Sarah Ferbrache


Sarah Ferbrache

Sarah Ferbrache lives in London, where she has been a bookseller for almost ten years. She is currently working on an extended piece of life writing about her family, a mining community in the Midlands, and the mania for competitive dance that overtook their lives.
Contact: davisons1 [at] gmail [dot] com

Premier Championship Status


From the age of three my mother took me to dance lessons. We weren’t middle class so it wasn’t ballet or tap, it was usually disco, rock and roll and sometimes ballroom. My mother, Kim, had been thwarted in her dreams to dance on Top of the Pops in the seventies as part of Pan’s People. It was her Great Disappointment. My grandparents who believed that London was entirely populated by prostitutes had refused to let their only daughter be corrupted by the big city, even if she had been scouted and promised a job, on TV no less. I don’t think they were worried about her being broadcast across the country, dancing around half naked. Top of the Pops was culture and acceptable, but London was godless and depraved and no place for an unsupervised teenager, and they certainly wouldn’t be accompanying her into Sodom. So instead she remained in a small Midlands town, became pregnant with my older brother and married my dad, Brian, almost as soon as they had finished their O-Levels. 

A short time after I had mastered the basics of remaining upright on my own legs unsupported, she put me in a pink leotard and took me to Diane and Don’s Disco Dancing School. For the first few years, before I could properly form my own opinions, it was a lot of fun. I picked up the basics, I was tiny and flexible and had a lot of energy. I could follow instructions and mastered the beginner steps and routines, progressing quickly out of my age group and into higher classes. From Wednesdays after school, into Saturday classes at the big dance school. My dance teacher Diane, flattered my mother into taking me along to dance competitions on Sundays. 

The first we attended was less than an hour’s drive from home, as far as my mother would drive before becoming hysterically unconfident in her ability to control a car. I was issued a status card, a competition licence and registration number that recorded my name, age group, and amateur status level. Progression from beginner, up through starter, intermediate, championship, and premier championship levels was dependent on winning 1st place in at least three events. We took my card and went to enter as a solo disco dancer at the beginner’s level in the under six age group. I was four years old. As beginners, dancers were allowed only to wear plain, unadorned dance wear, in a single block colour. I was dressed in an electric blue sleeveless, legless, leotard, my hair was scraped back into a torturous, face pinching bun. My mother pinned the number they had assigned me onto my back and another over my toddler’s belly and I went to take my position on the dance floor. 

I made slow progress. I could execute my routine perfectly but I was marked down by the judges for my habitual frown of concentration and for looking down at my feet. At that stage I didn’t have any concept that I was competing against other girls. I was barely aware of the judges circling the outskirts of the dance floor with notepads and critical eyes, or of the trophies glinting under the lights on stage. In those early days I made it through from the early rounds, weaving through a crowded dance floor, to the call backs and then down to the final heats, with only eight other dancers. I always came away with something, a small token trophy, but I was a serial runner-up who rarely won first place. 

I loved going out onto the dance floor then, with no expectations. The music for solo freestyle was fast tempo disco, my favourite being a particular upbeat Abba re-mix that would send me flying around the dance floor with a smile, which was usually when I did manage to win. I loved the applause, the steady beat of spectators clapping their hands was powerful, especially when I’d been called back for a final round or a spot light solo, with the music and clapping punctuated by an audience chanting the number pinned onto my costume while I danced. 

Only in an abstract way did I understand that the goal was to finish in first place. It didn’t matter to me, I wasn't upset when I didn’t make it, unlike some of the dancers who would be inconsolable after defeat, crying ugly shoulder heaving tears. I was distracted, busy enjoying the attention I got for being precocious, basking in a glow of early popularity while the older girls from my dance school fought over who got to do my hair. 

The first time the other dancers put me in full make-up I did as I was told. I sat as still as a mannequin with my eyes closed for what seemed like hours while they sprayed and pinned until my hair was sticky and hard. They painted my face with wet heavy make-up that dried onto my skin like a mask. When they were done they held a mirror in front of my face and I burst into tears. The face in front of me was terrifying, a stranger with purple painted eyes and unnatural sparkling lips and jewelled hair. I wasn’t prepared for such a transformation and panicked when I was unable to recognise myself. When I was six my mother gave me my own vanity case, complete with a full kit of make-up. I knew how to cleanse, tone and moisturise long before I ever picked up Glamour or Cosmopolitan. 

Competitions and lessons became more regular and I started to win in my age group. I moved up a status and began having private lessons where Diane or Don curated my own dance routines to perform at events. As dance teachers they were terrifying, they had villainous arched eyebrows and stern mouths with voices that could cut through loud music and across a room crowed with excitable children and teenagers. Inclinations to chatter or fool around were subdued with one quick freezing glare. Their methods were military, drilling us until we got it right, humiliating us at the front of the class if we persisted in getting it wrong. We all did as we were told and followed their footsteps. As well as teaching they judged in competitions and on exam boards, they knew the criteria and the prejudices we were being evaluated against. This was serious, it wasn’t just about how well you danced, it was also how you held yourself, smiling at all times. You had to use the whole floor when you danced, making eye contact was crucial, you had to make each judge feel as though you were dancing for them. 

