Sheela-na-Gig aka Jeanne Rathbone

DANCE of the NAKED WOMEN in TRILOGY show.

I took part in this exuberant, quirky feminist show at Battersea Arts Centre. As a participant in TRILOGY I was immersed, from head to toe, for nine workshops and five shows. It was fairly intense and involving and felt like quite a long and energetic commitment. But I do feel very energised by it to get on with blogging and it feels like a super start to 2010.

THE TRILOGY EXPERIENCE. On Friday 8th January 2010 at six o’clock  36 women volunteers gathered along with Nic, Louise and Jodie to take part in their show where we would be doing a choreographed exuberant, wobbly six minute unsexualised dance NAKED.  As we sat on the floor in a circle I realised I was among agile young women. I was the token Freedom Pass holder amongst this group who were to perform at BAC. We were there for many reasons, me because two enthusiastic members of the Art Centre that I had met in December, Liz and Rosalie, persuaded this oldie feminist that I ought to take part in this show which had been acclaimed at Edinburgh.

There were many reasons given for volunteering for a show where we were to dance naked in the feminist cause of reclaiming women’s bodies from the concentrated, harsh and sexualised gaze that is part of our culture. One woman acknowledged happily that she was an exhibitionist, another was there as a journalist from The Times and would be writing about it. So, it seems that not all volunteers are equal if one is paid for it as part of an assignment! Most were in their twenties/thirties and a few over fifty- some had known about it from Edinburgh, some were from abroad and me very local –  not very representative. I was delighted to find out on the last night that I had, one degree of connection, with two of the young women – Becky and Mel- through the older generation.

The six minute dance comes at the end of part one which is the shortest act. This meant that we didn’t have too much hanging about backstage beforehand. Good. After the first name introductions and reasons for rising to the Trilogy challenge we got into pairs and dance along a diagonal to music imitating each couple in their moves. I had an innate tendency to choose a little mouse move as less energy was expended. This was repeated at most sessions and warmed us up as well. It was uninhibited fun and styles and interpretations varied, of course. Then we were gradually shown the moves for the primal dance and their was a build up to the first undressing which was done, in the dark in a circle- a flower- as we lay on the floor with our clothes in a bundle behind us. Then we stood up and WOW there we were all divested in all our diversity. Seeing a sea of breasts didn’t seem quite so strange as the rarer view of us in all our pubic glory. Over the next few days as we danced the naked, exuberant, bouncy, quivering dance it all felt quite normal.

It was the check-in and opening up to each other that became quite emotional – laughter and tears. Some of us had been involved in women’s groups before but for some such candour with other women was new. You didn’t know what might come next and what your reaction might be to the disclosures. It was so long since I had been in this situation and I felt sad that I had lost the solidarity of sisterhood and that those feelings and activities of the 70/80s were gone. Indeed, some of the groups/classes that I had attended at that time occurred at Battersea Arts Centre.

After seeing the rest of the show with Nic, Laura, Jodie, Louise and Murray I was so impressed by the passion of these young people in their twenties who were, for me, the torch bearers for feminism and equality for the future.

As time went on in the sessions the issue of women’s relationship with their bodies was quite prominent and as I read reviews and articles about the show I became aware that most women have/are supposed to have insecurities about their bodies. I am irritated by any article that states that all women are dissatisfied with their bodies, because I, for one, am not. This claim about ALL women probably refers to women in westernised cultures.

