Teoh Berry is a fan of spontaneity. But when she got dragged to a contemporary dance class, even she couldn’t imagine how it would change her life. This is her story.
I was in my early 20s, working full-time and a friend got in touch and said: “Hey, we’re going out and we’re going to buy some leotards.”
I thought: “Why, what for?”. She said: “There’s this thing called a contemporary dance class starting at the University of East Anglia.”
I just took to it like a duck to water. It was a total surprise. I’d never danced before, maybe a bit of disco but that was it. This was back in the 1970s.
It was the same time Jane Fonda was doing her thing and Fame was bopping around so it was really cool to have leotards and leggings, that whole look, although I didn’t do the headband thing.
I was awful, they were showing you how to do these dance positions which I’d never heard of before like feet in second and what have you. I looked like this little gangly duckling… but I absolutely loved it.
When I had an annual holiday coming up, I decided to go to the London School of Contemporary Dance to do a summer course for a week. I trotted down and liked it so much I thought: “Hang on, they offer this course full-time. Maybe I can think about doing this as a proper study?”
I tend to be rather spontaneous in my decisions. A year later I looked into various courses and applied to be a student on the BA Performing Arts at Middlesex Polytechnic.
I got a place and majored in dance. I was 24-25 but was regarded as a mature student and those days you got a grant you didn’t have to pay back which was fantastic.
The teachers were professional performers themselves, so for contemporary dance a lot of them came from the London School of Contemporary Dance. One was setting up a regional dance company in the north of England and offered me a place when I graduated.
I went but finances didn’t allow me to have a place after the first year. I met up with another dancer in the north east of England and we were granted to work together as dance animateurs. I did that for nearly two years and then went to the Far East.
Our purpose was to introduce contemporary dance classes to the region and to promote dance, to encourage people to attend performances by other professionals coming to the area and creating a dance group that also performed.
We were able to take it into schools and I remember working with a rugby team to make them more agile and play better rugby.
They were really good fun, they loved it. Little squishy, 5ft 2in me and these big 6ft boys trying to do jetés across the floor. We were working collaboratively with musicians, artists, it encompassed all the other aspects of arts.
[When abroad] I was introduced to another lecturer in contemporary dance at an academy of performing arts. I taught a few classes there for a couple of terms. Then I became pregnant with my son, then a couple of years later my daughter so I stopped [dancing] for a long while, about 25 years.
We moved around a bit because of my husband’s job. It wasn’t until we came back to England in 2009 and my friend mentioned the classes at The Garage [where a now semi-retired Teoh takes 50+ ballet, 50+ contemporary dance and is a member of the Mosaic performance group for those 50+).
I’m not a gym bunny, that doesn’t attract me at all. Dance combines the two things I like best – exercise and creativity. I came home and said to my husband: “Hey, guess what, there are contemporary dance classes for my age group. I’m going to give it a go.”
I think it [the age group] was a consideration. The body, in spite of how much you want it to do something, isn’t really up to doing it anymore.
For instance, if you are doing several deep plié for some people in my age category your knees aren’t so great, your hips aren’t so great so you’re reluctant to do those things.
If you’re doing lots of leaps travelling across the floor, again the body has its limitations. That’s why it was encouraging to join a class where those things were understood. That the teacher wasn’t going to ask of you and your body to do those things.
There have been people who have joined our classes since I’ve been attending, and contemporary is a new language for them. It’s like learning a foreign language and the body does become familiar over time.
For me it was very natural because I understood what was being asked of me. [That first time back in the studio] was so enjoyable. It felt so familiar, [like] a homecoming. I think there has been a regret that a certain amount of time has passed when I could’ve been more active.
[My children haven’t followed in my footsteps, I raised them] during that phase where I wasn’t involved in dance at all. They wouldn’t have had any knowledge of me as mum being a dancer.
I was prompted by what they wanted to do. [I didn’t suggest classes] and neither of them mentioned dance. They mentioned loads of other things…
My previous dance experience, pre-25 years ago, I have to say, I think I took a lot of it for granted. It didn’t occur to me how it was really making me feel, how satisfying it was. It was just something I was always doing. It was my occupation.
I don’t think it ever really impacted on me how beneficial it was. Whereas now, I can tell how beneficial it is to me in my wellbeing and my physicality. I’m more appreciative of it nowadays… possibly [because I’m doing it for me rather than a job and other people].
Bigging up Mosaic, it was amazing that we were invited to perform at the Lilian Baylis at Sadler’s Wells, that really was a landmark achievement for us as a group.
At the beginning of that term, we had a couple of new people join us and they were in that performance. Going home, you should’ve seen them, they looked so exhilarated. It was lovely to see how animated they were having achieved something like that.
[I’m driven to continue dancing because it makes me] feel useful… to know that the body can still do it. Not to how it used to be, my legs can’t go up to the ceiling or anything, but you can still learn a sequence and feel you can still achieve [something].
I hate it when term ends because by then you’ve got your body to the place where you’re feeling really good again. Then you have this break and go: “Ewww, just suck your stomach in for a while, stand up straighter.”
This one time there was a piece of music on the radio, and I spontaneously went into pirouette. I had a plate in my hands and my chips went flying all round the room, I completely forgot and was taken by the music.
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19/07/2019 There’s a buzz in the studio as the members of Mosaic Performance Company warm-up. Their minds still very much on their appearance at the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s