We're fools whether we dance or not, so we may as well dance – Japanese proverb
It's a Monday. The rain is drizzling, making halos around the street lights, on already even though it's only 6 pm. I see a small knot of women and hope I'm in the right place, this place being an industrial estate just off Belfast's Sandy Row, a large loyalist mural greeting me at the entrance.
One of the women sees me get out of my car and look around me nervously. She bounds over to me with a big smile and asks "Are you here for Trilogy?"
I smile and nod in the affirmative, and she leads me animatedly across the puddle wet ground, past an ugly big green skip, and into a media studio. About a dozen women are already there, and there is tea, fruit, and chocolate biscuits. I opt for some herbal to keep me calm.
Nic Green, the director, introduces herself to me. She is petite and elfin, and filled with obvious enthusiasm for her work, which had just finished playing in Dublin. It's her first time in Belfast and she and the team are bubbling with excitement.
The media studio is used a lot for video and film making, so there is a famous "green screen", not just on the walls, but on the floor as well. This is apparently rather expensive, so we take our shoes off and sit in a circle, barefoot. We introduce ourselves one by one and say a bit about why we want to take part in this venture. I quote Baz Luhrman's Sunscreen – do one thing every day that scares you – and talk about how I'm currently on a journey of self discovery and re-birth. I tell them about my phoenix tattoo, and how she is the symbol of the Empress in China, a strong and powerful representation of the female.
There's a good mix of ages, shapes and sizes among us, and a really moving range of motives and histories. Most of us are a little anxious about the being naked part, but some see the challenge as setting a new benchmark – if we can do this, we can do anything.
And then we get to dance – I'd been so focussed on the nudity aspect that I'd almost forgotten that it involved dancing! We pair up, and begin a warm-up with a dancing game called, imaginatively, "The Dancing Game". This is a cross between follow-the-leader and simple simon, and we are all soon laughing and clapping heartily. My partner disappears at one point, as the strap on her top breaks. She jests "I must wear a better top tomorrow. Oh wait, what's the point?" Another girl loses a button off her skirt, and I joke that all our clothes are obviously spontaneously falling off already!
We then move on to the actual routine that we'll be performing. The dancers will be in three groups, and we can choose which level we'd like to go with. Group 1 is probably the least demanding dance wise, so I rule it out. Group 2 have to perform a move at one point lying on their backs, legs in the air, and then opening them out. Even though they'll be hidden behind a row of dancers, I feel a little uncomfortable with that move, so opt for Group 3, who have the most energetic steps to do.
We break into our 3 groups and find some space to learn the start of the dance, initially in our individual groups, but by the end of the evening we're performing it together, the three groups moving and jumping in and around each other, right up to one point where we are all moving in unison for the first time. Past audience members describe this moment as being like a wall of power, and I feel a strong sisterhood as we rehearse.
We finish the evening checking out in our circle again, and all of us feel enormously energised. I describe it as climbing the hill at the start of a roller coaster ride. But I know the dancing will get me through.
Tuesday, and I'm feeling majorly incompetent. Max peed on the floor (bad dog-mother!), daughter complained there's no food in the house (bad Mom!) and I spilled a bottle of water over my iPhone (bad technology owner!). Dancing's about the only thing that makes sense right now, and I throw myself into rehearsals with passion. We spend a little time at the end of our wild jumping around, lying in a circle with the lights dimmed, and take the first steps towards being naked. A couple of the girls reveal that they'd had their present from mother nature, and we have a frank discussion about how to deal with that. A Korean girl confesses she's never used a tampon before, and I'm reminded of my time in China last year, when airport security staff were puzzled by the tampon I had in my pocket. A BBC TV crew are waiting for us after rehearsals, and some of the ladies are brave enough to be interviewed. I wimp out.
Wednesday is a tough day for me emotionally, as its Gert's funeral. I would have been there if I hadn't been doing Trilogy. We do our usual circle and check-in, and I ask for tips on how to deal with the painful crack under my right big toe. We get a bit closer to being naked, and I manage to strip completely this time, before we all join in doing naked hokey-cokey. There's so much joy and laughter in this room, and the energy keeps us buzzing. We get dressed again and get back to serious rehearsing of the choreography. I love the first part of the routine, to The Pixies "Into The White". The second part is much faster, and mostly consists of jumping up and down, and I'm less fond of it! After a tea-break, we go round our circle completing the sentence "I'm doing this dance because...", and there are some very powerful emotions expressed and shared. Many of the women have issues with their body image, and the courage that they're channelling is inspiring. We lie in our flower circle on the ground again, and go for another attempt at everyone stripping off. We stand up, and suddenly the music is playing, and Nic is telling us to get to our starting positions and do the dance! This "rip the plaster off" approach is very effective, and we scrabble for position and start dancing without thinking too much about how we look – I'm too busy concentrating on not tripping over the discarded clothes on the floor. My tattoo is of course now completely visible, and a number of the women come up to me afterwards to admire it. We dress for a final circle time check-out, and I observe that we did our first naked run through at 10 past 8 on the 20th October, 2010. Or 20:10, 20/10/2010.
