Hmmm bop

I braved the dancefloor at a wedding this weekend. I’m pretty nervous about party dancing – give me a set of ballroom/latin rules to follow and I’m fine, but ask me to move to a beat in an unstructured way and I feel like a dork. I’ve been told I don’t look quite so stupid as it seems, though, so I’ll give it a try if the lights are low. And when the playlist kicked into I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’ there was no real choice.

As it happens, that particular song has a cha-cha beat, so I was a little more in my comfort zone. I fudged some basic steps for a bit, then noticed that a girl opposite me was doing the same. So I figured what the hell, stepped forward, offered my hand, and we danced a little routine, much to the surprise of everyone else on the dancefloor. We even got a cheer.

Ok, not the most exciting anecdote ever. But quite nice for me, as this is exactly how it’s meant to work, but never before has in 8yrs of learning to dance. So yay ūüôā


At tonight’s Argentine Tango class we learnt a new move with an optional extra: the woman can hook her leg around the man’s waist as they go into a cool dippy turn thing1. My regular partner wasn’t there, so I was dancing with one of the teachers, who is about my age and brilliant at the AT, and she said she wouldn’t put me through this move. It involves the man supporting the woman’s entire bodyweight, she said, and she wasn’t going to make me do that, as she’s pretty heavy. Now, incidentally, this is completely untrue. But even if it weren’t, I wasn’t going to let it slip by. It doesn’t do to let people put themselves down like that. So I attempted to say something nice.

At this point regular readers will note the confluence of a dance class, a woman my own age, and my trying to say anything at all, and may be wincing. And, indeed, the result was me giving a surprised look and saying ‘you can’t be that heavy’.


Could have been worse, I guess, but still.

  1. there is probably a swish spanish name, but I have forgotten it []

100 favourites

For the first time, one of my photos has reached 100 favourites on Flickr:

Flood dancing couple - 7

By most metrics, this is by far the most popular photo I’ve ever taken. It regularly gets posted to blogs / adapted in mashups, and was also used on the cover of an Australian folk album.

I took it on the day Stratford flooded, but I really really wanted to stay in and read the newly-released Harry Potter 7, and I honestly remember thinking “what are the odds I’ll take something any good anyway?”. Went out anyway, and saw this couple salsa-ing in the floodwaters. I took a bunch of shots, but this is the one people seem to like most. I gave the couple my card, and they’ve had equal share of anything I’ve received.

It’ll be a while before this happens again – the second-place photo has 8.

2010 showdance

Last weekend I was in Caernarfon for a dancing break, and my Monday-night casual dance group put on a showdance. Our 14 months of practice resulted in this:

I’m the one in the best hat (if for some reason you need more help: third from the left in the initial lineup). Kindly filmed by @nodster.

I, um. Well. Yes. It was fun!

Plinth highlights

The new Sky Arts One and Other highlights video (NSFW) is really quite something. The whole project comes together very nicely, and it’s oddly moving. I’d lost track of all the interesting things that happened, and I obviously missed a hell of a lot – curling spectactors? Definitely worth a watch. I admit I’m slightly biased as the plinthriller dancers are featured near the end, and in the BBC’s shortened version – which apparently went out on BBC Breakfast – they’re shown twice! Yay!

Atheist Thriller on the Plinth – Part 2

On the way to the plinthIt was a gorgeous afternoon – as sunny and warm as the One and Other team had seen it – and Trafalgar Square was full. This was great. Anything that wasn’t rain was just fine with me, and I found myself pretty excited by all the people. Hopefully we’d get a crowd, at least. The cherry picker moved slowly towards the plinth, the security guard shooing passers-by out of the way, and I started to spot familiar faces. I was, by this point, grinning like an idiot.

I was lifted high above the plinth, and I took the opportunity to appreciate the view. It’s not often you get a vantage point like that! Then the cherry picker lowered me down to meet Margaret, the charming lady representing Scotland, and we quickly swapped places. I was more¬†exhilarated¬†than nervous at this point, but nonetheless¬†pleased to see a pigeon was keeping me company. Sadly it flew off as soon as I stepped out. Hopefully this wasn’t a sign of things to come.

Now stop worrying, by SkudsThe plinth is bigger than it looks. I was carrying a lot, but there was plenty of space, and the ‘There’s probably no God…’ sign, which had seemed way too large in the BHA offices, was obviously going to fit perfectly. There’d still be room for the amplifier and me at one end, too.¬†I quickly set up the radio mic and amplifier, and one of the biggest worries fell away as the LEDs lit up. I then looked down, and the second worry disappeared: about 30 people had RSVP’d ‘yes’ on Facebook, and they seemed to all be there! I saw many friendly faces, which was very nice indeed. But there was a crowd surrounding them, and they all cheered when I announced the plan to teach the moves from Thriller. This was a real confidence boost. I set up the sign, and we were away.

