On Friday 6th January 2017 I journeyed again to Blackpool. It was, of course, another dancing related trip, but this time not just as a spectator, but to dance myself, to perform and to compete.
Back in October we had gone out with friends for afternoon tea on my 45th birthday in the delightful ‘Alice In Wonderland’ inspired Richmond Tea Rooms in Manchester. It was a month after we had lost Phoebe to the day and naturally the atmosphere was tense. I struggled to enjoy myself at all, however lovely the food and however lovely the surroundings or the company. The conversation moved to dancing and a forthcoming pro-am competition. These kind of competitions are relatively new to the UK and didn’t exist when Ralph and I were competing. They allow those who don’t have a partner or who don’t compete regularly to experience the sparkle of the competitive latin or ballroom world with a professional or experienced competitor. “Why don’t you give it a whirl?” said Wayne our friend who owns the dance school, “You could dance with Alex, he’d be a good partner for you. It would give you a distraction and something to focus on”. My heart leapt and I felt a little rush of excitement as I raised my eyes from their ever constant downward gaze. “Yes” I said without hesitation “I think that would be a good idea, do you think Alex would be up for it?” “I’m sure he would” said Wayne. And that was that, it was decided, I would learn 3 routines and compete in Blackpool in the Winter Gardens Ballroom in 2 ½ months time…
I suppose some might be surprised that I agreed so instinctively and readily to this proposed plan, after all training for a competition would require a significant amount of my depleted energy. In addition it wasn’t something that Ralph was keen on, for him dancing wasn’t right; it felt like returning to our pre Phoebe life as if she hadn’t existed. I understood his point of view, but I didn’t feel the same, I have always loved dancing and it has been a significant feature of my life on and off since I was small and in one shape or another and here it was again, offering me an outlet I desperately needed. For me it did feel like a good thing to do for a number of reasons:
Firstly at a very basic level I thought the exercise would be a good idea. Even though I felt like I was at the bottom of a very deep and dark pit, I could still just about see up and over the edge and I still valued trying to stay healthy; I would need to do this if I was going to be able to use my life to positive effect and honour Phoebe. I know for some this seems perhaps strangely rational and pragmatic given the circumstances but I think this is just my survival mechanism. Dancing is good physical exercise and I also recognized that you need fuel to do it. Preparing food and eating was not my strong suit right then, still isn’t in many ways, but perhaps this would force the issue and get me into better habits….
I also knew that without doubt it would lift my mood; as with any form of exercise, dancing triggers a release of endorphins but, unlike other forms of more repetitive activities like running or swimming for example, where you can still think about other things going on in your life, dancing has the unique benefit of forcing you to live completely and utterly in the moment. It is not a repetitive action, it requires the full focus of both your mind and body and as such offers a very special kind of high, a complete escape for the period of time you are engaged with the activity, especially with a partner of stronger ability. I knew that for each hour of practice I would be able to leave my pain and my grief at the door, feel exhilarated and experience some semblance of “happiness”.
Through dancing I would be able to take a break from being me and assume an alter ego. As is curiously the case for quite a few of the dancers I have known, I am not a natural extrovert; any questionnaire I have completed has always profiled me as an introvert. If you have met me you may think, but she isn’t shy and I’m not, but I am not as sure of myself as you might think. In the past dancing gave me the opportunity to feel liberated by becoming someone else, taking on a different persona on the floor behind layers of tan, makeup, false lashes and sparkle. Sat where I was that October afternoon, that kind of freedom, the ability to run away and be someone else, even for short periods of time was very appealing, so intense was the pain and heavy was the weight of being me. Back in our competitive days I would step onto the floor channelling Rachel Heron, multiple British Professional Latin American Champion and this time seen as I would be ‘borrowing’ her partner I would channel the lovely Amy, flattered by those who said we had a similar style, a true compliment given our 25 year age difference…!
Finally and perhaps most honestly and importantly, I jumped at the opportunity to take solace in something that I am good at.. There I said it, I am good at dancing, don’t get me wrong, I am not being particularly boastful or arrogant here, I am no world champion, nor even British Champion but with Ralph, I was North of England Senior champion on a couple of occasions and won a variety of other minor trophies and titles. The garage is full of them. I have been lucky enough to have been gifted with ability that is beyond average which I topped up with years of practise and investment in lessons. This is a skill I’m proud of and which I cherish. As human beings, I think that we are naturally drawn to and enjoy activities that we are good at, they feed our self-esteem and give us a sense of purpose and place in the world. At a time when my single most important reason for living had so suddenly been snatched away from me and I was floundering around for a new direction, revisiting dancing whether temporarily or for the longer term was very attractive.