I realised that I didn’t have a problem with my body now nor when I was younger. I asked Dave if he ever heard me say I wish this or that feature was otherwise. He agreed that he had never heard me go on about or bemoan my appearance as they claim happens to nearly all women. I find it hard to believe that so many women are so concerend about their appearance and image. However, I admit that I have never worn a bikini. That is not strictly true. When Dave and I went on holiday for the first time in 1966 to Italy I had no swimsuit and my clever sister Marie made me a bikini top and bottoms from an old cotton dress. Italy was hot and we went for a swim in a municipal pool attached to our campsite and my bikini bottoms very quickly reached my ankles before I grabbed them to the amusement of a pair of teenage boys- so much for home- made bikinis. I also decided that I really didn’t like the idea of bikinis because I have had a botched tummy scar since I was a baby. I only ever wore one piece swimsuits after that. The other thing is that I am very fair skinned and can’t take the sun and so  I was brought up to be careful to keep myself covered from a hot sun and not get burnt. I don’t think I will be donning a burkhini a la Nigella.  Of course, back then there were no sun protecting creams. People actually put olive oil on their skin when they went into the sun!! It is crazy this idea of pale skinned people basting themselves in the sun as if they were preparing themselves for a tasty feast for CANNIBALS.

I discovered that I do not and never did have ‘body issues’. I have had a scar on my stomach since I was a baby. This came about because I had an emergency operation when I was a few months old carried out by our local doctor when a nevus- a birthmark –  had ruptured. He was not an experienced needleperson and I was left with a hollow, hard scar on my waist which grew with me. So, from an early age I knew I didn’t have a tummy like others. Mine was special and I used to show off my impressive scar to anyone who would look.

Then after three children, the last one with a large head like a Buddha, I was left with an extended stomach with interesting stretch marks. This was added to a year later when I had my gall bladder removed, along with the bundle of pretty pebbles, which resulted in another diagonal, but very neat, scar from my tummy button being added to my sculpted stomach. I have not been concerned that my body, as it aged, descended according to the laws of gravity and I have never used a razor or wax on my body. My only bodily mutilation was pierced ears. Mummy took her six daughters to have our ears pierced before we even had started going to school. I don’t remember them done but I have worn earrings ever since. Similarly, I took Barbara to have hers done before she began school.

When we first disrobed I was struck by the image of the mass of lovely, triangular pubes until I began to realise that they were not all triangle shaped. Some had been cosmetically altered probably by hot wax. I was disappointed. Apparently, it is a women’s right to choose to wax shave, dye her pubic hair or wear a merkin. I am told it is to accommodate bikini/thong wearing and not to please the desires of a male observer. I am not convinced and I do think it is sad and it is on a continuum wherby women want to mutilate there bodies to procure an idealised – porn – aesthetic. C’est la vie.

Having periods came up during the sessions. Oops, I had forgotten all about them and sanitary towels with or without wings and tampons that have little tails like a mouse- Miss Tiggiwinkle. We all know that the heir to the throne declared his desire and ambition to be a tampon to his mistress in an embarrassing tapped and leaked phonecall.

THE DANCING. It has been nearly 50 years since I performed a dance. I did Irish dancing- jigs and reels initially. The first teacher was a man and we went to his home in Shantalla which was the largest council estate in Galway then. Mr. Philbin was a refuse collector and he played accordian for us to dance to. Then the next teacher Mrs Simpson came up from Athlone, some 50 miles and she taught in Arus na Gael which had been bequeathed by Lady Gregory, playwright and enthusiast of the Celtic revival and patron to WB Yeats.

Then a ballet class was established in the Golf Links Hotel ballroom by Marie Langan which I joined. I loved it and had progressed to dancing en pointe. I now know that there are problems about foot fetishism with ballet but then relished the dancing, music, costumes, make-up, shows and the fun with the other girls. One of my solos was the the Bat Dance- he was dying too and I had to wear black lace wings, very vampish.

Another one was The Coquette Dance, I was the prince in the pas-de-deux of the Bluebirds with the teachers daughter Regina who is still running the school of ballet in Galway.

With TRILOGY I was the least energetic but that didn’t matter. I stayed at the back. I did not find the bra-less jumping very comfortable but I hoped that I smiled and looked like I was enjoying myself – which I did, immensely.

Performing at BAC was important to me as I have been associated with the place for over thirty years, first lobbying to ensure it stayed as a public building. It was set up by the Labour controlled Wandsworth Council. The first three artistic directors were men whose first name began with B – Bill, Barry and Brian. When the incoming Tories closed it, making cuts as they competed with Shirley Porter of Westminster Council to have the lowest Poll Tax in London, there was a successful campaign which resulted in it being set up as a charitable trust with some funding from the Council. Jude Kelly, who now heads up the South Bank, was the first artistic director.