I was assigned a dance partner, David. A boy dance partner, a rare and wondrous thing I was told, as boys were scarce in the world of disco dancing. As solo dancers we had both been average, but together we won first place again and again, moving quickly through intermediate status, and up to compete in the championship heats. We hated each other, but now we had everyone’s attention, we wanted to win. During practise he dropped me on purpose, picked on me and tripped me up. In turn, I pinched him and kicked him between the legs whenever I got the opportunity. 

You can’t see the animosity in the posed trophy winning photos of us. We sit framed on my grandparent’s mantelpiece, white blond, milky skin, like children from The Village of the Damned in rockabilly outfits, him in a satin teddy boy jacket and me padded with petticoats. Marble and gold championship cups half our height sit in front of us as we hold hands and grin beautifully at each other like Fred and Ginger. His stage fright meant he spent hours before competitions throwing up, whereas I did not experience fear and was contemptuous of his weakness. We are six and seven year old parodies of cult adulthood, over styled, dedicated, competitive. We have biceps and over developed thigh muscles and no front teeth. 

At some point my mother began forcing my older brothers, Jamie and Dean, along to dance classes and then to competitions on the weekends. After some initial resistance they became greatly enthused about the whole thing and were soon begging my mother for extra dance lessons. Once they had found themselves the centre of a lot of female attention, they made their calculations and decided that spending evenings and weekends handling girls in Lycra who had no reservations about undressing in public might have some benefits. 

We started going to national events, outside of the midlands, further afield to glamorous English cities that hosted important dance championships such as Milton Keynes and Harrogate. My father trailed after us, carrying kit and costume bags, getting up early to jump on a coach, at the venue he could spend the entire day at the bar with the other dance dads. Drinking steadily, ignored by his wife and being begged for money by his children, his role was to applaud and observe but not understand. Pulled away from pub sports, from darts, dominoes and snooker, sometimes we’d find him in front of a TV screen in an arena lobby, wistfully watching tennis or cricket. His natural environment was on the football pitch, or on the sidelines coaching my brother Jamie, who had already established himself as a wunderkind on the pitch. Prior to his new incarnation as a dancer, Jamie had made my father proud with man of the match accolades and team trophies long before he’d swapped his football boots for jazz shoes.

It developed into a mania that took over our family and community. It was the nineties, we found role models on MTV, in MC Hammer, Madonna, Salt-n-Pepa and of course, Michael Jackson. Rhythm was a dancer and we impressed audiences in school, at recitals and parties, with our age-inappropriate and hyper-sexualised routines and costumes. Soon most of the children of my parent’s friends had joined our dance school. Neighbours, aunts and cousins were enrolling their children, friends from school were coming to watch our dance lessons, lucky that they had parents sensible enough to forbid enrolment.

We were winning competitions on a weekly basis. Dean was a favourite, dancing with Diane and Don’s daughter, Dawn, fitting neatly into their family of capital D’s. We were amassing trophies at an alarming rate. I was young, already jaded with success, what was another trophy? We had run out of room to display them at home. We kept only the biggest, throwing the others out or hiding them in the loft. Now we were having at least three hours of dance lessons almost every evening. Saturday was dedicated to dancing, from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon, sometimes later if there were extra private lessons, if something big was coming up.

My mother was losing weight at an alarming rate. She was up all night, sewing sequins and beads, creating uniform costumes for entire troupes and teams, driving us to and from lessons and also to football, netball, choir, church and swimming. My dad mostly dozed in front of the TV, but my brothers and I had boundless energy, huge appetites and slept deeply. We watched Baz Luhrmann’s film Strictly Ballroom without irony, the fact that my mum looked remarkably like the mother character, Shirley Hastings, went unmentioned. 

Our family holidays were replaced with dance competitions, trips to the tower ballroom in Blackpool, with a brief day off at the pleasure beach. We visited ballrooms in many depressed towns throughout the UK. Dragging with us armfuls of sequins, feathers and glitter and having splinters removed from our backsides after falling on badly varnished floors. We pulled muscles every other day. I thought it was routine. I was surprised to learn that this did not happen to everyone on a regular basis. My mother would be on hand with a special freezing spray, and then we would be back out on the dance floor. 

