end and those green walls and brown paintwork do lower the spirits somewhat. But roll back the carpet and there’s a beautiful sprung wooden dance floor just begging us to dance on it and tall mirrors along one of the long walls. The mirrors are too slender and too few to work for a dance class, but I've bought five nice big ones to fill in the spaces and there they stand, inviting the students to watch themselves as they move.

Most of all it’s private. Because I have the fear that my advertising will bring young men to laugh and jeer at us. But access to our room is down a long corridor to the very back of the building and if we close the big double doors there’s only a tiny window to peer through if you really want to see what’s going on.

So what is going on?

Well, it’s a nice big class, bigger than I could have dreamed. Every week around twenty five women of all ages and varying skin colour clatter into the room. They are Turkish and Greek and Pakistani and West Indian and, yes, white English too. But most of all there are those girls I always associate with Croydon: with skin the colour of milk coffee, an indeterminate heritage and an accent to burst your eardrums.

Nails are long, false and appliquéd. Hair is ironed straight or pulled back tightly into what’s known as a ‘Croydon facelift.’ And these Croydon girls are so fast talking and so feisty and funny that I fall in love with them instantly.

I’m going to veer off here, because I realise that once women become part of my life I tend to refer to them as ‘girls’. I got into a Facebook debate recently with some American dancers who were strongly objecting to being referred to as girls by dance teachers, saying it infantilises women and puts a dance student into a position of inferiority. I was mortified because I know I use it a lot, so I checked with my students. They were honestly perplexed at the idea that they might be offended.

In the UK we often use the diminutives ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ when we are talking with affection about people. Women will say they’re going for a night out with the girls and men will say they are going for a night out with the boys or the lads. It implies friendship and being part of a group. So when I talk about my girls, I kind of mean my gang, my people, whereas calling them ladies or women would distance me somewhat.

My girls are just as likely to be 80 as 18. They may be hairdressers or fund managers. But they’re my girls and I love them.

So here we are in my Croydon class. It's 2003 and I’ve started to develop a technique now - my own way of teaching. The classes are drop in style, which means new people are starting each week. Which of course means I do the 'pencil talk' each week.

We finish our warm up and then I go over to the new class members. I gather them closely around me and I lower my voice confidentially, as if I’m about to impart a big secret. The others exchange smiles and knowing looks. They know what I'm about to say.

The new women lean towards me and I quietly tell them: “I need you to imagine you have a pencil, where you don’t think I could possibly mean I want you to have a pencil.” Most understand immediately - I see the recognition move across their faces. And then they always laugh. So I continue: “I need you to squeeze that pencil and lift it up - the point facing downwards so you don’t do yourself an injury!” More laughter. “And then we’re going to draw with it!”

Every week I worry in case someone takes it badly, but the laughter always seems real and delighted. And the rest of the class look at them and laugh with them. And it feels like the new women have just been initiated into the sisterhood of bellydancers. They’ve had the pencil talk!

If you want to understand the pencil talk, see my posts here or here...

So here we are, we've had the pencil talk and despite the mirrors, we're standing in a circle, with me in the centre. The circle creates a sense of togetherness and means everyone can see me and I can see them. Most of all, it means they can take real pleasure in seeing each other trying out the moves. Moves that make the hips bounce, the flesh quiver and the whole body undulate. Moves that are beautiful, sensual, and more than a little flirty.

And they love expressing that flirtatiousness, in the way women so often do when they are together. See a group of women dancing at a nightclub, handbags in the centre of the circle? They’re probably dancing more for each other, than for the men watching.

And the women in my class feel safe, because in the circle they can see that everyone is finding it a bit more difficult than they’d expected; but they can also see how each of them is improving over the weeks. And the circle feels like they are sharing this experience.

And they're learning how to create circles and figures of eights with their hips - taking them backwards, forwards, up and down, how to make their hips nice and sharp for hip drops, snaps and hits, how to gently undulate forwards and back, how to create beautiful snake arms and of course how to shimmy their hips and shoulders.

And now some of them have been coming for several months and we need to start to put the moves they’ve learned into travelling steps. Side to side, forwards and back. Learning our lefts from our rights and how to transition from one move into another. It’s time to introduce an intermediate class.

Which is where the mirrors come in. We’d get far too muddled trying to do that in the circle, so now we move into lines. My back to them so they can copy me, and all facing the mirrors so they watch themselves at the same time.

It's scary for them at first. They don't like looking at themselves in the mirrors at the best of times, but a full length mirror in a room with shockingly unflattering lighting? No way! So I tell them how mirrors are not there for hating how big your bum is or beating yourself up for not sticking to that diet you started. No, they're there to check whether you're doing the move the same way I am. Nothing more than that.

And I notice how each one of them is starting to have her own place in the room by now.  To my left or right, front row or back, next to their friend or right out on the edge. If anyone arrives late in class and the others are already in their lines, she’ll still head straight for that spot. And the line will move to accommodate her. Because everyone knows that’s her place.

The only thing that upsets the natural order of things is when someone realises which mirror is the slim one. Because of course every woman knows that some mirrors are fat, some are slim. It’s a very slight instance of the effect of fairground distorting mirrors - the glass doesn’t quite lay flat or something. But the result is a seeming couple of inches off the waistline of the viewer and there’s a sudden jostling for the space in front.

We’ve never really worked out which one is the slim mirror, and even if I did know, I’d never mark it. Each week I stack the mirrors away in a different order and I forget which one cheered them up so much. It cheers me up too. There’s nothing like a slim mirror for making you feel better about yourself. Until you move away and realise it was just an illusion.

And as the weeks go on I’m telling them how well they’re doing, and how gorgeous they’re looking (because they are) and they are starting to believe me now. They are feeling a little more feminine, a little bit lovelier, a little bit better about themselves day by day. I watch them coming into class tired and stressed from the office or the home. And as the hour goes on I see their tired bodies start to lift, their stiff shoulders drop, and their laughter starts to fill the room.

And after class I smile to hear the sound of that laughter blended with the jingle of coin hip belts ringing down the corridor as they leave for their buses, their cars and their trains.

My girls.


  1. The really bizarre thing is that it doesn't go away either. I've now been unable to attend your classes for almost 6 years (if you can believe that) and yet I still know that I'm one of your girls. Its hard to describe the feeling that goes with the label but it certainly isn't a negative one. Its not quite pride and not quite belonging, but sort of a mixture of the two.
    You never stop being "one of Charlotte's girls".

    1. Ahhhh, and I always think of you all as my girls, no matter how long since I last saw you! But is it really 6 years?? That's so long (and so sad)

      I wish you could see the rest of the chapter. I've just finished it and it describes many of the girls you know so well (and mentions you of course) I just didn't want to publish that bit publicly yet...


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