There’s nothing quite as exciting (and petrifying) as watching your little one merrily stroll off to their first extra-curricular class. Whether it’s learning a sport, taking up a language or skill or in this case putting on a pair of satin slippers and skipping across a stage, the apprehension always lingers. The hours of classes boil down to seeing them wave over-enthusiastically mid-dance after spotting Grandad in the audience. It’s heart melting stuff on the surface but what goes on behind closed doors? You can’t help but wonder what happens backstage, what your child gets up to, how they behave and what they experience. I am here to answer all your questions.
Tonight a dance school of 300 children will squeal internally, and often externally, as they climb the stage steps for one last time. It is the final showcase of ‘A Night at the Movies’ and for every child involved, a night they will never forget.
Technically, this is my first time observing the madness of a dance show. For the past 16 years I’ve been one of the girls running round with one shoe on, desperately shovelling hair up into a bun. So caught up that I had been blind to it all. I hadn’t noticed everything that goes on, but with my new role as ‘Head Coordinator” I was able to take note of all the ups and downs.
I slowly sauntered into this experience. The corridors were quiet, coat hooks empty, teas and coffees lined up ready for a sudden surge of gasping parents in the interval. Faint sounds of the Disney soundtracks escape from slits under doors as children were wiggling into tights and tutus. It’s time for the warm ups before the performance. The order before the disarray. The calm before the storm.
I almost contemplated putting my feet up, but the second I lowered myself onto a chair a sea of tiny toes and ballet buns swarmed around my knees. The baptism of fire had begun. A flurry of “Where do I go?”, “She pushed me!” and occasional screams of happiness filled every inch of the building, causing me to snap into action and direct traffic until it eventually died down. The whirlwind passed and I had a second to wipe the sweat from my brow before entering the mayhem once more.
If you did manage to escape from the corridors, which resemble the M25 at rush hour, then you’ll find yourself in a ‘dressing room’ (also known as an unused classroom filled with random mirrors). The older girls have the latest Ed Sheeran album blasting and are perfecting winged eyeliner whilst eating Domino’s pizza. Some are frantically tying ribbons between their dances whilst their friends do their hair and another gathering props for each other, there is a real heartwarming sense of teamwork. The younger children’s changing rooms are a very different story. Lipstick stains on every surface and a few frazzled parents attempting to confiscate felt tip pens and stop Wotsits being pushed up noses. I have an awful lot of respect for the volunteers who give up their weekends to do toilet trips every four minutes and control a class of hyper 4 year olds. In the words of a frazzled volunteer: “It’s an organised mess, and it’s worth every single second of chaos for the joy that it brings.” It is true, you can almost see the excitement floating above their heads… or maybe that’s self-created ozone layer of hairspray.
Hairspray is just the beginning of the glitz and glamour of their showbiz weekend. The little ones are all blue eyeshadow and pink lipstick, the makeup packed onto their tiny features as they make the tricky decision to either smile or burst into tears at stage door. The parents coo and take pictures whilst others are drying their precious little ones eyes before coercing them onto the stage.
The teachers change from the relaxed, bubbly women you see each Saturday morning, into organisational wizards, complete with clipboard, lanyard and toolbelt stocked with enough hair grips to control any amount of hair. They whizz around each child before they go on stage, carrying out head to toe quality control, consoling the cryers and building confidence as they go. They have mastered the art of multitasking and are fully qualified to answer six questions a second and complete an immaculate ballet bun with their eyes closed. The school’s principal reveals her secret to staying calm: “No one can find me in the wings, so I just hide here until all the commotion dies down.”
Naturally with the highs come the lows. The inevitable “accident” in the tutu or the puddle in the corner. Praying that the audience somehow miss the brown marks badly hidden by purple netting, or smell the stench that has filled the entire auditorium. Sounds awful, but nothing a fresh Pampers Pull-up and some wet wipes can’t handle.
It’s a relief when the show finally begins. Cameras are set up and lighting rigged one last time. Children peak around every corner they can, noses poking out from the side of red velvet curtains with gold tassels. As they brush across a worn wooden stage, a spell is cast upon the auditorium. Giggling nine year olds are magically transformed into elegant and sophisticated ballerinas with poised and practised feet. The fidgeting younger brother in row C stops kicking the chair in front of him. A silence falls upon the building and the curtains rises.
Despite the chaos, the level of professionalism is astounding. Each performer shines as bright as the stage lights and puts all they have into the dance. From the audience the show is slick and expert, like the swan from Swan Lake gliding across the pond. But backstage all the webbed feet are paddling desperately to stay afloat. To act like the show is a walk in the park is the unspoken backstage secret. Everybody works seriously hard to put on a show, and even harder to pull it off so effortlessly.
It is very easy to seriously underestimate the ability of the teachers and pupils, as well as your three year old, who always end up stealing the show. Sweat, tears and more tears are poured into the weekend, but to see the accomplishment beaming out of grinning children, happily exhausted volunteers and misty eyed parents is entirely worth it. The weekend of beautiful bedlam is rounded up with flowers for the teachers and proud parents for the children. The curtains falls for another year.