Dance Nation at The Almeida dredges up the horror and glory of teenage girlhood


Photo: Marc Brenner

When I was around 12 years old, my school started an audition-only dance team. We already had dance classes: in the first year of middle school you had to take gym, but after that you were allowed to opt into dance instead, which I did despite the fact that the locker room of dance class featured more concentrated cruelty than I have ever experienced again in any other setting in my life. 

Aside from being deeply unpopular for reasons that weren’t entirely clear to me, I had one profound disadvantage to ever being one of the popular girls in dance class, which was the order in which attendance was called. We were expected to sit in assigned rows on the floor and start stretching, and the teacher would call your name, and as long as you were in place by the time your name was called you were fine—which obviously meant that everybody lingered in the locker room talking for as long as humanly possible. Except for me. Because my stupid surname—that B-A—was always the top of the list, so I always had to be in my spot right on time, while all the cool girls lingered in the locker room. But these are the things on which your social life hinges when you’re twelve or thirteen—your order in the alphabet, your height, your weight, your ability to intuit what will make you cool. 

Anyway, partway through that first year of dance-class-instead-of-gym, they announced this audition-only dance team. They’d compete, things like that. Everyone was trying out. I did not. I wasn’t able to intuit much about the social workings of my middle school, but I knew without a doubt that I was not allowed to be on this team. Even if I somehow made it in despite being a mediocre dancer at best, I would not be welcome there. 

I don’t know how to talk about Dance Nation without talking about myself, because it’s the kind of show where, whatever you say about it, you’re probably actually just saying something about yourself. Especially if you were ever a preteen girl. Especially if you were ever a preteen girl who was frightened, or angry, or precociously sexual, or scared of the idea of sex, or still childishly imaginative, or the star of the class, or the one who wanted it most but didn’t have the talent to back up your passion, or felt like you were invisible, or liked when men looked at you, or wished men would look at you, or got frightened when men looked at you. 

So in my Dance Nation Rorschach Test—interpret it how you will, send me your results—I spent the entire final quarter of the evening sinking under a sense of impending doom. It’s a play about a dance troupe, and stories about sporting competitions can only ever end in triumph or crushing defeat. The latter in particular tends to come about in unexpected ways, and playwright Clare Barron has not built a play that seems to be gearing up for unadulterated triumph. I was oppressed with foreboding: would someone break their leg? Fall off the stage? Die? Maybe nothing worse would happen to this flock of preteen dancers than turning thirteen, growing up. Maybe that’s exactly what filled me with so much dread. 

Don’t get me wrong: it’s funny, though I couldn’t ever muster the pure, heartfelt guffaws of some of the men sitting around me. But I don’t think I’ve ever literally laughed and cried at the same time before this. The play is kaleidoscope of vignettes, shot through with direct address and devastating flashes of voices from the future. There’s a narrative, but to lay it out—a dance troupe, a star, a girl who wishes she was the star, a moment that forces them to decide what they want to fight for—is only the tiniest sliver of the achingly evocative, hilarious, agonising jumble that takes a tiny little piece of the lives of fairly privileged suburban American girls and explodes it into a glorious celebration/lamentation/interrogation/capitulation to being a woman in a world that loves and hates women, seen through the lens of the type of woman—mostly still a girl but then again maybe not—that we love and hate most of all. And this is the moment when they start to know it, or don’t quite, yet, or both at once. And it’s awful, and glorious.  

What did you think of Dance Nation? Let us know in the comments below.