A few years ago I wanted to show a friend Tracey Emin’s 1995 short film, ‘Why I Never Became A Dancer’, but couldn’t find it anywhere online. The last time I’d seen it was perhaps a decade earlier, at The Tate Gallery in Liverpool, so I surmised that, given it’s part of the Tate Collection, it would only be possible to view in an arts space, and not on the internet. I looked to see if I could buy a copy, but no luck there either. Anyhow, it came up in conversation again a few nights ago so I had another look online and, lo and behold, there it was on Vimeo, in all of its grainy Super 8 splendour. It was Emin’s first film, and for me it was a major key to understanding where she was coming from, both as an artist and a person (for her confessional art is, by nature, informed by her personal experience – her approach often brutally honest).
Tracey Emin has always divided opinion. On the one hand she’s recognised as one of the great British artists of modern times, on the other her autobiographical approach is dismissed by many, often with bile and disdain, as an attention seeking ego trip of little artistic merit. Examples of this can be found beneath pretty much any YouTube footage of her / her art, where, as in this instance, someone might comment ‘what an amazing woman love you tracey emin such an inspiration xxxxxx’ only for the very next person to counter ‘Hate is a terrible word.....but I hate Emin. Bullshit and bollocks sum up her 'Art’'.
The piece that really catapulted her into the art elite was an embroidered tent, again from 1995, which contained the names of the people she’d shared a bed with up until that point in her life – not only sexual partners, but friends and family members. This was titled ‘Everyone I Have Slept With 1963-1995’, and was bought by art collector Charles Saatchii. It would perish in a fire at East London’s Momart warehouse in 2004, but rather than prompting a reaction of sympathy for the loss of an iconic work, the media were largely mocking in their reporting of its destruction, scornfully taking a ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’ type stance.
Often described as brash and vulgar, not to mention troubled, Emin’s notoriety soured in 1997 when she was invited onto a late night Channel 4 programme to join a live discussion about the Turner Prize with a variety of experts / critics. Clearly drunk, a swearing and slurring Emin got up and left the set after 10 minutes questioning whether people were actually watching the late night show, before announcing ‘I'm leaving now, I wanna be with my friends, I wanna be with my mum. I'm gonna phone her, and she's going to be embarrassed about this conversation, this is live and I don't care. I don't give a fuck about it’. She was largely unknown by the general public prior to this, the controversy generated by her appearance well and truly casting her as the ‘bad girl’ of British art:
I’d already seen ‘Why I Never Became A Dancer’ by this point, possibly on Channel 4, although I can’t recall exactly where, and, to be honest, I thought good on her for bringing a bit of realism into what was a typically high-brow debate with much of the usual pontification by some of the other guests, who very much came across as relics of a bygone era.
For me, she was a breath of fresh air, and although she had no qualms about hanging her dirty linen in public, by doing this she helped expose the hypocrisy of the Britain we grew up in, where, on the surface, everything was supposed to be oh so civilizsed, but where in its murky shadows all sorts of sordidness ran rife (as perfectly illustrated by the more recent Jimmy Savile revelations).
I was deeply moved by ‘Why I Never Became A Dancer’. It’s the story of a teenage girl living in a seaside town, which happened to be Margate in the 70’s. Having grown up in a seaside town myself, I could perfectly relate to the setting, which offered adventure and exploration to a wide-eyed youngster. It outlines her sexual awakening with older boys and predatory men, her youthful promiscuity a byproduct of living in this environment and the freedom she experienced. But there’d be a price to pay, which she discovered in 1978 on entering a local heat of the grandly titled EMI sponsored World Disco Dancin’ Championship, organised following the colossal success of the movie ‘Saturday Night Fever’, one of the biggest box office hits of the period.
I remember this competition well. I was a DJ at the time in New Brighton and the heat in my neck of the woods, which I attended, was held in nearby Birkenhead at The Hamilton Club. My friend and fellow DJ Derek Kaye actually made it through to the regional final in Manchester (televised by Granada TV). He wasn’t so much of a dancer, but could throw himself around pretty well, his acrobatics taking him through to the next stage – although he didn’t win, his claim to fame at the time was that he’d done a handstand on the table in front of one of the judges, who happened to be none other than the legendary bassist Bootsy Collins! There’s some wonderful footage here of DJ Keb Darge at the UK final in 1979 when he was still a youngster:
I should add a spoiler at this point - you may prefer to watch Emin’s film first (embedded above) before I go into what transpired that night in Margate.
By this point Emin had developed a deep passion for dancing, so a competition that could take her to the bright lights of London for the televised UK final (and a potential place in the World final) provided a major incentive – for her, the Disco Dancin’ Championship was a big big deal. She entered, and was truly in her element expressing herself before the audience. They were cheering for her and, as she danced her heart out, she felt confident that she was going to win – it was one of the great moments of her life. Then she started to hear a chant gather momentum – there were a group of guys in the crowd, some of whom she’d previously had sex with, and they were shouting ‘slag, slag, slag’.
The chant took on, getting louder and louder until she could no longer properly hear the music she was dancing to. Humiliated, she ran from the stage and out of the club. It must have been a devastating experience for her, one that would have completely broken a lesser mortal.
The film concludes with her naming and shaming some of those responsible – 'Shane, Eddy, Tony, Doug, Richard' - before announcing ‘this one’s for you’. The scene then switches to a dance studio, where Emin joyously struts her stuff to Sylvester’s ‘You Make Me Feel Mighty Real’, one of the biggest Disco records of ’78 – a triumphant conclusion to a horrendous episode in her life. The message is brave and defiant – a mark of the artist she is.
Tracey Emin Wikipedia: