is December 18th in my Dance Inpirations advent calendar
It says a lot about Belinda that the story I’d most like to tell about her famous classes in Historical Dance at the RAD is unprintable. Her definition of dance history was broad enough to include occasionally testing the students’ knowledge of the extramarital shennanigans of ballet stars. I think she wanted to make sure they didn’t get overwhelmed by the superficial glamour of the royal institutions with which they came regularly in contact. In the middle of an explanation of contrapposto she might suddenly say in her deep voice which owed something to Edith Evans, “Now, my darling treasures, which star of the Royal Ballet famously….”
Which is, frustratingly, where I have to stop, to avoid litigation, although it ruins the story. The punning double entendre she made on the culprit’s name was so filthy and so funny at their expense, that neither I nor the students could quite believe we’d heard right: after all, this was a scholarly 74 year-old lady at the Royal Academy of Dance in 1986, in a lecture about historical dance.
But that’s what made Belinda such a fantastic teacher. It wasn’t just that her knowledge of the subject put everyone else’s to shame; she made it live and breathe. Her classes were so lively, risqué, humane and intelligent, her personality so warm and entertaining, that you left feeling as if baroque dance were the hippest, coolest thing on the planet. She made ballet, by comparison, seem old-fashioned, rigid, fossilized and rather ridiculous (which – in terms of training – it was), because it appeared to lack the earthy sensuality and humanity of the dance that she taught.
Her classes were riveting and entertaining, and a joy to play for. She did for early dance what Mark Steel does for history, and in a similar way. When I was freelancing, I reorganised my year to be able to play for her classes at the Central School of Speech & Drama, simply so that I could sit in and learn from the lectures.
It was her distinction between periodic and dynamic rhythm which helped me to understand why some types of music were more suitable than others for class, and her notion of organic rhythm which enabled me to understand what annoyed me so much about people who didn’t have it. Her book about the history of social dancing, May I Have The Pleasure? was a wonderful antidote to ballet-obsessed histories, and in that sense, was the equivalent in musical terms of popular music studies today.
She was a fanstastic role model in a myriad ways. She had moral and intellectual courage in vast quantities, and students liked her because she never talked down to them – although she could berate them for being unprofessional at times. She did not blindly respect anyone of high rank, and could puncture a puffed-up ego at 1000 yards. I once mentioned the name of a famous conductor to her as we were going up the stairs at the Academy, and she shouted out “Bastard!” at the top of her voice (which is saying something, for she had a mighty theatrical bark when she chose to use it). As I hadn’t known Belinda long at this stage, I thought I’d misheard. “I’m sorry, Belinda?” I asked – to which she barked back even louder “I said he’s a BASTARD!!!”.
If people didn’t like what she said, that would not stop her saying it. She cared, it seemed to me, about promulgating sense rather than nonsense as a matter of principle, no matter what the context. She was formidably intelligent across a number of disciplines, including theatre, dance, psychology, history and music, and yet down-to-earth, friendly, and understanding of the human condition. At 75 she seemed younger than me and the students, most of what she said 20 years ago would seem ahead of its time even today. I hope some of what I learned from her serves me that well in my 70s.