Essay | On the Benefits of Dancing Naked in Public

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Image credit: Will Potts

Amber Massie-Blomfield


On the Benefits of Dancing Naked in Public


In the pub, Jemima raises both her arms above her, then swings one back, turning her head to follow the arc it makes in the air. “Something like that,” she says, sitting back down and taking a chip from the plate between us.

We are attempting a reconstruction. What we are attempting to reconstruct is a theatre show called Trilogy, made by an artist called Nic Green in 2009. Or to be more precise, we are attempting to reconstruct six minutes of it.

It began a few weeks previously, when, moving house, I came across an envelope in a box of forgotten things. Small and cream, worn feather soft. On the front, in my own handwriting, was my name, and an address I left behind years ago. Opening it, a smudgy black and white photograph slid out. Me aged 24, leaping skywards, mouth halfway between a shout and a grin. In the image, I’m not wearing any clothes.

I’d seen Trilogy for the first time at the Edinburgh fringe in August 2009. Everyone was buzzing about it: an ambitious two-hour production addressing, among other things, the patriarchy, female body image and the legacy of second wave feminism. A short dance routine performed by a group of naked women had particularly captured the public’s imagination. The dancers were volunteers, ordinary people from the Edinburgh community of all ages and backgrounds.

Afterwards I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I saw plenty of naked, or near naked, women in a culture hardwired on bare flesh as a means of selling things. But I hadn’t known how urgently I needed to encounter female forms like this: wobbly, real, untouched by the editor’s airbrush. How powerful they had seemed as they took possession of their own bodies and demanded the audience look at them in the way they wanted to be seen. When Green announced the show would transfer to London’s Barbican, and that she was looking for volunteers, I knew I had to take part.

Almost ten years on, I couldn’t remember much about the dance we’d performed. But looking at the photograph, I thought that if I spoke to enough people who had been there, I could piece it back together, as if it were a crime scene or a broken vase. Over Skype from Scotland, Sophie made the same gesture, standing up from her kitchen table and swinging her arms about her head. The human body replaces itself every seven years, but this it had retained. “It was wild and free and brilliant,” she said.

Why did it matter so much? Even as a person who has spent her career working in theatre, who believes fully in the transformative power of the arts, it seems remarkable to me that a simple dance routine, a few minutes long, performed three times a decade ago, could remain one of the definitive experiences of my life. Yet it is no exaggeration to say that Trilogy changed me. Those shivery January evenings at the Barbican were an opening; a time when I began to understand I had some autonomy over my relationship with my own body. It shifted the way I interacted with other women too. In the brief time we spent together, I felt a level of affinity and communal care I’d never experienced before.

That I could remember so little about the dance troubled me. A decade didn’t seem that long. But then I Googled it and recalled that Alexandra Burke and Joe McElderry were in the charts, that Jade Goody had just passed away and we all thought we were going to die of swine flu, and it seemed like a foreign country. Green gave an interview explaining her reasons for making the show: she said she had been working with a group of schoolgirls to help them discover what their vocations might be, and many of them said that they wanted to be footballers’ wives. The anecdote stuck with me not because the notion of young women growing up with the hope of being defined by their husbands’ occupations was so sad – although it was – but because of how accurately it seemed to capture a particular moment in history: the era of the WAG, Posh’s microshorts and Cheryl’s hair extensions, relics in amber.

Other things were yet to happen. Instagram and Beyonce’s Lemonade. I find it hard to believe now, but although I was committed to gender equality, the word ‘feminism’ was barely part of my vocabulary. Indeed, on the cusp of the third and the fourth waves, mainstream culture seemed to have forgotten Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer. I’d grown up with a career-orientated mother empowered by the gains achieved in the 1980s by feminism in the workplace, yet the word hadn’t really featured in my lexicon. If I ever heard it spoken, it was more likely to arise in misogynist jokes about armpit hair and dungarees than in discussions about an urgent and ongoing social struggle.

So the enacted politics Trilogy introduced to me were revelatory. Ten years on, I want to remind myself of all the things that dancing naked on that stage had unfolded for me, and to reconnect with the women I shared it with, too.

