Tuesday, 19 May 2015

I’m a Tate ballerina!

I had a most peculiar day last Monday. It started in the morning with two horrendous scans in hospital – one CT, one MRI – and then turned into something quite beautiful by the afternoon.

I left the hospital, in Waterloo, around 8:45 and headed towards the Tate Modern along the river. There is a wonderful window of opportunity in London where places seem to empty a little, and it’s usually the hour between 8:45 and 9:45 (unless you are a night owl of course, and then I would suggest 4-5am!). But at this hour of the morning, most Londoners are either at work or on their way to work, and the tourists are still eating breakfast and planning their fun-packed day. There was hardly anyone around as I meandered along the Southbank. No buskers, no skateboarders, no accordion players and no map-clenching visitors. It was so still and quiet that even the Thames seemed to sigh as it glistened peacefully in the morning sun. I went and sat on the roof of the Southbank Centre, where a wildflower garden has been planted, and watched a mum and her son chase butterflies.

I found a strange installation in one of the tunnels as I walked round the back of the Haywood Gallery.

I then strode purposely towards the gallery and went up to my favourite room on the second floor, which plays host to 8 stunning Mark Rothko paintings. The room is darkened and the paintings are in shades of red and black so the atmosphere should be fairly gloomy. But it’s not. The room almost vibrates. The paintings are huge and awe inspiring and it is the one place in London that I know I can sit and forget everything. 

Rothko is a very popular abstract painter and the room is usually filled with people, but on Monday morning at 9:30, the room was deserted. I had the paintings to myself for at least 25 minutes until I was joined by a tall man with white hair and a tanned face, who mirrored what I was doing – albeit the other end of the room – by reclining on the bench and staring with eyes half closed in ecstasy. 

It was slightly unsettling but maybe he thought the same, and was unsettled by me. I stared for another few minutes, then left the Rothko’s and descended to the vast turbine hall on the lower ground floor. 

Occasionally this space is used for vast installations and performance pieces but today it was playing host to the ballet. The main area had been roped off and several film crews were setting up equipment. I was squinting to read a sign the other side of the ropes, when a young woman approached me. ‘Are you here for the ballet?’ she asked. Um. ‘I didn’t know about it until now actually,’ I said, ‘I was just trying to read the sign over there, about when it starts.’ She looked at the sign, waved her hand, and said, ‘Oh don’t worry about that, I know one of the dancers, it starts at 12. So see you here at 12?’ And she smiled and walked off. Gosh, she’s a bit forward I thought. And foreign. Not that foreigners are forward, but she definitely was. Her accent sounded Russian and as I watched her walk away I realised she must be a dancer too. You can tell immediately by the way they walk. Turned out feet, like a duck. I looked at my phone. 10:20. Blimey, over an hour and a half to kill, but when you are in one of the biggest galleries in the world, filling time isn’t too difficult, so I had a wander and a cup of tea and was back at the ropes at noon.

The Russian girl appeared out of nowhere and grabbed my arm, introducing herself as Dorota. I introduced myself to her in return and she said, ‘I’m so glad you are doing this. You are very brave.’ What? And then she ducked under the ropes, pulling me behind her, said something to a man who had his leg up by his ear, and led me into the middle of the floor. I looked up to the balcony and there were hundreds of people watching us. And then suddenly, the ropes were released and all these random people walked towards us. There were mums with children, a group of school kids, teenagers, and the rest (probably about 100 people) looked like dancers. Dorota explained very quickly that I had volunteered to be in an improvised ballet performance art piece and that it was being filmed for the Tate website. It was only going to be an hour, and wasn’t it exciting? Um. She then added, as an aside, that we were being taught by Boris Charmatz. Oh shite. Now I have heard of Mr Charmatz before and I wanted to leave the floor immediately. Boris Charmatz, you see, is quite famous for choreographing and starring in… nude ballets. You can google it yourselves because I’m certainly not going to post a link on here!! Anyway, I suddenly thought, oh my god, he’s going to make us take all our clothes off and jeté around with everything bobbling about, all in the name of art. Now I’m all for expanding people’s minds, and although I have done a bit of nude modelling in my time, this was something else. And my God, the children too? This Frenchman was sick!

But no… much to my relief, clothes were to be kept on. Boris wanted us to explore the history of dance and ballet, improvising and experimenting, under his guidance. Oh God. We were to use our bodies and express ourselves as he moved around us, giving us instructions over a microphone head set. But first was one of the most awkward moments I have ever witnessed. We went back to the 80’s and we had to pick a partner, and we had to slow dance. My only salvation was my new Russian friend who happened to be standing about ten feet away from me. I made a beeline for her and grabbed her in a tight embrace. It must be kismet for writing about the wonders of hugging because we had to hold each other and dance cheek to cheek for the whole song. We were luckier than most. Strangers were turning red from embarrassment all around us, giggling self-consciously, as they partnered up with seemingly quite unsuitable partners. Two teenage boys had their hands on each others shoulders, looking everywhere but at each other as Boris shouted, ‘Get closer to each other, really hug each other… and dance!’ From there we progressed through the decades, wiggling hips, gyrating groins, running, jumping, rolling around on the floor until we were given a proper ballet routine. Boris leapt beautifully into the air, then pirouetted, then pliéd. He shouted out positions in French and we tried to keep up. It would have looked ridiculous had it not been for the 100 people who actually understood what he was talking about (the proper ballet dancers) and beautifully performed each move.