The dancers were brilliant. Extremely enthusiastic, not at all self-conscious about pretending to be zombies in public, and everyone seemed to be smiling. I heard afterwards there was a lot of inter-group teaching and generally making sure everyone knew what they were doing, which is great. I had to move pretty fast to cram it all in, but everyone picked up the steps remarkably quickly, and we were able to race through the song.

Thrillers, by aphexleeIt was working! And time just passed. I was enjoying myself tremendously, and relaxed completely after a few minutes. I found myself oddly comfortable in front of a large crowd – all those years of magic shows apparently paid off. We’d go through a group of steps, then repeat, then put it to music, and I was very surprised when I glanced at my phone and saw half an hour had gone by.

The technology worked, too. The amplifier, at 1/3 power, was easily loud enough to drown out the steel bands; the microphone, despite a few difficulties, carried my voice well; and the iPhone performed perfectly, with its new low-speed-scrubbing feature letting me skip to the exact second I wanted. It’s nice when things work like they should.

The surrounding crowd was great – they were really into it. Every time the dancers finished dancing to music, they’d get a round of applause. And as the dance wore on, the crowd started to join in. We started off with about 15 people, and by the end there were ~30, including a group of children in union flag hats, and a particularly endearing kid in green at the front. Not everybody had seen the initial steps, but that didn’t matter.

Me on Plinth - Ed PhotoI had two hecklers (that I noticed). The first, grey-haired and very drunk, shouted for attention then rubbed his nipples at me. This was actually pretty funny, and he hung around for a while. The second was more of a grump, yelling something about god. I suggested I wasn’t going to debate with him from high atop the thing, and he left. I later found out he was religious and thought the ‘probably’ indicated something important. I possibly got off lightly here.

The sound was fascinating, too. I was concentrating on the dance moves, and watching how the dancers were doing, but a few things broke through. Buses and cars honked, and we all waved at one.¬†I had to do an large number of pelvic thrusts, and these would often cause a burst of laughter / screams from somewhere below. There were a few reactions like this, and you never quite knew whether it was related to you or not. It’s a curious experience, being in your own little world and not quite knowing who’s watching you or what they’re doing.

We finished the chorus with ten minutes to go. I really wanted to finish the song, so we zoomed through the final section. This was a big ask, as it’s not the easiest section, and it didn’t help that I had to correct a slight mistake. But the dancers were awesome, and did incredibly well.¬†With three minutes to go, and the cherry picker making its way across the square, I quickly went for one whole run-through. 90 seconds long, we just made it. The crowd applauded loudly, and it was a great way to finish – it would have been so disappointing not to make it all the way through!

Sky Arts Screengrab

I was pretty happy on the way down, but I didn’t anticipate the reaction. The response was amazing. Tweets flooded in during the hour itself, and I’ve since had many lovely emails, texts and comments. These are set against a whole two negative comments, both drive-by abusive and not worth fretting over. Even the cynical #oneandother followers on Twitter1 were positive, albeit after complaining I was too slow getting started (I wasn’t doing anything without my sign!). Particular kudos goes to @nickjbarlow, for “there’s probably no God, but there’s definitely no Michael Jackson”. The One and Other staff seemed to enjoy it, too – the guy who took me up on the cherry picker hung around for the whole thing, saying we ‘rocked the square’, and inside the green box everyone said how much they enjoyed it, and that they hadn’t seen such a large crowd before. Yay!

My view from the plinth

I was on a high for most of the week. On Thursday¬†Sky Arts called me to say #plinthriller would be featured on their One and Other highlights show, which was pretty exciting. They needed musical permissions, so asked me for the the exact version of Thriller I’d used. They also said Kathy Lette had chosen us as her #1 plinth highlight of the week, so it was quite a disappointment when on Friday she didn’t mention us at all! There was a very brief clip of the crowd during a dancing montage, but that was it -I assume they couldn’t get the music rights2. Shame!

The full video is still up on the oneandother site. I’m hoping I’ll be able to get a copy.

A couple of things I’ll know for next time:

  • Use a headset mic! The lapel mic attached to my t-shirt wasn’t directional enough to pick up my voice properly, so I had to actively lift it to speak, which made some dance moves a little tricky. No big problem, although I realised afterwards that I had a headset in my bag the whole time.
  • Do not name-check people, or you risk forgetting a) some of your oldest and best friends and b) your siblings. Sorry about that.

I’ve used up all the superlatives, but you get the picture: I’m really happy about the whole thing.¬†I need to say a few thank yous, because it was a huge team effort. Firstly, many thanks to the two lovely friends who got me over my nerves in the middle of the week before – I may very well have done something deeply boring if it weren’t for you. Also to Mr Skuds, who came into town specially, very kindly documented the whole event, and gave it a charming write-up – it was nice to see him again. The BHA were very enthusiastic, sorting out a sign and appropriate stands for me, and they and many people helped spread the word on Twitter and Facebook. Special mention in this regard must go to¬†Ariane, who gave the whole event a massive boost.¬†Thanks also to Ed for carrying that amplifier around London afterwards!

