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One for the Road

I Dreamed Of Being An Olympic Dancer - The Quietus Auditions
Kevin E.G. Perry , July 26th, 2012 08:05

Given that our office is opposite the Olympic Stadium, we thought it might be nice to get involved. So we sent Kevin EG Perry along to strut his stuff at the opening ceremony auditions

I am not a dancer. Not even for fun. I've been seen to twitch in darkened rooms to pounding basslines but that was just a trick of the strobe light. Mine is a largely sedentary life, aside from the odd unavoidable flight of stairs. I've hiked to the top deck of the bus on occasion. I climb in and out of bed several times each day. I can only imagine that any more strenuous exercise would feel roughly like a hangover, and knowing how much they take it out of me I've done all I can to avoid it.

So when The Quietus forwarded me a missive entitled "London 2012 seeks more volunteer performers for the spectacular Opening and Closing Ceremonies" I was sceptical. Until I read on:

"We especially need more men - particularly if you have rhythm!" I'm a man!

"This means those of you or your friends who can dance but also drum, or do any sport, job, or hobby that involves keeping to time." My job involves knowing what time it is!

"Previous performance experience is not required;" Thank Christ.

"Ceremonies Volunteer Performers simply need lots of enthusiasm, personality, a positive attitude, huge amounts of energy and a willingness to perform in front of a stadium audience and to millions of people around the world." Good Lord this is exciting. I'm going to be in the Olympics.

A month later I found myself in the dark on a sprawling industrial estate in Bromley. As I rounded a corner I spotted a warehouse bearing the notice: "The Prop Store". From its bowels snaked a queue two-hundred people long. This is exactly what I hoped for. As the British/Hungarian writer George Mikes once remarked: "An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one." None of this silly sports and dance nonsense. Perhaps we'd just be required to display good, honest queuing. The medal was as good as mine.

The queue looked athletic. The lady next to me told me that she's a nurse and an amateur dancer. She seemed keen. The general vibe was quiet and awkward, as it usually is when strangers meet in an unfamiliar situation. We awaited direction, but all that happened was a security guard came down the line handing out pins and number cards. I was 178. My lucky number.

We shuffled inside where a television was looping a montage of previous Olympic opening ceremonies. Heather Small was singing: "What have you done today to make you feel proud?" Our upturned faces reflected the glow of the screens as dancers pirouetted in Beijing, Athens, Sydney and Atlanta. Then Dionne Bromfield and Tinchy Stryder were belting out something about "Spinnin' for London 2012" while we watched footage of Tony Blair shifting through the smug gears at the London 2012 announcement. All around me people smiled happily and nudged each other, imagining themselves on screen. Meanwhile my confidence drained away like a spilt pint. What on earth possessed me to come here?

After we passed through photo booths where women with tape-measures took down our statistics we were herded into a sports hall where Steve Boyd, a mass-choreographer who's worked at the Games in some capacity since Barcelona ‘92, was stood on a box and leading the crowd in a mass remembrance of Olympic games past. Somebody was talking about Sally Gunnell winning Gold in 1992. Then Boyd shook his head sadly as someone mentioned Ben Johnson being stripped of his 100-metre gold after testing positive for steroid use in 1988.

When all 212 of us had finally been funnelled into the hall, Boyd brought the reminiscing to an end and instructed us to close our eyes. "Now imagine being part of the Olympic opening ceremony," he said. "3.5 billion people watching you. 3.5 billion people wanting to be you." Somebody near me let out an audible squeal. He explained in hushed tones that the Olympic Games are the "world's largest peace-time event… the only bigger human undertaking is war."

Feeling as underprepared as I would have done dropped behind enemy lines, we proceeded to start circling the room, following stripes marked out on the floor in a variety of electro-garish colours. Soon all of us were following one another, a vast snake curling and winding through the hall. Every few minutes, "dance captains" stood on boxes shouted out instructions like "Row the boat!" or "Dust your shoulders!" or the single word that I came to loathe more than any other: "Freestyle!"

The reasons I despise "Freestyle!" are manifold. Firstly, after puffing along trying to keep time with everyone else it is excruciatingly embarrassing to be tossed back in to the choppy waters of having to decide what to do with your own flailing body. Secondly, I don't know how to "make your walk show your personality" although I fear it may have something to do with what Vicky the dance captain just called "my flava". Third, it quickly became apparent that essentially every single other person in the hall was a ringer. These people were clearly all professional, or at the very least dedicated amateur, dancers willing to prostrate themselves at the altar of the Olympics, forgoing a fee, purely for the pleasure of being part of The Biggest Show Since The War. I noticed the dance captains make surreptitious notes on their clipboards. Man cannot open the Olympics on enthusiasm alone.

The conga line-style mass routine ended and we were each put on a spot to learn a routine. It started off simply enough. We stretched our arms. We mimed a yawn and drinking coffee. We "washed our hair". We ran on the spot. Then there was some spinning and it all started to get a bit blurry. There was yet another opportunity to "Freestyle!" Within minutes the room looked like the climatic scene of some terrible American high school movie. I was not enjoying myself.

Row by row dancers were examined by the dance captains and then peeled off. Eventually I made it to the front row. I made eye-contact with a dance captain. I seemed to have more limbs than I knew what to do with. I knew in my heart that for me, the Olympics were already over.

Soon enough every dancer had been graded and dismissed. The horde collected their coats and grabbed water bottles, bubbling away and grinning. There was a lot of talk of "wanting to be part of it". Why? Well, it's "once in a lifetime, innit?" In total some 1,100 people went through these auditions, and this week several hundred of them will be there in the stadium: marching, twirling and free-styling the Olympics open. Amid all the cynicism and the awful, grinding commercialism, there's still something charming and honest about the pure enthusiasm of people who just want to be part of the show.