Dancing to The Rite of Spring is, to paraphrase the Pet Shop Boys, not the kind of thing you would normally do. Unless you’re a professional dancer, in which case you might well do that kind of thing – if not to Stravinsky then maybe to Tchaikovsky, or Steve Reich, or a sound score.
So what do professional dancers bop along to just for fun – if indeed they dance in their spare time at all? “Pop, disco, and a bit of rock’n’roll,” says Tamara Rojo, artistic director and lead principal dancer of English National Ballet. Her top tracks are Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, but she also likes 80s and 90s Madonna, Abba, the Bee Gees: “Basically, really tacky wedding music!” Think of that, the next time you see her gliding into an arabesque penchée.
Rojo has enjoyed dancing around since she was a child: “We had no TV at home, so my entertainment was to dance to random music.” As a young dancer she was a quite a clubber, “out until 6am, then back home in the morning and straight to ballet class”. That was then. “Now I don’t have the stamina any more, so it’s just at parties and weddings.” But Rojo still values her off-duty dancing, because at work she has to “analyse and think about every detail, whereas this kind of dancing is just for the joy of it.”
Royal Ballet soloist Eric Underwood still goes clubbing, with a preference for house music from the likes of Calvin Harris and Frankie Knuckles. “I particularly like house with vocals,” he says. “That way I can enjoy the voice and allow my body to just follow the beat.” Still, he’s more often to be found dancing in his living room to Amy Winehouse or old-school R&B, and soul from Otis Redding (Try a Little Tenderness is his favourite) to Donny Hathaway.
Either way, dancing for pleasure is totally different from dancing as a job. “During work I’m aware of my movement all the time,” he says, “but in my free time I just let go and surrender to the beat.”
Dancer/choreographer Akram Khan used to do that: he won competitions dancing to Michael Jackson as a child, and would go clubbing as a young man. But since forming his company in 2000, that pretty much stopped. He remembers acutely a moment after a performance of the duet Zero Degrees, where he was witness to the rare sight of fellow dancer/choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui freestyling at a party. “I was horrified!” remembers Khan, “because he was just so free. And I was so self-conscious that I felt naked – more naked than I would on stage, because there are no rules. Maybe I have a problem with thinking too much about movement.”
The birth of Khan’s daughter last year put some fun and funk back into his feet. “Now I dance with her every morning in my living room,” he says. “We put on Japanese nursery music – and Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough. She has kind of freed me up. I can let go more because I’m relating to a child. Maybe I wouldn’t even mind dancing around in public – as long as she was with me.”
Children (twin girls) have also impacted Canadian Louise Lecavalier, who the UK first saw hurtling through the air in famously fearless dives and somersaults back in the 80s. For her latest work, So Blue, showing in London this month, Lecavalier chose music she loves moving to –Fusion Monster by Turkish DJ Mercan Dede; Daft Punk’s debut album, Homework; the soundtrack to Kill Bill – but outside the studio, it’s a different story.
“I only dance in the kitchen, with my kids,” she says, “and their one condition is that they choose the music. When they were six, it was the Beatles and Peter Gabriel. Then at seven or eight, it sadly devolved to Hannah Montana … though now they’ve moved on to Stromae, Janelle Monáe, Pharrell Williams.” What kind of dancing does she do with them? “Well, I don’t roll on the floor or fly horizontally or kick my legs out! It’s more on-place dancing. Maybe a kind of psychedelic jitterbug.”
In Meryl Tankard’s The Oracle, Australian dancer Paul White, a member of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch who is also visiting London in July, did just what the Pet Shop Boys said: took all his clothes off and danced to The Rite of Spring. It was not at all fun, but it was great: the emotionally lacerating solo won him the prize for outstanding male performer at the National dance awards this year.
White’s offstage dancing is both more private and more pleasurable. “I dance all through my flat,” he says, “but…” – and this from someone who has danced naked in public – “… I think I’d shrivel up with embarrassment if I could see myself.” He’ll dance to pretty much anything that suits his mood except heavy metal or hard rock (“just not my thang”). “If I’m moody I might play Antony and the Johnsons, if I’m chirpy I’ll whack on some salsa. I have to say I’m a sucker for female vocalists such as Eva Cassidy, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone.”
Like Khan and Lecavalier, White often dances with a small helper – though not, in his case, a child. “Often my cat Mischa is part of the action,” he admits. “She’ll sit on my head or shoulder, and we jump and twirl around together.”
For many dancers, the pleasures of dancing are social as well as solitary. Sometimes whole companies go out together, especially on tour. And groups of young, energetic and hyped-up performers can get pretty wild. Martina Bussi of Motionhouse dance company says that on tour “we sometimes have a dance-off at work between rehearsals, but mostly we go to clubs and bars. Often we don’t decide what music to dance to in our job, but when we dance for fun, everything is allowed.” Ask the company about their favourite club music and one track currently seems to get all of them going, every time: Move by Little Mix. “We go absolutely insane!” says Bussi.
Dancing crazy isn’t just full-on bopping, either. Choreographer Rosie Kay remembers when her (non-dancer) husband first saw her company let their hair down on a tour night out: “He was pretty shocked when we all started improvising, using the floor and doing partnerwork and lifts.” And how does that make the regular punters feel? “Often they want to join in, because of the energy. Though sometimes it can get a bit competitive, like an unofficial dance-off. And we have,” she confesses, “been threatened with being chucked out of a club for doing contact improvisation.”
While some dancers actually find letting go a stimulus to their creative work in the studio, others prefer to respect work-life boundaries. “Contemporary dancing in a social dance situation, or contact improvisation at a club,” says Sam Coren of Hofesh Shechter company, “this really irritates me.”
Public, private, shy, show-off, solitary or social – is there anything this off-duty dancing has in common? I’d say there is: music with a beat. “I’m driven a lot by rhythm,” says Paul White, “but music at work is different. In fact, in the pieces I perform we often purposefully dance out of time with the musical rhythm.”
Perhaps independent dance artist Jen Irons puts her finger on it best. “For many of us,” she says, “I think the original attraction to dancing was that if felt good. After years of training and having movement dissected, criticised and analysed, we have less connection to that. In fact, in performance, we are told that it is self-indulgent to do so.”
No wonder, then, that for pure pleasure, professional dancers are normally less likely to feel like dancing to The Rite of Spring than to the Pet Shop Boys – or that kind of thing.