“Jumping. I remember some women not jumping so much because it would hurt, some women really going for it,” Jemima says. “There was jumping for sure. I don’t remember any more.”

***

Green, who had graduated from arts college in Glasgow a few years previously, was shocked when she heard the schoolgirls – some of them as young as eight – discussing their figures and comparing themselves to women in popular culture. As she listened, she wondered about the thoughts she’d been having about her own body. When had they begun? And where did they come from?

“I was looking at a lot of images in magazines, and of course they are all statuesque because they are static in a frame,” she explained. “I really wanted to celebrate the movement and the fleshiness of the body.” She asked Laura Bradshaw, a friend she’d studied with, to make a short performance sketch with her.

Just seventeen minutes long, the piece opened with the pair reading a series of quotes from Greer’s The Female Eunuch. Then, they danced, shedding their clothes as they did so. Deliberately unerotic, Green had created a choreography designed to accentuate the natural ways the female body moves. At the end, the volunteers joined them on stage and performed their routine.

Working on this exploded the issues of body image and the state of contemporary feminism for Green. She realised she had only begun to address all that she wanted to explore. Over time she developed the first sketch, eventually creating a two-hour long trilogy of pieces, performed with Bradshaw and three former classmates: Murray Wason, Louise Brodie and Jodie Wilkinson. The second part staged a fractured remounting of the iconic ‘Town Bloody Hall’ debate between Norman Mailer, Greer and her fellow feminists Jacqueline Ceballos, Jill Johnston and Diana Trilling, where in 1971 the state of women’s liberation had been thrashed out in raucous fashion. Green thought of the section as ‘a moment of passing on, passing by or passing over.’ 

Finally Green and Bradshaw delivered a performance lecture on feminist movements of the past and present, featuring a live reading of a ‘womanifesto’ over the telephone by Bradshaw’s mother. At the end of the show, Green invited women in the audience to join them on stage for a naked chorus of Jerusalem, the anthem of the Suffragette movement.

Developed through several work-in-progress sharings, the show premiered in Edinburgh the summer I saw it. It blew up. The media couldn’t get enough. ‘Naked Ambition!’; ‘Welcome to the Edinburgh Flesh-tival!’ the headlines screamed. Five-star reviews appeared in The Guardian, The Herald and The List, and awards followed: The Arches Award for Theatre Directors, a Herald Angel, and a Total Theatre Award nomination. “Sometimes you see a piece of theatre that makes your heart sing, makes you feel good about all of humanity, and makes you want to stand up and be counted. Nic Green’s Trilogy is such a work,” The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner wrote. The show subsequently went on to runs at Battersea Arts Centre and the Barbican, and a national tour.

The popularity of Trilogy astonished Green. For a group of recent graduates, who had created an experimental performance piece about what was at the time a deeply unfashionable political movement, to end up on the main stage of the Barbican, the largest arts centre in Europe, was remarkable. “We all worked for nothing for a long time on that project,” Green said. “We never thought it would go anywhere.”

 ***

“I did wonder if we should be having this chat naked,” Lucy* said, as she sat down in front of her laptop camera in Bristol. “But I’ve just bought this jumper, so I thought I’d wear that instead.”

Like me, Lucy first saw Trilogy in Edinburgh. She had married the year before, and had recently learnt her partner, who later transitioned to female, was exploring questions about gender identity. “I couldn’t speak to my partner in the first break, because I was so furious,” she told me. “I watched the dance, and obviously it was completely overwhelming. My overriding feeling was ‘this is mine and you’ve taken it away’… When they asked people to go on stage at the end, everything in my body was screaming ‘Do it. If you don’t do this it’s really significant.’ And I didn’t. I was glued to my seat.”

When she saw an advert for the show’s London transfer, she immediately signed up. “I had a weird out-of-body thing. I was like ‘My fingers are typing – fucking hell what am I doing!’. I sent it and that was the scariest part. I knew I wouldn’t back out.”

120 women, aged between 18 and 73, turned up at the Barbican on a dark January evening. I remember shrugging off my coat and glancing about me, trying not to think too hard about the fact this room full of strangers, who stood about stretching limbs and chatting with an ease I didn’t feel, would soon be seeing me naked.

