Now this is a sentence I didn’t expect to find myself writing: last week I paid to watch two hours of intergenerational amateur community dance.
There were white-haired women in leggings dancing with wooden spoons; a dancer with mobility issues sitting on a chair, surrounded by people in green T-shirts; a new mum snapping her body and stamping her feet over the nappies, toys and phone chargers she’d emptied out of her rucksack. I drank tepid white wine out of a plastic cup; a woman played the cello while a loose collaboration of human bodies rolled and jerked across an empty stage. And do you know what? It was brilliant. I loved it.
But here’s the thing: if I had watched that same piece of dance 20, even 10 years ago, I would have squirmed in my seat. I would have raised a cynical eyebrow, curled a lip, spent the whole thing with one eye on the audience, terrified and self-conscious in case anyone caught me enjoying it. I’d have been waiting for the gotcha moment when some nameless arbiter of cool – smelling of cigarettes, in a leather jacket, hair tousled and clothes confusing – would have jumped out from behind a fold-down maroon chair and whispered: “You like this, you fool! You have been tricked. This isn’t cool – this is embarrassing!’ And I would have been run out of the building with a pitchfork.
If I could go back and tell my 18-year-old self one thing … well, actually, if I could go back and tell my 18-year-old self one thing, it would probably be to never go on the pill. Or maybe to try harder to keep Gordon Brown as prime minister. OK, so if I could go back and tell my 18-year-old self three things, one of them would definitely be to take joy in joy. I would pull that girl up by her unflattering toothbrush fringe, wipe off her unnecessary blusher and tell her that it is far more impressive to love things than to be snide. Being cynical, being cruel, being deprecating and being negative are easy. It takes about 0.08% of effort to cut something down. Cheap laughs don’t warm your feet and hitting easy targets doesn’t improve your aim. It is altogether more impressive and satisfying to be enthusiastic about things. To be a fan. To encourage. To commit. It doesn’t even really matter what it is – fixing bikes, Zumba, making model planes, running, local history, whatever tickles your pickle. The fact is that someone doing a thing they are genuinely passionate about is immeasurably more sexy than someone making snide remarks about other people’s passions.
Perhaps this is what age means. Perhaps this is why a 38-year-old woman, despite her melting body, raft of responsibilities and lifetime of disappointments, is often so much happier than her 18-year-old counterpart. Because under the flurry of laundry, doctor’s appointments, work calls, electricity bills and mysterious new lumps, you simply do not have the time or energy to give a shit about what other people think. Without the horned devil of wanting to be accepted whispering in your ear every waking minute, you are free to love the things you love. You can be bad at things you try or take pleasure in things deemed marginal and eccentric without constantly worrying that you will be made a pariah by those with higher social status. You can, ironically, belong.
After nearly three decades of taking the piss, I now recognise that effort, community, imperfection and hope are the most impressive things we have. They keep our heads above water and put meaning in our bones. So, that night, when the dancers invited the audience up on stage at the end, I stood up. I jumped at the chance. I whirled around a little black room, outside London, in a pair of secondhand trousers, with middle-aged men and girls half my age and had a ball.
Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s a stage, but right now I would much rather be leaping about than standing at the edge of a dancefloor, in a dark club, watching who is watching me.