As Michelle will tell you, it’s getting to the stage where look matters so much that the level of skill on display is becoming mediocre. Fleets of talented dancers who try – at least three quarters, by Michelle’s reckoning – don’t make it and many of those don’t because they simply can’t process the ruthlessness. You think the television shows provide changing rooms? Even The X Factor, with its vast budget, has them disrobing in a corner of the canteen.“No one’s out there striving to be the best they can be any more.” These days, she notices bad dancing everywhere. Like Steph says, to dance in London is “hard on the soul”. It wasn’t long ago that you’d be given five days of rehearsals for a job like that, now it’s two. They rush through the routines and you can get lost, with no chance to go over it again. As Michelle says: “You dance for the love and the passion and you just have to keep your mouth shut.All across London, they emerge from Tube stations and the doors of puttering buses into the cold street; bags slung over their shoulders and taut stomachs beneath thick winter overcoats.You wouldn’t recognise them, as they head for freezing upstairs rooms in tatty gymnasiums and slink into backstage theatre doors.Mostly you’ll just get a text or email notifying you of an audition and, in the commercial world, a single agent might have as many as 200 dancers on their books.As Michelle says, “They make a fortune and they don’t do much work.She sees it in the cleanliness and tidiness: there’ll be someone over there out of sync, someone over there who can’t hold her arm still. You have to ignore it, keep your head down, keep working. More and more, she’s turning up for jobs where the choreographer just stands there and clicks their fingers, “again, again, again”, and works them and works them and works them. And that’s hard.” Steph’s first real experience of a dancer’s London left her in tears.Steph is 27 now, and has the confidence and experience to speak up. Until that moment, she had been, by everyone’s consent, the greatest dancer in Skegness.
She was scouted from the local school and driven to the capital where she danced on the biggest stage she’d ever seen, under coloured lights and before rows and rows of enchanted, sparkling eyes. A safe, predictable future, working as a pharmacist in one of the two family chemists? The hardest thing she’s ever had to do is to sit there in the audience at her friends’ shows. The moment she qualified as a pharmacist she told her parents: “I’ve fulfilled your wishes. Where she naturally fell into the ballet stance that she’d been taught, everyone else hung cooly in a hunched, shoulders-forward posture that she’d never seen before. Hundreds of girls in full make-up, showing so much skin. She teaches at Pineapple, where she’s recognised as the country’s best practitioner of the US street style known as ‘waacking’.
And if the youngsters are fresh out of dance school, pulling pints in a Wetherspoons, despairing of their blank CV and craving the love of those ranks of sparkle-eyed strangers, they’ll always do it. Or you’ll be like Michelle, who was offered a job on the Rihanna tour only to have her dreams immediately humbled by reality. “Then I went to the rehearsals and they told me I had to walk across the stage with a briefcase, open it, close it and walk off again.
I’ve got a job I’ve wanted since the day dot and I’m walking with a briefcase!
In London it’s about who you know and how you look. And you’ve got to be the right height, have the right face and hair and sartorial style.
These days, even auditions are becoming rare as choreographers call in talent from the blessed pool of their own chosen. For some jobs, choreographers seek the beautiful, others are instructed to hunt the bland: the dancers, of course, can never be allowed to outshine the stars. The sooner you accept that, the more successful you’ll be.