We all had our reasons for being there. Sophie, who was in her late 40s at the time, explained that she was “at this absolute crossroads in my life. In November 2008 I had separated from my husband who I’d been with for 22 years. I had four sons, and I still loved him, yet in previous ten years I’d come to realise that I wanted to be with a woman.” Jemima was 17 and had just moved to London from Singapore to study, living alone for the first time. She was exploring a new identity, independent of her family. Her friend invited her to take part. “She was like, it’s going to be a big naked women dance. And I was like yes! Let’s do it!”

***

My own motivations were as complex as my relationship with my body. I was, I thought, a pretty liberated person, a graduate from an experimental arts degree in which I’d spent a lot of time covering myself in paint and participating in ‘contact improvisation’ sessions. My friends saw me as one of the most confident among them, unafraid to wear tiny bright minidresses or to approach men in bars. Yet my bluster masked a sense of shame about my body. I hated the web of stretchmarks across my hips that I’d had since adolescence, and I spent long hours at the gym trying to tone my stomach, which refused to flatten, however many meals I skipped. At the time I was living with an older man who – if not explicitly disapproving of my plan to take part – certainly found the notion ridiculous. Though I perhaps didn’t realise at the time, my insistence was a necessary signalling of the independence I would soon pursue.

On the first evening we played warm-up games: the Hokey Cokey and Rubber Chicken. Green had created an exercise that involved two participants making up dance moves for everyone else to copy, and my nerves began to dissipate as I invented silly walks to Kate Bush and Fleetwood Mac.

Afterwards, we worked on the routine, following Green as she guided us through the steps, thumping fists skywards and stomping our feet. Slowly, something resembling a dance began to take shape. Jemima recalls thinking about the routine: “wow, this is different. It’s saying we look at images of women, and they are always still. So let’s wobble them… The pervasive argument was always about whether or not women should be trying to get thinner. But they were not going there. They were just saying ‘everyone, let’s wobble’.”

***

On the third evening we gathered on the stage where we would soon perform. Rows of brown velvet seating stretched away into darkness. Green turned the lights down and we lay in a circle on our stomachs. The stale smell of feet met my face as I rested my cheek against the floor. Then, in the protective gloom, we undressed for the first time. “Take off as much as you feel comfortable with,” Green said. I wriggled awkwardly out of my t-shirt and joggers, then my bra, and finally my underpants. Is everyone else naked now? I wondered. My eyes adjusted, and the shadows began to take form, soft outlines of other bodies shifting around me. My exposed skin prickled with a sensation somewhere between exhilaration and shame. I kept thinking about my pubic hair, the neat strip I’d been shaving it into since I was a teenager.

Then, without warning, a blare of music and the shock of the stage lights. “Do the dance routine, go!” Green shouted, and before we had a chance to think, we leapt up. On our feet, we hammered through the routine as best we could, arms flailing about, limbs colliding, a blur of sweat and breath before the cavern of the empty auditorium.

Skin slapped skin, breasts bounced and buttocks wobbled. We weren’t very good. It didn’t matter. The thing was movement, and in one bright, clear moment I understood that this, of course, is what bodies are for – for action, transitioning from one spot to another, connection. The vehicle in which we carry out all the business of being alive.

This isn’t what we teach young women. The first thing a woman learns – from her Disney princesses and her Barbie dolls – is that her body is a noun cut loose from a verb. An object to be regarded, desired, reviled, touched, by men. When I was seven, a waiter in a Spanish restaurant kissed me on the lips, sliding his tongue into my mouth, as I sat at a table with my family. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it, she’s beautiful!” he told my parents, who laughed when, blushing, I mumbled that “he had flies in his moustache,” not knowing what else there was to be said. I remember the man at the bus stop who masturbated as he insisted I get into his car, chasing me down the street when I refused. The policeman who chuckled afterwards as he asked ‘if the penis was erect’. I remember the boy I loved as a teenager who punched me in the face on Brighton Pier, breaking my tooth and altering the geography of my mouth forever.

