‘If there is space made for my story, I can make space for yours.’ Emilie Collyer reflects on the radical generosity of the 24 Hour Dance Project
I hear about Freya McGrath’s 24 Hour Dance Project because her producer, Harriet Wallace-Mead, works on my show Contest as our assistant stage manager. The premise is that Freya will dance for 24 hours. She can only stop if someone else dances for her.
I like the sound of it. It sounds like a work that about endurance, about taking a formal risk, about inviting audience engagement and agency in a unique way. I donate to the Pozible campaign, which means I get to choose a song, I get a tote bag and I get to be part of the Pozible dance troupe.
We meet on a Friday afternoon to learn the dance. It is me, Freya, Harriet and two other women who, like them, seem to be in their early 20s. We learn a dance to Anyway You Want It by Journey. It’s a song from the ‘80s, when I was a teenager. I don’t remember it. I wonder if Journey was really a thing back then or just became a thing once their song Don’t Stop Believing became a huge hit on the show Glee in the nougties. Of course, in reality, I’m sure Journey was a thing. Just not my thing.
Several times during the dance class, I think about making a quip about how I assume I am the only one in the room who was alive during the 80s, so if the others want any kind of verification about what life was like back then, they could ask. But I don’t. I don’t want to sound like that dicky older person making a comment about being the dicky older person.
We learn the dance. I practice the dance. I’ve been dancing in my living room for a while now, ever since a shiatsu therapist told me I needed to do something fun in my body. Something like dancing free form, she said. Not classes!
Still, this is just one dance.
I follow the lead-up to the project on Facebook and Instagram. A lot of work is going into it. Guest artists. A relaxed, chill-out space. Different themes every hour on the hour.
Our dance is scheduled twice, at 3.30pm and 8.00pm. I think I will definitely go to the 3.30 pm and will see how I feel about the 8.00pm session. I’ve been sick with a stubborn throat infection and raspy cough, so I might not feel up to it.
We are to wear a splash of red, to support Freya. I wear blue jeans, white sneakers, a red long-sleeved t-shirt and fire engine red lipstick. It pleases me that both of my dance class counterparts also show up with red lips.
I arrive about an hour before our dance. The space is a shipping container down at Testing Grounds on City Road with matt black plastic on the floor. It’s the Relaxed hour. Music softer. No lights. There are half a dozen people dancing in the space slowly and gently, with each other, on their own, On the walls are brief statements about the work: its manifesto, thoughts about dance and what it means for us, what it does for us. A curtain of shiny rainbow-coloured strips creates a kind of back-stage space where Freya can rest or get changed. The computer that will provide the music for the 24 hours is on a desk. The crew rotate through the task of operating.
It is the easiest thing in the world, in this simple, stripped-backed space, to start dancing. I see a few people I know and we might chat for a bit and then we stop and we dance. We can do it near each other or not. We can make eye contact or not. Most people seem to be in their 20s. I notice two women dancing together who seem older, maybe be late 30s or 40s. They look more like me. I don’t need to know, but I like that they are there.
The cue comes on for our dance and those of us who are in it get ready and those who will be watching move to one side of the space to watch. We do our dance. It’s fun. One thing I particularly love – and I don’t know why I notice it because it seems like I must have stepped out of my own body and looked at us dancing and then stepped back in – is how our boobs bounce around as we dance. Professional dancers are mostly flat-chested. In video clips there might be bouncing, but it’s slow motion and sexy. Here, it’s a bunch of women, untrained (except for Freya) dancing together, in unison, with our full bodies, while others watch for pleasure.
I hang around and dance a bit longer and then I leave and go home and eat some dinner and then I change out of one red top and into another one and touch up my lipstick and go back in. It’s night now and dark and so it feels more like a party and less like a structured event. There are more people in the space.
They still mostly look like they are in their 20s. To my happy surprise, the older women I saw earlier are back as well. Or still there. Still dancing.
We do our dance routine again, facing a different way this time and with a slightly different configuration of people. We are a bit squished up and I hit someone with a flung our arm or get hit, I can’t remember. But we shuffle in and around each other and make room. I stay on and dance for another hour or so.
I post an Instagram story and go live for a few minutes. People “wave”. People in other cities, at home, out, glancing at their phone, seeing that I am somewhere dancing, on my own. I think about the space this project has created. I think about dancing. I think about self-expression. I think about selfies.
The space is both very singular and completely universal. It is all about Freya. She is the centre of it: her stamina, her enthusiasm, her body. Her commitment. But it is also about every one of us there. It provides a space where we can test our own stamina, our enthusiasm, our bodies and our commitment without fear of judgement or failure.
“Test” is the wrong word. It’s a space to play. To be.
I reflect on how when I was actually in my 20s I would probably have found the space confronting. If I had been at university with Freya, as many of the people here seem to be, perhaps I would have been worried about how I looked, who I showed up with, who I knew, how I danced, what it all meant.
If I think too hard about it I can still conjure up all of those worries. What’s that woman in her 40s doing here? Who does she know? Why doesn’t she have friends with her? Why does she dance like that? But a combination of factors floats these potential worries up and out on the sweaty fumes of communal dancing.
There is something simple and radical in what this space has permitted through a carefully thought-through dramaturgy and range of artistic and human interests. It’s a rejection of all that internalised anxiety I had in my 20s: about whose bodies belong and whose don’t, about who is allowed to dance and who isn’t. I think about how by placing herself and her body at the centre and making a space around that, Freya makes a space for everyone to also centre themselves. I think about how selfie culture is criticised for making people narcissistic. I suspect this is an over-simplified analysis.
What if putting ourselves at the centre actually allows for a radical change in how power works, breaking the top-down structure of patriarchal norms? Could it be about honouring every centre, every story, every different way of dressing and moving and dancing and being? My own analysis is equally simplistic, but perhaps a kind of truth lies somewhere between the two versions.
It reminds me of Audre Lord’s writing about the tyranny of silence and the urgency of speaking out. I search for a quote in her essay Poetry is not a Luxury (from Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches). “For there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt – of examining what those ideas feel like being lived on a Sunday morning at 7am, after brunch, during wild love, making war, giving birth, mourning our dead.” Every individual story needs to be told and heard. The massive, impermeable structures of the dominant narrative will only be broken down by specificity and multiplicity.
In her TED talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says: “The consequence of the single story is that it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult and it emphasizes that we are different rather than how we are similar…When we reject the single story, when we realise that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”
Rather than absorb and believe a single narrative about the world and our place in it, wondering if or where we fit, a space like the 24 hour Dance Project allows multiple narratives. If there is space made for my story, I can make space for yours.
I can be in my body. I can move and dance. I can enjoy what other people are doing with their bodies. I don’t have to smile at them, but I can. Some people are shuffling, small and internalised, at the edge of the floor. Some take the centre and want to be looked at. I can stay for as long as I want. I belong as much as anyone. I know some of the songs, but not all of them. I get thirsty. I get sweaty.
I leave at about 9.30pm but part of me wants to return. I’d love to be there at 3.00am or at dawn or at 9.00am, when it finishes.
I don’t go back. I go the Fringe Awards and then I go home because I’ve been a bit sick and I need to sleep. I check Instagram regularly to see the rolling posts and live moments from the project as it winds its way towards the finish.
In the morning I feel a warm melancholia. The project is over: they’re no longer dancing and the space has been closed. I put music on in my living room. I don’t need to keep practicing the dance to the Journey song any more, I can just free-form. Dancing on my own.
The 24 Hour Dance Project: An Inhibition Liberator Machine, created and Performed by Freya McGrath. Testing Grounds, Southbank, Melbourne Fringe.