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How I battled my mental illness to perform at a gay dance show

How I battled my mental illness to perform at a gay dance show

The GMDC performs at the charity gala at the Troxy in London

Cut to me at 16 years old. A drama lesson. Separated into small groups, we were asked to go over a scene from a Richard Sheridan play and perform it for the class.

Picking our roles, nobody was interested in the male lead. He was some debonair lothario and yes, admittedly, a very big stretch from a newly out awkward gay teen with bad skin. It was teens acting out a comedy of manners farce, it wasn’t intended to be realistic.

A girl, who was chosen as the director, was definitely direct.

‘Can you even do a straight voice?’ she asked, in front of the whole group.

That not only stung, it pierced something deeper.

My sexuality was never going to be a huge surprise to anyone who knew me as a kid. Isolating myself from others happy to interact and play team sports, I was a reader and writer. A flair for the dramatic, a sensitive worrier, and a penchant for Madonna and David Bowie, I was bullied from my early days at school.

Acting was a release and a welcome one at that. Theatre troupes felt like my tribe.

But there was my gay voice. I ended up believing that my range was limited, and I would be a failure. I just stopped.

A new challenge

Joe (right) gets ready to perform at the GMDC gala

Cut to a decade later, and I decided to take lessons at the Gay Men’s Dance Company. Having been to a taster session and the charity gala the previous year, I figured it would be a way of losing a bit of weight and meeting a new group of gay guys.

For the first month, at least, my anxiety thundered within my body before each class. I knew it was illogical, as the guys in my class were lovely and I enjoyed it every week, but I couldn’t shake those fears.

It was a challenge, for sure. I’ve never danced before unless you count a dance mat at an arcade or shuffling around in a nightclub.

But, gradually, as the weeks went on and the anxiety eased, something incredible happened: I started to not only enjoy it, I started to fall in love. I’m guessing the requisite drinks after each class might’ve helped a tad. When the question of performing in this year’s dance show came up, I immediately said yes.

Performing at the GMDC dance show

For some of the dancers, the shirts and ties didn’t last long in that number

The two weeks before the show were intense. Near-daily rehearsals was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. Come show day, that anxiety returned. Could I do it? Could I step back onto a stage again?

I breathed. I had spent three months learning, training, trying to remember the moves as best I could. If I fucked up, a friend and my partner would be there. The only problem was, I was also thinking of the other 900 people in the audience who could also have their eyes on me. Sir Ian McKellen, who I’ve interviewed a couple of times, was also present. No pressure.

The first number was Poker Face, a part of an explosive Lady Gaga medley that was designed as the show-stopping finale of the first act. The entire dance cast of the show was involved. And for the entire 50 seconds I was on stage, I don’t think I breathed once. But the fear was gone, and I was determined to relax in the next numbers.

And I did. I twerked on stage in a suit to Justin Timberlake’s Sexy Back. I partied in the audience during Proud Mary. The embers of my soul felt like they were glowing.

Then there was a romantic number to Michael Buble’s Everything. With my dance partner Ollie, we were on stage alone with two other couples (seen on the right in this video) at the start of the number.

After the intro went well (where I had to bring up Ollie to standing after he slid between my legs), we got into hold and did the choreography. I not only relaxed, I smiled.

Triumphing over mental illness

It felt like a release. As I looked around everyone, the people I learned to dance with, I saw how connected we were. As LGBTI people, we all have our stuff we had to deal with. We’ve all had to come out at one point.

During the final number, to This Is Me from The Greatest Showman, as every person involved in the show came out to face the audience, an emotion was palpable: We had just put on a fucking awesome show. From the beginners to the more experienced, every person had worked to make sure it was fun, it was happy and it was impressive.

Now? I can’t wait to get back on stage.

A thank you goes to Alex Scurr, the founder of the GMDC, for giving me the chance to feel something I thought I never would again. Thanks also to Alex for teaching and motivating everyone and putting in the insane amount of work it took to put that show on. To the Huskys, the dance group on Wednesdays, you’re all incredible. And to all the 200+ people who performed, it was a privilege to help put on a show with you.

GMDC’s Pride term begins this Saturday (21 April) across London and Brighton. There are now all-gender classes open to people of any gender or sexual identity. As well as dance and drama, GMDC also puts on yoga and kickboxing classes. Find out more on the GMDC website.

Joe Morgan is the editor-at-large at Gay Star News. Follow him on Twitter.