Battersea has been renowned for its radical politicians and was a focal point in the early days of the Trades Union movement, Independent Labour Party and the campaign for Women’s Suffrage. Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst and Charlotte Despard presided over meetings in the Town Hall.  In 1913  Battersea elected John Archer, London’s first black Mayor.

Charlotte Despard, suffragette, socialist and Sinn Feiner stood in Battersea as one of only four women in the 1918 election when women were first granted the vote. She had been the Editor of the The Vote and President of The Women’s Freedom League ( who thought the Pankhursts undemocratic). When I was convenor of Battersea Labour Party’s Women’s Section in the 80s we adopted her as our mascot. When we celebrated 100 years of the Battersea Labour Party in the RED BATTERSEA dvd I was struck by the fact that Lily Harrison, a Labour party member who had been a trustee of BAC had known Caroline Ganley who was the Battersea Labour MP in 1945 and who had been agent to Charlotte in 1918. I am convinced this connection through three women politicians, one born in 1844 is unique. You can see why I am glad to have been part of a feminist celebration at BAC.

Part three of the TRILOGY culminates in the singing of ‘ Jerusalem’. This didn’t work for me, an atheist. This wishing that the hippy, shizophrenic Jesus, who thought he was God, came to this green and pleasant land seems pathetic and that it has been adopted as the English national anthem because they have none is even worse. I don’t feel that reclaiming it for feminists, in a state of undress, works as a revolutionary act.

I’d have lustily joined in the singing of The March of the Women- the suffragette anthem without ‘the Lord’ bit! Either way I am not too sure about a group of women  standing still with men in the audience so close by. I watched from the back on the last night and did a bit of perv spotting. There were a few, inevitably. I would not have allowed them to get up close and personal and would have insisted that they stand behind the women in the audience.

Nic tells me that she is taking TRILOGY to Ireland. I don’t think been asked to join in  singing the English national anthem would go down well over there no more than ‘God save the Queen’ or ‘Rule Britannia’ would!

I am so convinced that many women would benefit from this amazing process. How could the wonderful TRILOGY experience for women be bottled without a public performance.  Many more women, I feel sure, would be interested in just workshops without the hurdle of a public performance to a mixed audience. The series of workshops could be replicated, perhaps by women volunteers who have been involved in the shows at those venues where it was staged. I would certainly, be willing to partake in spreading the opportunity for other women to have some of what we had.

In the meantime, any woman who can take the opportunity to participate in TRILOGY culminating in their dancing as empresses in their new clothes or in the their TRILOGY suit, take it. It is life enhancing and empowering. Thanks to Nic Green and all the TRILOGY team.

I have been interested in some of the comments from women who attended the show which questioned whether this is a way to challenge women being sexually objectified and what kind of empowerment it was for women in the audiences and the performers as well the effect on male audience members.

With renewed discussion about the issue of the burka and this TRILOGY experience I feel like it is women’s bodies yet again at the centre of these cultural battles. It is men, as the predominant dictators of control in all cultures and as the sexual consumers who have set the agenda. The parameters might shift but it is their goal posts – it is still patriarchy in religion, economics, science, politics and our every day lives that has to be challenged. I don’t know what the effect of a few of us getting our clothes of in the name of theatre does to challenge this. But getting women to reject some of the hatred and insecurity around their own bodies in a capitalist consumer society by workshopping in a TRILOGY way would be a bloody good start. In the song March of the Women the end they desired and got was the vote. I am not sure what our feminist Utopia would look like but we certainly need to be making some changes starting with ourselves and working together in solidarity.

I leave you with the last two lines of  MARCH OF THE WOMEN. I love this song. Lets all praise and bless Dame Ethel Smythe.

The March of the Women – YouTube

Firm in reliance, laugh in defiance, Laugh in hope, for sure is the end

March, march, many as one. Shoulder to Shoulder and friend to friend.

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