Turning shakers into movers

Richard McClure boogies on down to an evening class for the choreograph ically challenged
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A humid Thursday evening and the south London dance floor is packed with bodies writhing in seemingly random movements. But this isn't any old popper-fuelled night at The Fridge; it's the Can't Dance Class, a three-part course run by Lambeth's Morley College, for the "awkward and clumsy".

While sultry summertime dances such as salsa and ceroc grip the nation, the Can't Dance Class caters for those who can barely manage the hokey- cokey. For just pounds 7, the course tutor, Clemence Bettany, will attempt to transform you from a social inadequate with two left feet into a snake- hipped slave to the rhythm.

"Many people feel self-conscious about dancing, but they don't realise how simple it is," says Clemence, a silver-haired former ballet dancer with big specs and a hearty manner. "It's seldom that someone can't be taught basic co-ordination and how to keep time. Part of the problem is that people rarely get the opportunity to dance, unless they go to nightclubs or discos."

Tell me about it. My own trusty shuffle, honed during my teens in Liverpool's Tuxedo Junction, is showing signs of neglect. It hasn't been the same since a wedding reception in Darlington when a drunken bride made me dance to "Jake the Peg". I need to stop the rot and I'm pinning my hopes on Clemence.

It seems I'm not alone, judging by the size of the crowd in the college reception. Most, it transpires, have pitched up for the Fourth Annual Celebrity Quiltmakers' Lecture in the room next door. As they depart, the remaining 20 of us nervously weigh each other up, like clients in a VD clinic.

Not that Clive, a 24-year-old unemployed philosophy graduate, will admit to any problem. "Actually, I'm a pretty good dancer," he says indignantly. Having just finished a music appreciation course at Morley, Clive is here under false pretences. "The college library wanted its books returned unless I took a summer course," he claims. "I chose the cheapest one. It was either this or Tibetan Healing."

Francesca, a 30-year-old Italian researcher, is less defensive. "The dancing business has always been a problem," she admits. "I feel uneasy in discos. My boyfriend laughs at me, even though he's only an average dancer." The problem is shared by Jean, a housewife in her fifties, who's come because she's "heavy-footed and useless".

My apprehension at missing the first lesson diminishes as we peel off our socks and Clemence announces: "Last week we practised walking. Tonight, we're going to try simple movement." A quick fumble with the tape deck and we're instantly engaged in some steamy bump 'n' grind. "Circle the pelvis," encourages Clemence. "Forwards, backwards, step, step, bump."

Deprived of the requisite alcohol and darkness, I reckon I'm acquitting myself quite well, certainly better than Laurence, who's standing next to me, motionless, in a Boris Yeltsin-style T-shirt. "Christ, I feel a berk," he mutters. Bodies loosen up as the tape switches to Frank Sinatra singing the praises of the Girl from Ipanema. "She swings so cool and sways so gentle." It's obviously not a reference to anyone in the room. A woman in a turquoise skirt has started gyrating wildly, while Clive gamely hops from one foot to the other with all the supple fluidity of an anglepoise lamp.

Clemence boogies up to me to offer assistance. I've lost the beat after catching sight of myself in the mirror. It's hardly a frenzy of abandon but Clemence does her best to dispel our inhibitions. "Come on scaredy- cats, follow me," she shrieks, slinking across the floor. We trail behind, a sorry procession of flailing limbs and nodding heads.

The final 10 minutes are spent doing our own thing to some free-form jazz. "Like a train, Sybil, like a train," urges Clemence. Clive appears to be moon-walking. In the confusion, I somehow find myself adopting a raised-arm-and-leg-kicking routine not seen since Morecambe and Wise did "Bring Me Sunshine". Laurence has slumped in a chair and is inspecting his toenails.

At the end of the hour, opinion is divided as to the lesson's usefulness. Francesca has found it "relaxing and entertaining", though Jean feels we'd have benefited more from "some party dancing - something like the 'Birdie Song'." She has, however, been converted to the cult of self-improvement. The prospectus for the autumn term has just come out and she's spotted her next challenge. "This is the one for me," she smiles. "I'm signing up for the Can't Sing Choir."

Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas returns next week.