Thursday – dress rehearsal. Well, undress rehearsal, really. Time is now of the essence, so we don't have the luxury of slowly acclimatising to the idea of taking clothes off, it's just whip your kit off and get on stage! It is surprising how quickly one gets past the whole being naked thing, and I am comfortable enough to dress and undress in the hallway backstage, even with other male technical crew present. The routine has been changed slightly – where previously I came on stage right, and had to take 12 marching steps almost on the spot, now I'm entering stage left, and have to take 12 giant strides to reach the far side of the stage. Nic assures me that my big powerful strides look fabulous. We continue blocking and placing the piece. I'm content to be in the front row for some of the dance, and I even get a line to say! I know some of the other girls rely on me to remember the steps, and I feel a duty to get it right for them.
Our dance comes at the end of Part 1 of the piece, and we get to sit in the auditorium while Nic and Laura show us what comes before, setting it in context. It is unashamedly hard-hitting, combining the words of Germaine Greer from over 30 years ago with today's obsession in magazines and the media with unrealistic female images, demanding small pert bums and bulging breasts. With this sobering message in our heads, we run the dance through several times with full lights and sound. Once again, the sheer power of it impresses me – I hope it impresses the audience too! There was some publicity for it on the TV show Festival Nights, but the media do seem obsessed by the "would YOU do it?" aspect, rather than the underlining message. I can tell Nic is frustrated by this, but then, Belfast is one of the most prudish of cities. I opine that we will be Festival legends, talked about for years to come, and what a way to achieve immortality!
Friday – opening night. I have a hectic day at work, and seek advice in my journal on what to wear. I'm a bag of nerves, but I know that I'm always like this before a performance, and that once I'm in the theatre the adrenalin buzz will kick in.
I'd been worried that there might have been protesters waiting outside the theatre, when in actual fact there's a bunch of flowers waiting for me inside. They're from my daughter. She had been hesitant about coming to see the show, but had found a way to show her love and support. I dedicate my performance that night to her.
We have a run though to make sure everyone knows their placings. Then it transpires that we have to be standing ready in the wings even before the house opens, as we would make too much noise getting into position once the show starts. How odd, I think, listening to the audience arrive and take their seats, oblivious to the fact that 20 naked women are already standing a few feet away from them, behind the black stage curtains. Time scoots by, and it seems like mere milliseconds before Nic and Laura yell their "See you there!" cue, the strident opening chords of "Into The White" blast from the speakers, the million kilo-watt boom-lights burst on, and the first group of women appears. I always admire their bravery, being the first on stage. We listen, trying to gauge the audience reception. It is the sort of performance that demands an Oh! My! God! reaction, but you do want clapping and cheering as well. And then I'm smiling back at my little group, raising my right arm, and counting them in with a 5,6,7,8.
12 giant strides across the stage. Turn to face audience. Raise left arm to match right. Bounce forwards for 8 beats. Beyonce-pumps for 8. I always chant the steps to myself to make sure I get the right number of kicks (sometimes it's 8, sometimes it's 12), but I'm beaming my brightest smile at the audience and hoping that the sheer joy of our performance reaches out into the auditorium.
And soon we've chorused "Thank you Belfast!", taken our bow, and danced off stage. Quick hurtle to the dressing rooms as we have to be changed and out during the 15 minute interval. I spot my sister and her partner in the foyer, and have a brief congratulatory hug from them. And then me and my fabulous bunch of women head for a well deserved drink.
Saturday morning I am on such a high. My mind is buzzing and I can't sleep. I get up at 6 am and scour the net for reviews. The Belfast Telegraph one is kind, and I love the phrase "beautiful in their unselfconsciousness" that it employs. The Saturday audience is a little subdued, though I get a couple of texts afterwards from people who I knew were going to see it, telling me how they enjoyed it. I go home straight after part 1, and phone my mother. She isn't fazed at all by what I'm doing, but while I'm on the phone to her my daughter appears ready to go out for the evening in a skimpy and tight black dress. She can tell just from the look on my face that something's not right, and I let my mother stay listening on the phone while I explain the juxtaposition of what I've just done (making the world a better place through the medium of boob jiggling), with what she is wearing (dressing for a buyers market). She nods her head and goes upstairs to change.
On Sunday I am exhausted, and I crawl back to bed for an afternoon nap. In through the stage door for the last time, we spend some time bouncing around having photos taken. The routine goes well, and most of us are staying on for parts 2 and 3 this time. There are looks of semi-recognition from the audience in the foyer bar when we appear fully clothed, and more than one of them smiles and says well done. At the very end of the show there is a rendition of Jerusalem, and the female members of the audience are invited to join the cast on stage to sing along. Naked. All of us who'd bared everything earlier on need no further encouragement, but I'm delighted that some actual members of the audience join in too.
At the after show party it suddenly hits me that I'm the oldest dancer on stage, and also the only mother. If I'd known that at the start of the week I might have bottled out – my flabby tum is my least favourite part of my body. But then, the whole week has been about accepting our bodies the way they are, not constantly comparing ourselves to others, and I'm so glad I took the opportunity to participate in this life changing event. The only thing I regret is that I never got the chance to see the whole performance: I'm just going to have to visit Glasgow where it's being performed next, and show my support for the brave and lovely ladies of that fine city!