But mostly thank you to everyone who came along and danced. It wouldn’t have worked without you. I hope it helped you enjoy your life. It certainly did me: it’s not every Sunday I stand on a plinth and dance, sing, and, well, thrust. I’m glad I did.

  1. ‘Twecklers’, apparently []
  2. I read a few of Kathy Lette’s books when I was 17. It is very weird to think she knows who I am. []

Atheist Thriller on the Plinth – Part 1

I spent last Friday and Saturday in my flat, with the blinds closed, pretending to be Michael Jackson. I had to get the Thriller routine set in my head before my Plinth date on Sunday, and although I knew it pretty well, I kept making mistakes. Just little ones, but always something different. I’d go off time, or inexplicably forget the next move, or ad-lib something I really shouldn’t say in front of, you know, people.

And the people. I didn’t want to think about the people. We’d put the call out on Facebook and Twitter, and almost 30 people had confirmed, with another 35 saying they might. I hadn’t been shy, and pretty much everyone I knew had promised to watch, either in person or online. Some very popular atheists had mentioned me on Twitter. The British Humanist Association, as well as providing a ‘There’s probably no God…’ original bus sign for me to display, had posted about me on their front page. What was I thinking?¬†I like these people – what if I did something so cringeworthy no humanist would meet my eye again? What if I sullied the spectacularly cool Atheist Bus Campaign? The very worst possibility I could imagine – worse than falling into the safety net – was the dance group getting bored and disintegrating: what if I was just rubbish?

Thing was – I didn’t have a choice. Having had and rejected the idea for Thriller – it was far too scary – I’d come up with something else, and promptly found myself preemptively regretting not dancing. So that was that. I wasn’t going to get a chance like this again. Decision made.

So after not much sleep I was up and on the early Sunday train to London. I had with me a bag of audio kit and a 15kg amplifier that seemed suddenly forged of glass. I’d spent ages trying to find a battery-powered amp powerful enough to blast music over the Trafalgar milieu, and finally located one two hours drive away, in Surrey. I phoned, booked it, and drove down to be told it was gone – would I like the next model up? It was enormous, but did at least have wheels and a drag-handle, and seemed sturdy, so I said yes. But pulling it along the cracked Marylebone pavement was horrendous – every bump and jolt felt like it was stripping circuit boards and puncturing capacitors. What if it broke? How much did this thing cost? What would I do for an hour?

The amp and I finally made it to the BHA offices, where we met my friend Bob, picked up the bus sign, finally located an ABC t-shirt that fitted, and jumped into a fully-laden taxi, heading to Trafalgar Square and the One and Other big green box. I was, by this point, terrified.

At the Square we headed for the participants’ door and were stopped by a wryly deadpan security guard, who apologised for having to frisk us, but frisk us he must. Once satisfied we weren’t carrying any guns / bombs / live animals, he helped us carry all the paraphernalia inside. This kind gesture was indicative of the One and Other staff, who were wonderfully friendly. They all introduced themselves, seemed genuinely interested in what I was doing, and took me through the dos and don’ts of the event – for example, I mustn’t try to get things out of the safety net. They also explained the locations of the webcams and said the web feed is on a 30 second delay – apparently swearing is ok, but slander isn’t: ‘dickhead’ is fine, ‘you dickhead’ is not. Interesting.

And then I was left to my own devices for a while. Bob was very kindly keeping me company, and we borrowed the oneandother twitter feed for a bit of last-minute publicity, as well as searching to see if anyone was mentioning the #plinthriller hashtag. We’d no idea whether the idea would work at all – what if nobody turned up? Would the non-invited crowd dance?

I was then offered tea, which I don’t drink, because I gave it up at Christmas to get over my caffeine addiction, and I said yes. Whether it was the caffeine or the situation, the nerves started to fade and the excitement started to rise. I may have been a little hyper.¬†The 14:00-15:00 Bee Lady came down from the plinth (there was a hell of a buzz about her stint) and knew all about our plan. I’d been a touch hesitant in mentioning the humanist aspects in the office, just in case anyone was religious and it got awkward, but she really liked the idea. This was a nice confidence boost.

I was receiving texts galore, and one pointed out that I wouldn’t be alone, music-wise. We looked out of the window and saw why – Steel bands! Everywhere! I’m still not quite sure of the reasons, but they could be heard all over the Square. The text expressed some worry that I’d be heard. I looked over at my ridiculous amplifier, and figured if it couldn’t make enough noise, nothing could.

On the way to the plinthI was then interviewed for the Welcomme Trust, with friendly and surprisingly in-depth questions about where I was from, how long I’d been dancing, etc.. Apparently it’ll be stored and archived for future historians, which is a curious thought.¬†They took some photos, and I realised with a start that it was 15:50 – I walked back into the main office to find it was time to get onto the cherry picker. If this was a deliberate move, it was very clever indeed – I had no time to sit, wait, and get appallingly nervous. Moments later we rounded the corner into the Square, and we were on our way.

(part two)