Judging by the popularity of Strictly Come Dancing, Britain’s love affair with dancing as a recreational activity shows no signs of abating. The ‘have a go’ attitude and perseverance of ‘non-dancers’ has struck a chord with those who would love to pursue this on a regular basis. Of course, as ‘amateurs’ in the truest sense of the word (French: “lover of”) the audience identifies with the participants onscreen. But this is nothing new… First performed in 1984, Richard Harris’ Stepping Out focuses on Mavis (Christina Meehan) who teaches a weekly tap dancing class at a local church hall. Unlike herself, the rest of her class have clearly not had any former training, demonstrating a wide-range of abilities. They also all have very different reasons for being there…
Lynne (Gabrielle Sabel) works as a nurse, but with death sometimes taking place on her ward, it’s hard for her to ‘switch off’. As another empathic person in the group, Andy (Emily Sitch) spends most of her ‘free time’ helping others. For her, the tap class is the only time in the week when she does something just for herself. Then there’s Dorothy (Ceris Hine). She works in the department of DWP and is fretful by nature. She also suffers intensely from hay fever.
Most of the other women in the group are open and talkative, though beneath their bravado they have concerns and problems that are obliquely referenced. Maxine (Lynn Beaumont) often talks about her stepson, who she disparagingly refers to as “Wonder Boy”. She also runs a shop, but reading in-between the ‘deals’ she makes and the mix-up with her deliveries, it’s hard for her at times to make ends meet. Similarly, Sylvia (Jessica Brady) has to be ‘reminded’ by the pianist Mrs Fraser (Harriet Earle) to pay for the classes. Both women are good friends with Rose (Monica Leighton) who together wind up widower Geoffrey (Sean McDowell) – the only man in the group. He’s often made the centre of attention – whether he wants to or not.
And then there is Vera (Helen Jeckells). Affluent and well-spoken, that on the surface sets her apart from the others. It is, however, her general comments that gets people’s backs up. Not that the remarks are ever made out of malice, but Vera’s inability to appreciate how her comments will be interpreted and taken has long-term consequences. Still, there are reasons why she chooses to attend this particular dance group…
Like any ‘teacher’, Mavis is only human and sometimes her ‘real life’ intrudes in the rehearsal space. Still, with Mrs Fraser, her ‘surrogate mother’ to hand, she has someone to look out for her best interests, even if Mrs Fraser’s comments aren’t always appreciated.
If one were to make comparisons to the tone and plot of Stepping Out, it shares traits with Calendar Girls with its emphasis on female relationships, a bittersweet narrative thread and a climax involving the group’s resolve to take affirmative action, despite some misgivings.
Asides from the obvious overtures to dancing, Stepping Out could be said to describe the momentary release from day-to-day worries that the women find. If life isn’t about moments like these, what’s it all for?
There may be trouble ahead,
But while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance,
Let’s face the music and dance.
Nat King Cole – Let’s Face The Music And Dance
© Michael Davis 2018
Stepping Out runs at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 7th July.