The value in really terrible childhood dancing
Earlier this week I was asked to do an interview on my career so far, and when I got asked the question:
“Kirsty – how did you get to where you are today?”
I panicked a little, felt awkward and adopted my go to position of telling the truth through bad jokes.
“Erm…mainly cynicism & flippancy, mixed with an unfaltering, though probably misguided, self belief”
“And where did that self belief come from?”
“Oh! erm…I was a bit of a stage kid”
And that question, and in turn my awkward answer, struck me a little; so much so that I’m now writing a blog post about it.
What struck was the truth of it. I really do have an entirely misguided, but genuinely unfaltering, self belief.
What I mean by self belief is the ability to have the confidence to feel as though, if you really tried, you can probably do most things that require an able bodied, middling intelligence person to do. Over time, and with effort, if I really, really wanted to. Whilst also acknowledging that there’s many, many people who could equally do it significantly better. And it’s misguided because it leaves me impatient, reckless, confused and not unfalteringly modest.
I then started thinking where it came from, I knew straight away what the answer was and that, ladies and gentleman, is this.
If you were to vote who the least cool siblings in Stoke-on-Trent were in about 1994, my brother Kieran (who remains to this day my best friend and an esteemed 4am Fosse choreographer) and I would win hands down. Not because there is anything inherently uncool about dancing, in fact I think most would agree quite the opposite, but I was so bad at it.
Like, really bad. Terribly, awfully, not even adorably, bad.
I was inflexible, clumsy, not good at remembering the steps and for the most part, cripplingly self conscious. My mum has an amazing VHS of me doing a gym routine where all the other boys and girls glide and bend across the stage – graceful and lithe – with the ultimate glorious finale of cartwheeling in a diagonal line to a crowd of adoring parents. I bring up the back – stiff and stout – and do a single, sad, bunnyhop to a crowd of pitying parents (and my mum, who somehow managed to remain both straight-faced and consistently pleased with my output).
I’ll have to dig it out and film it on my phone. When I watch now I cry with hysterical laughter, but there’s some real tears in there too, because I am still, after all, that chubby little girl that was really embarrassed and felt very small.
That feeling is one that is fairly symptomatic of my childhood. I by no means had a bad time, my family are amazing, I had whatever I wanted (apart from a Mr Freeze that I am still waiting for for my 5th birthday from my brothers) and was given unconditional support and encouragement to pursue, or quit, any of my whims at any time. I was happy and well rounded in myself, but in groups, became overwhelmingly shy.
I was just much fatter and not as pretty as the other girls. I wasn’t in their ‘group’, probably because I offered very little other than looking at my feet during breaks and theirs during lessons. I struggled making friends, pissed myself for probably longer than I should have and used to queue for the tuck shop even when I didn’t have any money because I didn’t want people to see I was alone.
Alongside side of that lonely awkward sadness, though, there was a show-off desperately seeking attention. At about this time I used to play a game called ‘dead’; it was a largely solitary game where I’d lie motionless on the floor for as long as it took for someone to panic and come to my aid. Or more often, for my mum to go ‘Kirsty get up. We know you’re not dead’. Still, it shows that I was a girl that did not want to go unnoticed, I wanted to be seen and heard; I just hadn’t quite worked out how to do that yet.
I don’t think this is just me, all children, and probably adults, too, are just ill formed weirdos that haven’t worked out what the fuck is going on yet and think that playing dead is an appropriate way to define your identify as a thoughtful, conscious being. For those of you still experimenting, get up, it isn’t.
So my outlet for this became performing, and this performing had different guises over the years. I danced, badly. I acted, terribly. I played the cello, appallingly, all the while being fantastically shy. I should note, this was never down to any encouragement from my parents. This was all me, if anything, they got frustrated and probably hoped I’d find something I actually liked one day, but they went along with it all regardless. My dad ferrying me across Staffordshire to go to county choir on Mondays and going to more recorder festivals than any one metal fan from the Midlands should have to bare; but in the fleeting moments I decided that a career in a Baroque chamber orchestra, or in a West End chorus, or in an a-religious gospel choir was my one true destiny then, so be it.
The start bit, where you’d have to walk in and talk to the other people in the group, horrendous. Though when the lights were on and the music went up I became my own, sorry, Sasha Fierce.
Macclesfield drama festival, 1996. That was the most nervous I recall ever feeling in my entire life. I was sitting in a school hall, with some crumpled notes in my lap, eating a Twix with shaking hands. I had to deliver a monologue on stage any minute. There were trophies to be won and I’d been memorising it for weeks. It was an excerpt from the Big Friendly Giant. I liked that book. I could memorise the words OK but I wasn’t very good at acting them. I spoke too quickly and my voice got shaky. I just needed to get it over with, then it would be done, and I would feel good and my mum would get me a Boyzone magazine and a Flump. Even if I messed it up it would be fine because it’s the taking part that counts.
“It’s the taking part that counts, isn’t it mum?”
“Yes duck, just do your best”.
My best! I could just do my best! And I did. I went on the stage, in front of a big crowd and judging panel and I did my best.
My best was probably shite.
I can’t really remember how it went; though I do distinctly remember not winning, but still feeling triumphant. Probably because it was over, and my mum was proud, and I had a Flump.
In fact, most of the things I did were probably shite, (apart from when I played Nancy, I was born to play Nancy) and I knew it, and I didn’t care very much because I was for that day, having a go and being heard, which is all I cared about.
And as I got older the fake confidence I gained through my daft performances started to slowly creep in to my identity, and I became better in groups and made friends that I’m lucky enough to still have today. Sure, I’d still much rather do a badly executed Charleston in a feather boa to an audience of 100 than have to network with a room of 20 strangers, but we all have our preferences.
In short; my potent mix of attention seeking self conscious shyness, made me perpetually thrust myself in to terrifying situations because I knew that there was value in just having a crack. That if it goes wrong, that it really doesn’t matter and it never turns out quite as scary as it seems (apart from that time I got my ears pierced, that was fucking horrible). And for me, that took the form of awkward dancing and tuneless piano playing but it could be needlework (another favourite of Kieran’s), sports (never tried it), or anything that requires you do your best.
And the reason my answer struck me so much is that I saw that shy, small girl delivering a crumpled monologue in every decision I have made in my adult career.
So when she asked me the question, what I really should have said is that:
“Spending a lot of time performing as a child taught me that there really is value in just having a go. That failure is only in your own head, nobody else really cares and all you can do is your best. And if it goes tits up, pick something else and try again. I recommend jazz dance.”