These aren’t unusual experiences. All women have been assaulted, objectified, sexualised against their will, and so we grow to be at odds with our bodies, turning them into a battleground, pummelling them into a conformity that saves us from nothing. Trilogy was the first time I’d been able to share what it was like to live in this body with other women who understood. The power of it was irrepressible. “If Google Earth had been filming above us that day, there would have been a flood of lights, like when sun bursts through the clouds,” Lucy said. “The amount of joy in that room. Everyone was screaming and laughing. It was just fucking glorious.”

***

In the evenings that followed that first rough stumble through the routine, we were naked together often. As we got used to it and stopped quite so deliberately maintaining eye contact, I looked at the bodies of the women around me, searched them for flab and stretchmarks and unruly hair in odd places, all the things I hoped no one was noticing about me. It was impossible right away to escape the fear that I was strange, uniquely ugly, even though I knew rationally that this was absurd. I don’t know, honestly, where the thrill came from when I saw rolls of fat and unsightly moles – was it relief that my body wasn’t the weirdest, that there were those here that conformed less than me? But so much exposure to bare flesh removes its potency. About ten minutes after we’d taken our clothes off, it became boring to compare my body to others. My brain moved on to other things. As strange as it seems those evenings, naked together, came as a joyous reprieve from a low-level anxiety about my body that permeated everything else. I wondered then about how much energy must be wasted in society’s obsessive policing of the female form, and as I imagined women all over the country getting Botox, counting almonds, undergoing cosmetic surgery, spending money on restrictive underwear, I thought about what could be achieved if this anger was no longer directed inwards, but into disassembling social injustice and building a more equitable world.

As much as it was a political awakening, so much of what seemed revelatory lay in the materiality of our bodies. The odour, the discharge, the fanny farts. Lucy recalled that she was worried because she had her period. “I can’t use tampons. I had a wet flannel backstage, but the group was so supportive and didn’t go ‘come on, why don’t you just use a tampon’. That was a really big deal.” How quickly in that sphere the facts of the flesh, so often unspoken or unspeakable, became pedestrian. Society’s insistence on presenting the female form as something rarefied seemed almost comical. We were all just skin bags that wobbled.

One evening, during one of the regular ‘check-ins’ Green had introduced to encourage us to share our experience of the process, I found myself talking about my mother. I told the group that, when I was young, she would often walk about the house naked, so the sight of her body became familiar to me. I recalled her skinny dipping in the swimming pool on family holidays. How one hot evening in World Cup season, when the rains came she stripped off and ran into the garden, relishing the sudden delicious coolness of it on her skin. I ran out after her, leaving my dad frowning at the match results on the TV screen.

I hadn’t understood as a child what a gift it was to see my mother enjoying her own body. But the way we see other women’s bodies shapes the way we relate to our own, and that’s why society’s insistence on holding up a fractured mirror to female physicality is so dangerous. We are left chasing an illusory ideal that saps our vitality and breaks our hearts. Can art proffer an alternative? We hoped that, with our simple action, we might.

***

After weeks of chasing, the password for the Vimeo film of our Barbican performance finally arrived. By then I wondered if I should watch it at all. I was afraid that the dance wouldn’t match my expectations; that six minutes of grainy film footage couldn’t possibly contain everything it had come to mean. But my curiosity got the better of me. I pressed play.

Green and Bradshaw appeared on my laptop, naked but for kneepads and trainers, pounding two drumsticks on a table. They started shouting and their voices carried across the years, filling my study:

“THIS IS ALL BULLSHIT LET’S CELEBRATE THE REALITY OF WHO WE REALLY ARE START YOUR OWN START YOUR OWN START YOUR OWN START YOUR OWN START YOUR OWN START YOUR OWN MOVEMENT START YOUR OWN FUCKING MOVEMENT START YOUR OWN FUCKING MOVEMENT START YOUR OWN FUCKING MOVEMENT START YOUR OWN FUCKING MOVEMENT START YOUR OWN FUCKING MOVEMENT START YOUR OWN FUCKING MOVEMENT START YOUR OWN FUCKING MOVEMENT START YOUR OWN FUCKING MOVEMENT START YOUR OWN FUCKING MOVEMENT START YOUR OWN FUCKING MOVEMENT START YOUR OWN FUCKING MOVEMENT START YOUR OWN FUCKING MOVEMENT SEE YOU THERE!”

