In Conversation with WALBTM's Rachel McBride

Monday, 01 October 2018 23:00 | Posted by 

Thanks very much for reading this blog. I’m Rachel, the Artistic Director of What A Little Bird Told Me, Supported Artist at Unity Theatre and we’re opening our new show When Did You Stop Dancing this Friday 5 - Sat 6 Oct at 6pm in Unity Two..

What is When Did You Stop Dancing?

When Did You Stop Dancing is live art, theatre, storytelling solo show mash up that combines the telling of the true story of the dancing plague. Exactly 500 years after it happened in 1518, interwoven with contemporary references and autobiographical material. It’s told in a lo-fi style that acknowledges it’s audiences own imaginations. It’s not a dance show, but a story about dancing.

What inspired the show?

The show was inspired by quite a lot of different threads. It’s been bubbling away in my brain in one shape or another for about five years.

It also felt that we have collectively been fed a narrative of what dancing is and means to women, a competitive mating ritual that exists very solidly within the constructs of heteronormativity. Stories of women dancing that I saw growing up almost always followed the same narrative; conservative and repressed woman encounters dangerous and exciting man who can dance and takes up space easily. He teaches her to dance, she falls in love with him, has a sexual awakening that conveniently means she has some kind of make over, as it turns out, shock horror, she was conventionally attractive all along! Who saw that coming? He treats her badly, she loves him all the harder for it as if her purpose in life is some kind of rehabilitation centre for him having the emotional intelligence of an infant pigeon and eventually he yields to her endless belief and thanks to him for liberating her. She ends up queen bee as the one who tamed him and is also now pretty enough (which really means sexy enough (which really means f**kable enough) to be classed as valid. And I drank them all up, without questioning them. Of course which in a much more enlightened place in regards to gender now but we have such a long way to go. I think these consistent narratives are just as damaging to men as they are to women but with our stages being so woefully under represented by women. I knew I wanted to make a piece about women dancing.

This all got me thinking about the rituals of dancing and the ways we come together as a predominantly and increasingly secular society. Dancing punctuates our mile stones, we do it after, at or as the ways we commemorate naming ceremonies, birthdays, coming of ages, weddings, unions, Christmas parties, New Year or even just the end of the working week, to wash it away, the stress, the office politics, the person you’ve been pretending to be. There’s something really human about it. There are no known cultures that don’t dance, there are ones without written language or currency but not dancing.

I wanted to create a love story that existed outside eros (romantic love) and storge (family love) and had philia (the love for our friends) very much as it’s female heartbeat.

And I wanted it to be set in public space. I’d not long moved to a big city as a freelancer when I first starting thinking about When Did You Stop Dancing. It was bit of shock to discover that street harassment in cities hadn’t gone away, or got better. It had gotten worse. A lot worse. And a lot scarier, particulary in the daytimes. And the more I tried to make myself look invisible by dressing in baggier and baggier clothes, taking up as little space as I could and keeping my gaze firmly on my own shoes, the more aggressive and threatening it got. So a story about women existing in public space seemed more vital than it did before. Getting from A to B became really exhausting and I got quite depressed. I don’t drive and I can’t ride a bike and as a freelancer without an office most of my work gets done in libraries and coffee shops. I spend a lot of time in public space, which sadly means I spend a lot of time feeling fearful.

The reason This Girl Can exists is following research from Sports England UK that uncovered that literally millions of women are too scared to exercise to the level they want to. We frame being active to women as punishment for not being “attractive” enough, rarely about pleasure. I’d like to tell you that I’ve never had a “thinspiration” screensaver, or exercised to a dangerous level, or had disordered eating but I would be lying if I did. When you exist primarily in public space you’re bombarded consistently with heavily photo shopped and highly sexualised images of women. So I wanted to make something that took public space back. Even if it’s only for an hour.

I read a tonne of articles, watched documentaries, and went to every workshop going, waiting for that moment, that epiphany when I would be well read enough and clever enough and brave enough to do something as vulnerable as make my own work. I, ironically, sent myself very much into my own head whilst trying to make something about connection and being present in your own physical body. And in that time the show had about a million different incarnations, in the very safe place of my own imagination, where no one could judge it because until I’d got to perfect it wasn’t valid. But perfect doesn’t exist. And those women of Strasbourg didn’t step into those streets because things were perfect, they stepped out because something was wrong. My mum sent me an article about The Dancing For Free World Movement and Eve Ensler’s theories on how reclaiming, joy, the female body, public space can be an act of protest and how we need to listen to our bodies more, they tell the truth even when it’s ourselves that we’re lying to. That moving and joy can be a way to work through trauma. This article was dove tailed with the story of the dancing plague, started by Frau Troffea. And we found the story we wanted to tell. A story of women being active, of public space, of friendship of women standing next to each other. You can read the full article here 

What was your process?

To get more texture to our work we surveyed 100s of people anonymously about dancing and we found that their responses were consistently about release, connection and shame and we’ve weaved this into our work along with our own style of humour. Throughout the process it’s become a really personal show and intimate show that is a about what dancing and moving means to me. We’ve done a lot of research and a lot of devising. We’ve been delighted to work with a great host of collaborators on this show.

It’s been a real honour to be a supported artist at Unity. I’ve always felt safe and welcomed there. I love their programming which celebrates diversity and always amazed by the team there. In the past I’ve been told that I need to be more male and to pretend to be more neuro-typical and from a more privellaged background than I am for people in theatre to hear what I’m saying, but never at Unity. They listen to me and other artists as we are. It’s not always the voices who can shout the loudest that they amplify. It’s their support that gave us the resources and the confidence to make this show. We’re delighted to be opening When Did You Stop Dancing in the intimate Unity 2 before we head off on our first tour as a company. We can’t wait to share it with you.

When Did You Stop Dancing? plays in Unity 2 at 6pm
from Fri 5 – Sat 6 Oct 2018.

Tickets can be booked online here or by calling 0151 709 4988.



Becky Birtwistle

Becky is Unity Theatre's Communications Officer.  You can follow her on twitter at @beckybirtwistle