The national championships were held during the off-season in a holiday camp in Filey. As a family we were no strangers to holiday camps. Our holidays had been spent in chalets or static caravans near the seaside, indulging in nostalgic, structured routines of wholesome family fun. My grandfather held his certificate for first place in the knobbly-knee competition while my brothers and I were cleaned up, dressed up and trotted out on stage to win beautiful baby rosettas. For us at Filey there was an instant sense of belonging. In the theatres and ballrooms of the camp, over 5 days and nights we danced relentlessly. It seemed as though there was no respite, if you won, you went through to another and then another round until the finals. When we weren’t on the dance floor we were in the lobbies that had been filled with stalls selling all kinds of dancing related paraphernalia; costumes, sequins, dance apparel and hair accessories. I was drawn to anything that glittered. I browsed through these shining halls like a magpie, spending money I’d wheedled out of my parents on hair slides and mood rings which I would lose almost immediately. The games arcades and food halls were neon freedom and my parents doled out money that we immediately poured into flashing machines while making ourselves sick on sugar and slushy drinks. 

Dean blazed across the dance floor, winning the national championships at Filey two years in a row. On the first occasion he dropped and smashed his huge first place trophy as he ran off the dance floor in a victorious scramble, desperate to show my mother. There were big parties afterwards, where my brothers snuck alcohol and I slept deep and fatigued through the noise and celebrations.

Jamie was the first to drop out. Football was his true love after all and he was being courted by Aston Villa scouts. He’d tired of the girls at the dance school. Dean and I had become favourites of the dance school and of many of the regular competition judges. We were feeling increasingly pressured and trapped. He was being bullied at school, under-performing academically and getting into trouble. I was turning inwards, escaping into imaginary worlds. I developed a selective literary catatonia, using books to block out the noise of the exterior world. I hid under tables at dance competitions reading Little Women over and over again, wishing my parents were Concord transcendentalists. Instead my parents were poised on the brink of divorce, my dad was facing the prospect of redundancy from a job he thought he’d have for life, my mother couldn’t help him. She couldn’t hear him, immersed as she was in the dance school, suffering a sensory overload of noise, light and movement. They were calling me back to the dance floor, my mother frantically screaming my name. I didn’t want to play anymore, I went and got into position, refusing to look any of the judges in the eye, looking only at my feet in their glittery jazz shoes. 

Even though we were children, decisions about our lives were presented to us, framed as choices we had to make as rational individuals with our own personalities and autonomy. My mother would sit us down and tell us we could decide what we wanted to do. We didn’t have to dance, we could leave the dance school if that’s what we wanted. We didn’t have to be part of a team that had depended on us learning our parts and fitting into costumes that had been specifically made and measured for us. We could walk out on something that we excelled at, even though we were obviously born performers, natural and at ease in the spotlight, we could give up. It didn’t matter to her, she told us, think of what she could do with all the money from dance lessons, costumes, all the extra fuel and food it took to keep us running around dance floors, around the country! I could decide to stop and go to off to Brownies with my classmates and Dean could go to the parties thrown by his friends in bowling alleys and roller discos with all the other suburban kids. We wouldn’t win at any of those things but of course, it was our choice. 

The first time I asked to quit I was seven years old, and presented with options I could choose between, being told I was old enough to start making my own decisions burned into my memory as a life lesson in responsibility. It wasn’t until years later that the choices began to seem like no choice at all, that I began to sulk at the obvious answer I was expected to give, to baulk and become an unwilling, contrary child.

My mother never really wanted us to be unhappy, she thought she was doing what was best for us, providing structure and community along with competition and discipline. She was seduced by the dance school too, pulled in further than she had originally meant to venture, past fun to pro. This hyper competitiveness was really for her, backed by our dance teachers, my mother was winning. Diane and Don didn’t want to let us go. I was dropped off before I was due for a private lesson and left to explain to them why I wanted to quit. It was an excruciating hour of trying to reach a compromise, with threats and half-promises on their part, and guilty tears on mine. They really didn’t want to let Dean go, boys were rare and precious enough but he had an unbroken championship winning streak and he was their daughter’s dance partner. I can’t imagine any promises that would have outweighed peer acceptance and neither could Dean. He simply stopped going. Took off to a friend’s or neighbour’s house whenever my mother tried to corral us into the car. He didn’t even bother to explain that he was quitting. They were expecting him to come back for months after he’d flung away his jazz shoes. 

So we stopped, and all that energy was diverted. Dean put all his energy into delinquency and bullying, wanting to become someone who couldn’t be picked on. His energy became anger and he became threatening, he wanted to hurt people but didn’t know why. My mother turned hers inward too, she began drinking heavily, sleeping through the mornings. She pushed for divorce and my dad moved out. We took ourselves to school, when we could be bothered to go. The dining room table, which had once been covered with fabrics, threads, pins and sequins, was now sticky with spilled booze and dirty with ash. Sometimes she would be asleep in the mornings, slumped over the table, with a cigarette burnt down between her fingers. I got off lightly I guess, I read and I read. Sometimes I stole books from school or the local library. I overate until I could no longer fasten my jeans and I developed asthma. I used long words my peers couldn’t understand and eventually I was left alone. Somehow I felt safer once no one was looking at me.