Of course I had bigger and more altruistic goals, at that time in October, we were still in the early stages of organising the acquisition and installation of Phoebe’s Roundabout and I wanted to do more, much more, to support LPIN1 awareness, research and treatment but these were bigger, longer term objectives down a new, unfamiliar and perhaps challenging road which would be more difficult than slipping into to the familiar guise of a competitive dancer. The loss of Phoebe had destroyed my world, shook its very foundations and in trying to rebuild, I needed a challenge I knew I would be able to rise to, that would deliver a more immediate return for my efforts and which I might then be able to draw confidence from in terms of the bigger plans I had for 2017 and beyond.
And so with both Alex and his lovely partner Amy on board with the plan, I dusted off my dancing shoes, rummaged around for practise wear and we began lessons, choreography and practise. I was rusty, I kept looking at my feet too much and forgetting my posture and to roll back my shoulders. I also had some initial frustrating issues with balance due to a sinus infection, but the muscle memory and my basic technique if not my polish, were still there, it all came flooding back and while keeping up with the ever so bouncy Alex, 19 years my junior was indeed a challenge, my return to the studio delivered beyond my expectations. Each hour delivered the endorphin rush, the escape and the high I had sought. For an hour I lived right there in the moment, I was able to step into the studio and out of my painful life, I really and truly was able to forget, suspend time and feel invigorated and alive. I felt quite normal and whole. As I skipped down the dance school stairs after each session, it was almost as if I had stepped back in time, it felt so familiar. At a particular time in my life I would go up and down those stairs several times a week, Ralph and I had even placed life size cut outs of ourselves on the landing at our Wedding reception, so it was easy to let myself be convinced by the illusion.
But the high of each lesson was always followed by an almost immediate and corresponding low; by the time I had reached to the bottom of the stairs and felt the cold air on my face as I went out of the front door and across the road to the car park, I had already crashed right back down to reality. The “high” was temporary and the instant return to life without Phoebe was incredibly painful, worse than it had been when I had climbed the stairs but an hour earlier.I felt not only low, but guilty, guilty that I had just for an hour let myself forget and guilty that I had allowed myself to indulge myself with such a trivial and self-centred activity after everything Phoebe had suffered. I’d drive home and would invariably find myself sitting on the floor of the shower letting the warm water run over me while tears rolled down my cheeks. It felt like I was letting her down and yet I was torn…. While I was in the studio it felt so good, it gave me a vital release and so I capitulated and returned for session after session, accepting that the low that would follow was simply an inevitable downside that I would just have to learn to manage. Guilt is such a negative emotion, why should I deny myself all joy? A life without some glimmer of enjoyment would be unbearable so I rode a rollercoaster of highs and directly correlated lows until I was ready, or at least as ready as I was ever going to be given the finite and short amount of time we had had to prepare, the years I’d be away from the floor and my fitness. It was time to journey to Blackpool…..
Friday 6th January 2017 was competition day and I journeyed up the very wet and blustery M61, M6 and finally the M55 with our friends Wayne and Sharon from the dance school. Ralph would follow later after work with other friends in tow to offer me support and encouragement as I prepared to step out onto the Winter Gardens floor to dance competitively for the first time in 7 years.
I was a little nervous, I did my make up about 8 hours in advance just in case I messed up while following the tutorial I’d found on YouTube and posted a picture on Facebook asking people to wish me luck. But, while I was daunted by the scale and the significance of the venue, I remained overall philosophical. The fear and the nerves did not grip me quite in the way they used to during mine and Ralph’s serious competing days. Back then dancing at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool was a huge deal. The most important competitions are held there: the British Nationals held annually each November and the world-famous, open to the world, British Dance Festival which is held over a week or more at the end of May and which attracts hundreds of competitors from all over the world. We used to invest a lot of time, money and effort in preparing for Blackpool, it meant a lot to us, how we were placed really mattered. If we did well I’d be on a high for weeks, if we didn’t I’d sink into a deep low, questioning my ability and whether it was all worth it. But all of this was a long time ago and I now saw things from a totally different perspective. This competition with my borrowed partner was far less significant and lower key than any of my past outings on the Winter Gardens floor. In addition having spent time out of the game, I valued other things, things that I felt were more tangible and worthwhile. I recognised that the world of competitive Latin and Ballroom could be frustrating, subjective and political; results do not always reflect performance and ability or fall in line with expectations. Form counts and disappointments can be frequent for all except the most über talented or very well connected….Most impotantly though I had experienced deep trauma, which instantly has the effect of making everything else seem trivial. While I know and I understand, having been there, how important dance is for those regular competitors who have dedicated their lives to it, after losing Phoebe I doubt I could ever view any dance competition as really “mattering”.