Then – those crashing opening cymbals, Frank Black’s ascending guitar scale. A line of women marched on stage, then another and another, until it was difficult to believe the stage could hold so many of us. Bodies filled my screen. The audience roared; a single peal of laughter soared upwards, climbing in a note of disbelief and delight. My best friend had come to support me that night, and I thought of her sitting somewhere in the auditorium, her face among all those faces.

The dance routine was so simple, after all. A series of arm gestures, almost akin to those of an air steward. Head bangs and floor rolls and 240 feet stamping. Plenty of wobbling. But the energy was almost tangible. Pure unalloyed joy, an energy to make the ground rattle. I tried to spot myself, but it was impossible. As soon as I alighted on a figure that might be me, she’d vanish again, into the crowd.

After the performance, we rushed off stage, breathless, happy and laughing. We’d done it. We hadn’t done it perfectly, but that wasn’t the point. The risk was its own reward.

“It was a huge release of endorphins and oxytocin,” Lucy said. “Everyone was a bit exhausted. It felt very post-coital.”

At the end of the show, Green asked if any women in the audience would like to join us. The invitation was to take their clothes off too, and to sing a chorus of Jerusalem. How few of those women must have walked into the theatre at the beginning of the evening expecting to end up naked on its stage. But one woman stood up, then another, and another, until it seemed half the auditorium was streaming down the aisle towards us.

And there was my friend beside me. In the wings, she took off her clothes, slid her hand into mine, and we stepped on stage together.

***

Then, almost before it was begun, it was over. A week, then three nights performing those six minutes, and we returned to our normal lives, 120 paths spiralling in different directions. It was difficult to let it go. For some months I kept in touch with a few people, over email or Facebook. Lucy recalled having several of the women over to her flat a year or two after: “we had dinner, and then we got naked, and did the dance. None of us really remembered it, we were just leaping around. I was so desperate to keep that thing going.”

Green considered how she might build a network for the participants. But the truth was the energy we’d created couldn’t have been sustained. The group had existed just long enough to achieve what it needed to, but not long enough to become complicated, the way groups inevitably do. Its brevity was vital.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m a performance artist, and my job is to make something that doesn’t last,” Green said. “Because it’s not sustainable. It takes so much energy. All these women coming every night, they’ve got other commitments, they’ve got a whole life.”

Whatever legacy the show has is carried by the people who were in the room. Green hears about it, sometimes. When one woman, who had had a double mastectomy before she took part, died, her family wrote to tell Green that she considered Trilogy one of the most important things she’d done in her life. Another woman contacted her recently to express how, after performing in the show one evening, she’d felt confident in a way she never had before. “She said she went out and saw someone she liked in a bar afterwards, and she was like ‘fuck it I’m just going to ask them out’. She was writing to let me know they were getting married.”

Trilogy remains with the participants in all kinds of ways. “I stopped buying women’s magazines that week and I’ve never gone back to that,” Lucy said, when reflecting on what changed for her. “And I genuinely saw all those women as just beautiful. It didn’t matter what shape they were. They all just looked really beautiful, so it made me redefine what beautiful was.”

For Sophie, the experience reinforced the course she’d decided to take when she came out as a gay woman. “I was going through a certain amount of rejection and marginalisation,” she explained. “To have the experience of Trilogy at exactly that point in my life felt very affirming. I thought, these are the kind of people I want to interact with during my life.”

The seeds of this decade’s gender struggles were present in Trilogy. Now, the rise of body positivity, driven largely through Instagram, means that a far greater variety of body types are celebrated than were even visible in 2009. Most significantly for me, the vulnerability of being naked together, and the frank conversations that prompted about our experiences of inhabiting a female form, prefigured the #MeToo movement. When it came, my involvement with Trilogy had, I am certain, equipped me not only to tell my story but to counsel other women as they negotiated their own traumas.

The piece unintentionally highlighted many of the issues that hamper fourth wave feminism, too. Several years later, Jemima’s university lecturer invoked Trilogy as he questioned the utopian aspirations of much participatory art, underlining how potentially exclusionary the invitation the show made was. He didn’t know she’d performed in the piece, and she didn’t tell him, not wanting to have to couch her experience as a defence.

