How to turn non-dancers into stars of the show

How do you turn a group of people who have never danced before into stars of a large-scale show? Kelly Apter went to rehearsals to find out

Rehearsals for Glory in the Pierce Institute in Govan. Picture: Robert Perry

A South African student, a weightlifter who narrowly missed qualifying for the Commonwealth Games, and a 53-year-old woman who hasn’t danced for 40 years – just three people who have had their lives changed by their involvement in Glory, a large-scale dance show staged as part of the Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme.

Along with over 30 others, the trio answered a call for volunteer dancers, with no previous dancing experience necessary. Watching them rehearse at the Pearce Institute in Govan, and hearing them talk about their journey so far, it’s clear responding to that ad has led to something they will remember forever.

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Each participant has their own story to tell, and their own reasons for being there. What unites them all, however, is their praise for Glory’s creative heart – Janice Parker. Walk into any dance rehearsal, and you’ll see choreographers teaching steps, calling out counts, and dancers trying to remember it all. Parker takes a different approach, building a strong structure in which performers can follow their instincts and generate their own movement. It’s a remarkable display of trust from Parker, and an endless opportunity for creativity for those taking part.

“Janice is a great leader, a great manager of people,” says participant Kerry McLaughlin, “and that’s very rare. I usually need to trust myself before I can let others trust me, but in this kind of situation I’ve realised you have to let those inhibitions go and dive in feet first. But it’s interesting how quickly we’ve become like a little family, and when that trust comes from higher up – from Janice – it’s a wonderful thing.”

McLaughlin, whose slight frame belies her physical strength, took up weightlifting 18 months ago. At first, qualifying for the Commonwealth Games – like some of her fellow club members – seemed an impossibility. But as the Games grew closer, and her points climbed higher, it suddenly became a very real proposition. When McLaughlin ended up just shy of the qualifying total, she swallowed her sadness and looked around for something new.

“Getting so close to that total was intense, and I had to take a step back from it,” she says. “But I’ve always wanted to be part of the Commonwealth Games in some way, and when this came along I thought wow, what an interesting thing to get involved in – a way to represent your country in a completely different manner.”

Like many of Glory’s participants, McLaughlin had never danced before (although, as she says, having stood on a weightlifting platform dressed in Lycra, stage fright shouldn’t be an issue). Other participants have come back to dance after a long break.

“Working with Janice is like a warm bath – utterly supportive and comforting,” says Rona Alexander, who last attended a dance class in 1974. “Although it’s been quite demanding too – as it has to be, because it’s got to be a high quality performance.”

An employee at the Big Lottery Fund, Alexander has spent the past year encouraging people to get involved in the Commonwealth Games – and realised she needed to “commit to something myself, that took me outside my own comfort zone.” Glory did exactly that.

Back in January, when the participants first turned up for their Saturday workshops, they were very much individuals. Watching them support each other in rehearsal, have fun together – and create something truly beautiful – it’s clear they’ve become a united team. “You spend so much of your life as an individual or in an individual family unit,” says Alexander, “and the kind of lives most of us lead now, there is very little reaching out to new people. But this is such a great and diverse group, it’s been fantastic.”

Arriving in Glasgow just three months ago, to take up a place at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, South African student Thulani Rachia was determined to “get involved in anything and everything”. Although used to performing, Rachia had no previous dance experience and admits to being “a bit apprehensive” at first.

Like McLaughlin and Alexander, however, Rachia found Parker’s creative approach instantly reassuring. “The idea of trusting in yourself and trusting in others – being part of this has opened all that up for me,” he says. “Just believing that you can do something if you put your mind to it. And you might not know what the end will look like, but just trusting in the process, and that you’ll get there.”

Parker has long been known for her work with performers of all ages and abilities – so what prompted her decision to create dance in this way? “Because I think everybody has that capacity within themselves, but sometimes they don’t know it. I think the essence of performance is being in the moment and trusting yourself – but also being aware of others. So they’re not remembering steps or counts, they are in the moment, using movement they have essentially created themselves.”

Initially, Parker encouraged her participants to write about their connection to the Commonwealth, and what the word “glory” meant to them. Their responses, and the steps the dancers went on to create, shaped how both Parker and co-director and designer Richard Layzell took the piece forward. “As a choreographer, I love the movement that comes out of their bodies,” says Parker. “And I love how people respond to the tasks we set them and what comes back to me – it really feeds me.”

Layzell’s set – a moveable cityscape inspired by the athlete’s village – and an original score by composer Michael John McCarthy, also add to the collaborative mix. Like Parker, McCarthy also looked to the participants for inspiration. “He sat in rehearsals with his computer and keyboard, and composed hand-in-hand with the performers and their movement,” says Parker. “Then he came back to us with a refined version. It’s been a great way to work.”

Parker, Layzell and McCarthy may be professionals, but for Parker there’s no distinction between them and the performers. “Most of the dancers have done nothing before,” she says. “But I’m not compromising in any way the professionalism of the piece – and why would I? That would be insulting to them and the artform.”

When the Commonwealth Games starts later this year, the word “glory” will be about winning medals. This Glory is different, less tangible but deeply meaningful for those involved. “For me it’s about everybody going on a journey where they can be the best they can be,” says Parker. “And my hope is that it takes them beyond their expectations of themselves as a performer – for me, that’s the glory. And there’s glory in the diversity of this group, and the aesthetic – it’s movement on a new register.

“So there’s not one single glorious moment, it’s about all these elements. They’re finding glory in their own way.”

Glory is at Tramway, Glasgow, from 5-10 March