Yes I wanted to do my best, given my past success with Ralph and the effort I had put in, I would be disappointed not to make the final but my future happiness was not dependent on this result, the pressure was not the same, I just wanted to go out there and enjoy myself, enjoy the experience and enjoy the support of my supporters club shouting right there on the front row. I wanted to deliver a performance that Phoebe would have been proud of. She would have been absolutely delighted and excited to see Mummy in sparkly dress and dancing, she loved Strictly with a passion. I thought about her as I prepared to dance, I wore her charm bracelet on my thankfully tiny wrist and drew strength and self belief from being able close my eyes and hear her voice in my head, “You can do it Mummy!”….. I could hear her cry. Just as she had shouted when I did the Aerial Extreme course at Center Parcs and my legs wobbled underneath me as I faced each terrifyingly high obstacle in the rain…But I wasn’t only dancing for Phoebe, this was in huge part about me, feeding my self-esteem, my need for validation all the while delivering the escape, a rush and the competitive high that I had set out to achieve…
So how did it go? Did the experience deliver what I wanted to? Broadly yes. I enjoyed my time on the floor. I didn’t get in a stew or overly tense beforehand, I kept things in perspective. I had a quick run through with Alex on the carpet just to take the edge of any simmering nerves and reassure myself that the choreography was “in there” and then we stepped out. First round, Rumba (yay slower dance, easier to do from a standing start than something faster) and then jive. It went well I thought, I was confident we’d make it to the second round, which we did and I strode confidently back out on to the floor. Cha cha and jive. The music started, I pulled up through the body and pressed down my shoulders. I looked Alex in the eye, but neither of us could pick out the 2. I knew we were off time, so did he, but we pulled it back quickly and then gave it everything we had for the jive. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed and frustrated because I was and I thought that might be it. You cannot expect to make the final if you dance off time. But my disappointment was minor, again I kept things in perspective and reassured Alex. I had already pulled out the stops to get here, Phoebe would already have been proud and I’d achieved emotional high after emotional high, the final would just be an indulgent little cherry on the cake. I crossed my fingers and held on to the fact that everyone else was confident, but I didn’t take my jacket off until the very last minute as they began to announce the recall to the final. We had a high number, we’d likely be called last, we waited, they called the numbers 34, 112, 165, 167, 171, 327…..we were in! I was thrilled, Alex seemed thrilled and we ran out on to the floor to give what Ralph described as “a performance on another level”. He shouted and whooped, our friends shouted and whooped, it was a very special 3 minutes out there on the floor. I walked off on a high and everyone supporting us was equally enthusiastic. There was even talk of being us on the podium. Could we do that I thought, might we have pulled off the perfect ending with a win????
Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, we placed 6th but I promptly reminded myself that only half an hour earlier I was thrilled just to have been in the final and a review of the marks later showed that we did actually score quite a few first places. I had done my best, that is all you should ever ask of yourself and all I would ever have asked of Phoebe. I’d enjoyed myself, I had lost myself in the occasion, I had enjoyed a huge amount of support both there in the ballroom and on social media and as I stood in the line up with my plastic gold cup I felt some kind of “happiness”.
But it wasn’t to last long.. Just as each lesson and practise was followed by a corresponding low so was the competition in direct proportion to the size of the event and the high I had achieved and I struggled to lift out from it all weekend. Saturday morning came, Ralph was working. I had said that I’d get up and iron his top when we’d crawled into bed in the early hours, but I just couldn’t move. I heard him moving around but I pulled the duvet over my head. I didn’t hear him leave. Mornings are hard, I liken it to feeling like I’ve been hit by a truck but that morning I felt like I’d be run over by a juggernaut. Eventually I pulled myself round, I formulated a plan of action, Asda for shopping and to get Alex a small thank you gift, followed by a McDonald’s and collecting a skirt and jumper I had ordered from Next in the Trafford Centre. I felt almost woozy and spaced out in the car, it was the weirdest of feelings which food had no impact on. No browsing for me I simply executed the plan and got back home as quickly as I could. Sunday was little better, again Ralph was working, his first return to teach drama for Stagecoach since we lost Phoebe, an immense challenge for him but also difficult for me as I was alone all day. I struggled to relax, I tried to watch TV in the afternoon but nothing held my attention and the tension in my chest was unbearable. There was only one thing for it, diazepam and bed. I hadn’t done this since the first couple of weeks after losing Phoebe, but I just couldn’t settle, I needed to lose the hours until Ralph got home………
So was it all worth it? Was the high worth the low? Having pretty much lost 48 hours to nervous exhaustion would I do differently in future? Will I be kinder to myself? Not push myself so hard? Would it be wiser to strive for a steadier more constant or stable line? Perhaps, but the base line is so low, I can’t just stay here. Being me means I have to chase the light and like a moth to a flame I get a little burned but hopefully, in time I believe that the burns will heal more quickly. Hopefully my baseline will gently rise so I don’t need to go from one extreme to another. I think my baseline may already have moved up a notch. In spite of my “crash” last weekend after the competition, I do feel like I’ve drawn strength and confidence from it. This is just what I need as I take steps towards setting up Phoebe’s charity, as I take steps beyond the roundabout, beyond the ballroom to who knows where?
I think ‘Mummy’s Beautiful’ would definitely be proud. See I told you I could hear her “You can do it Mummy!” she’s shouting and do you know what with Phoebe in my heart, I believe that I can….