But to some extent he was right: the show was reaching for something it inevitably failed to deliver. “Systemically the way the piece sat in its various sectors – feminism, art, theatre – was limited, unfortunately,” Green said. “If we had had a wider demographic in the cast maybe we could have been more creative with our invitations from the beginning, about who was being represented.”

***

The small privilege of my mother’s liberal attitude to her body was heaped upon other privileges that made me able to be on that stage. We saw ourselves as a group of ‘ordinary women’, but of course our very willingness to be a part of the performance, in spite of how transgressive it felt, signified a level of self-confidence that many women surely don’t feel – haven’t been allowed to feel. Such a defiant, provocative gesture certainly couldn’t operate for all women equally. “I invited my mum to see it,” Lucy said. “She didn’t know what to say. And she reacted by joining Weight Watchers. We’ve never spoken about it.” Guardian journalist Nosheen Iqbal responded to Trilogy by demanding: “Where is the work that gives voice to women who are oppressed by race and/or class, and which goes beyond the dominant priorities of white and middle-class women?”: a question that, a decade on, remains depressingly relevant.

Several years after Trilogy, Jemima was detained and deported back to Singapore due to visa issues. “Up until that point, I didn’t think about how I looked,” she says, as she ponders being part of that group of women. “So I didn’t think about who was there, but I was also very new to London and I think I wasn’t aware of what exactly the make-up was. Maybe if I did it now and it was the same make-up of women I would.”

The shifting discourse around representation in gender politics casts the production in a new light, and certainly it seems unconscionable now, to me, that Greer would be held up as a role model for anyone who believes in intersectional feminism, given her recent comments refuting the identity of trans women. “I think it would be very different now,” Green said. “We just think completely differently about gender, and I don’t think we need it in the way we maybe needed it at the time.”

But in spite of the flaws that a contemporary perspective illuminates, the women I talk to find it difficult to discount what Trilogy achieved. “The word permissive came up while I tried to remember what my experience was,” Jemima says. “I didn’t even know those rules existed until they gave me permission to break them… that kind of communal joy, I didn’t know that was not allowed. I’d never experienced it until they made it.”

As for me: I wish I could tell a neat story of change, that my relationship with my physicality was broken and then I took my clothes off on stage at the Barbican and everything was healed. But I have learnt that the business of a body is far more complex than the transformation narratives diet gurus would have us believe. No before and after, only flux. Still, Trilogy gave me an intimation that another way of inhabiting this skin might be possible. I carry that knowledge with me.

***

In the pub, our chips grow cold and the conversation unfurls: utopias, rejecting the binary, how to invent new languages. Jemima shows me the photograph she has kept on her mantlepiece for the last decade. Everyone together at the Barbican. So many of us that our faces are indistinguishable. “That might be me, because I had short hair then,” I say, pointing at it. “Yes, that might be you.”

She had been getting into photography when she became involved with Trilogy, and so she asked Green if she could take portraits of the women. “I just wanted to be part of it more.” She got one snapshot of each of us, naked, caught in a dance move, and then this image of all of us. She sent a huge box of prints to Green, who packed them into envelopes we’d addressed to ourselves and posted them to us, dotted across the country. An ill-fitting memento, really, for something so much about movement, about bodies made in the wobbling. Still, we carry them about with us. In boxes in attics, tacked into old diaries, they are growing aged, acquiring water stains and curled corners.

A couple of years later, Jemima was sitting in a bar with friends. Someone took her bag, and with it her computer and hard drive with all the pictures. “I was like shit! The Trilogy photos! What the fuck!” Her friend sprinted down the road after it, but it was too late – the hard drive had gone.

Jemima ponders, sometimes, what became of those photographs.

Tempting to picture the thief opening the computer to be confronted with the contents of their ill-gotten loot, to imagine what they might have made of all those images of ferocious, naked women. I hope they noticed how much we were smiling.

“But they were probably wiped,” Jemima says. “They just disappeared.”

 

*Name changed to protect privacy.


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