August 2015

The Nation Reviewed

Destiny’s children

By Nikki Lusk
Body Electric’s jazz ballet for adults

“It’s like a cult,” a friend says of Body Electric. Backstage at the Melbourne Pavilion, a venue more used to wedding receptions than adults doing jazz ballet, the true believers are making final preparations. For the past three months, eight groups have been learning and rehearsing a dance routine to a pop song, which we’ll perform tonight to a 1200-strong audience of friends and family. Forget the Kool-Aid, we’re drinking $4 glasses of sparkling.

Jade Duffy set up Body Electric eight years ago, after her brother spent six weeks coaching dance enthusiasts to perform a flash-mob routine to the song ‘Fame’ in Melbourne’s Bourke Street Mall. “People started asking around for dance classes for adult beginners,” Jade says. She began with a single class in mid 2007 and now teaches more than 200 students each term.

The key to training non-professional dancers, she says, is “matching movement and music up well, so they can find a connection between the rhythm of their bodies and the music”. Alister, a bright-eyed public servant, joined Body Electric after watching his friends perform. “The first couple of weeks I could feel my brain struggling to connect to my feet,” he says.

Dance moves aren’t all that Body Electric students gain. “The freedom to dance and express myself has given me so much confidence and happiness,” says Nisha, an effervescent manager at the Cancer Council Victoria. Dave, a primary school teacher with an Irish lilt, ended up taking the advice he usually offers his young students: “I’m always telling them to get out of their comfort zone and not to be afraid to make mistakes.” Dave’s first performance was unforgettable: an all-male striptease rehearsed in secret, to surprise both the audience and fellow dancers. “It was my first time onstage,” he says. “The reaction from the crowd was deafening.” This evening he’s hoping to recapture that buzz.

Each biannual performance is themed, and tonight’s show, titled Man! I Feel Like a Woman, comprises songs that riff on gender. By 7 pm it’s bedlam backstage: green-sequined housewives, who will dust the cobwebs off No Doubt’s ‘Just a Girl’, mingle with orange-jumpsuited prisoners, ready with shivs to attack Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed a Girl’. My crew, who tonight will body roll and tumble turn to the Destiny’s Child classic ‘Independent Women Part 1’, are busy applying gold face paint and donning Joan of Arc–inspired faux armour. Claire, a laidback blonde who works as a hair and make-up artist, is mobbed for her expertise with eyeliner to pen warlike stripes on our faces. After her well-meaning mother steered her away from jazz ballet early on (“No child of mine is going to run around like a princess wearing make-up!”), Claire has embraced the world of adult dance. “It’s all my favourite things rolled into one,” she says. “Dancing, costumes, glitter, people and showing off.”

The costumes can take almost as much time to prepare as the routines, with classes scheduling group craft and sewing sessions once they’ve settled on a theme. “Myself and a couple of friends bunkered down for a whole weekend and produced all of this gold armour to make us look like glam warriors,” says Alister. “It was really rewarding, to look at the end result and say, ‘We made this out of rubber car mats.’”

Showtime arrives. We steady our giddy nerves with a pep-talk huddle, then march onstage. Trusting our muscles to remember the moves, we focus on exuding enough fierceness to make Beyoncé proud. At the song’s climax, when Claire is lifted above a sea of air-punches, the roar of the audience triggers a fresh surge of adrenaline, carrying us into our final poses. Our three and a half minutes of fame are over too quickly, and we return backstage flushed and chattering. “We nailed it!”

After the final performance, everyone takes to the dance floor. Macho Men rub shoulders with Bowie-esque Starmen, and DJ Whiskey Houston tips her cowboy hat to the gender-bending theme via a fake moustache and spectacular arseless chaps. As the glow of the show fades, there are commemorative group photos, toasts to glorious success on the battlefield of dance, and undying oaths to sign up again for next term. Tomorrow we’ll return to reality with aching heads and sore hamstrings, but tonight we are living the dream.

Nikki Lusk

Nikki Lusk is a freelance book editor living in Melbourne.

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