It was 60 minutes of joy and hysteria. Most of us had big grins on our faces as we forgot about the people watching, ignored the cameras and just let ourselves go. Dancing really is a joyous thing. What is the expression… dance as if nobody’s watching? Well we certainly did that. I found this photo of us on the Tate website. I can’t spot myself (I was never good at Where’s Wally?) but if you can, let me know. So I can now officially say I am part of a work of art at the Tate Modern. Pretty cool.

As well as the ballet, this week has been a very luvvie one all in all… not only am I now preserved in Tate history but I have also seen 4 plays in 7 days!! And I wonder where my money goes! Monday was Everyman at the National, with the incredible Chiewetel Ejiofor in the leading role; Tuesday was Death of a Salesman with Sir Anthony Sher; Wednesday was Hayfever with Felicity Kendal; and Sunday was the supreme genius Ralph Fiennes playing Jack Tanner in Man and Superman. I recommend them all if you happen to be in London. What I do suggest is spreading them out over a few weeks or months though. I am all air-kissed out. I am, sweetie darlings, all played out.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015


I was researching hugs yesterday. Yup, hugs. Most people know that I use Mondays as my writing days, but not everyone knows that as well as my blogs, I am also writing my first novel. Eeek. I have been writing it for over 2 years and am still only on Chapter 7. At this rate it will be published in 5 years! It seems a long way off but I am still incredibly positive… notice I said, will be published, not if it’s published. My book is not historical, nor is it a crime novel or sci-fi – genres that require years of research – but I still have to get my facts straight and therefore I spend hours in libraries and pouring over the internet to get my details just right.

My novel’s two main characters, Connie and Sam, meet in Trafalgar Square in winter. They meet because Sam is giving FREE HUGS and Connie is on the receiving end of one of them. This is based on something that actually happened to me, in exactly the same spot, about 5 years ago. The FREE HUG I received didn’t change my life in the way it changes Connie and Sam’s, but it gave me the idea for the novel. The entire book revolves around this event, this hug, so I thought I should really research why I think hugs are so important and also why scientists think we should be giving and receiving them more often.

The collective noun for teddy bears is ‘a hug’; a hug of teddy bears. The words are evocative because we immediately picture a soft warm comforting embrace. It may remind us of our childhoods, clutching our favourite toy as we go to sleep; it may bring up memories of hugs from parents as we say goodnight or be comforted when we hurt ourselves. As we get older hugs become more infrequent, not the everyday occurrences we have as children, so when we do experience them as an adult, either wrapped in the arms of a partner, greeting a friend hello or on the receiving end of a giant squeeze from a family member, hugs not only make us feel good but they make us feel protected and loved – even a random hug from a stranger can do wonders for our well-being. In fact, scientists have now found more and more reasons why we should be embracing the embrace.

1. A good hug is the fastest way for us to get oxytocin flowing in our bodies. 
Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that acts on the brain’s emotional centre. Also known as the ‘love drug’, this little peptide promotes feelings of devotion, trust, bonding and a sense of belonging, so it might be no surprise that studies have also shown that couples who hug more often are more likely to stay together.

2. Hugs lower our blood pressure, our heart rates and our cortisol levels.
Cortisol is the hormone responsible for stress, high blood pressure and heart disease. In an experiment at the University of North Carolina, participants who didn’t have any contact with their partners developed a quickened heart rate of 10 beats per minute, compared to the 5 beats per minute among those who got to hug their partners during the experiment.

3. Hugs trigger dopamine flow.
Dopamine is the pleasure hormone responsible for giving us that feel-good feeling. MRI scans have shown that even an anticipated hug can stimulate brains to release dopamine.

4. Hugs stimulate serotonin.
Serotonin is a chemical compound which balances our moods and gives us a sense of importance and well-being. Reaching out and hugging someone can release endorphins and serotonin into the blood vessels, causing pleasure and negating pain and sadness. It can help with sleep and appetite as well as decreasing the chances of getting heart problems. Even cuddling pets or toys has been found to have the same soothing effect.

5. Hugs balance out the nervous system.
Our skin contains a network of tiny, egg-shaped pressure centres called Pacinian corpuscles that can sense touch, and when we are hugged, they change. The effect is increased moisture and electricity in the skin suggesting a more balanced state in the nervous system – our bodies unconscious actions.

6. Hugs can help fight off illnesses and infections – and boost your immune system.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania examined 404 healthy adults who reported their amount of interpersonal conflicts and number of hugs received. The participants were then exposed to a common cold virus, and then examined as the illness progressed. The results showed that people who received more hugs experienced less severe symptoms than those who didn’t receive as many, suggesting that increasing the frequency of hugs might be an effective means of reducing the deleterious effects of stress and illness.

7. Hugging decreases the feelings of loneliness.
This benefits adults the most, according to researchers at Ohio State University, because hugging and physical touch becomes increasingly important with age. The older you are, the more fragile you are physically, so contact becomes increasingly important for good health. Studies have shown that loneliness, particularly with age, can also increase stress and have averse health effects.

So there you have it, hugging not only makes you happier, healthier and more relaxed, it also improves your relationships! What’s not to love? A good decent hug, however, needs to be in the 20 second mark for it to be truly beneficial. A quick shoulder bump or slap on the back just won’t cut it, so if you do get approached by a stranger offering free hugs, which I have, then let yourself be hugged for at least half a minute. It feels excruciatingly long, but just remember the good it’s doing you, and relax. If you are lucky enough to have someone there with hugs on tap, then make the most of them. At least a hug a day will keep the doctor away.

P.S. I would love to say the man in the photo was my ‘free hugger’… sadly he wasn’t!