Dancing in the dark

In the many hours of training or waiting around to train at the Icehouse, I’ve long admired the skills of the figure skaters. I think I’ve written before about their amazing edge-work, their flawless backward crossovers and the sheer courage of attempting some of the spins and tricks they pull off, without a helmet or anything else of substance protecting them from a nasty concussion if the move goes wrong.

When you think about it, the bottom line is that skating is bloody difficult – I remember coach Lliam Webster saying in one of our first ever classes years ago, that it is a completely unnatural, ‘learned’ skill – and so to actually dance on ice is kind of nuts.

Foot speed and co-ordination is obviously a key for great skating as well as for wider sporting proficiency, and so learning dance can help. A lot of AFL footballers (including, most famously, James Hird when he was still playing and was still the League’s golden boy) train in dancing to help their balance and core strength, for example.

So, in summary, being a better dancer could help me be a better skater. And I need to be a better skater.

But, also in summary, there’s no way in Hell I’m about to try that shit out on the ice and while standing on thin blades of steel.

Chloé came up with a plan.

And so last night the two of us approached a towering yet forbidding church hall in Brunswick East. There was no entrance from Nicholson Street, but we spotted a shadowy figure scurrying across a lawn on the southside of the building. We gave chase, tried to keep her in sight, and picked our way past a grave – I couldn’t make out who it was for in the gathering gloom – before we found ourselves treading carefully down a steep slope so that we were well below street level. Already lined up to get into the dark hall were a gathering of people in hoodies and street clothes, big coats buffering the cold. You would have sworn it was a cult. Nobody was talking much and, if so, any voices were a quiet murmur. There was a sense of anticipation, possibly of nerves. The building itself was completely dark. Mostly women, either alone or in pairs, the line disappeared one by one through the door and into the darkness.

And then it was our turn, paying seven bucks at the door, squinting as our eyes tried to adjust to the lack of light, but being drawn into the music, a cool beat-driven remix of a Sixties classic, as we entered the cavernous, dark hall.

We peeled off our outer clothing. We tentatively moved past swaying silhouettes to find space on the floor.

And then we danced.

The founders of No Lights No Lycra, doing what they do.

The founders of No Lights No Lycra, doing what they do. (Pic: NLNL website)

And so I made my debut at No Lights No Lycra (http://nolightsnolycra.com/), a crazy brilliant concept that was invented in Fitzroy before making its way around the world. If you’re reading this in Berlin or Fremantle, Shanghai, Paris or Whanganui, there’s one near you. Check out their locations list (http://nolightsnolycra.com/location/). If there isn’t, they invite you to create your own.

No Lights No Lycra was created in 2009 by a couple of dance students, Alice Glenn and Heidi Barrett , with the aim of creating a non-judgmental, daggy, be-free dance space for anybody and everybody. Their concept was that if the lights were turned off, people could relax about being ‘cool’, about how they looked, about whether they were even moving in time. They could just dance. This dancing self-consciousness is something I have spent my life battling, so amen to Heidi and Alice. On their website, they have a Jerry Lee Lewis quote, which is perfectly chosen: ‘All you gotta do honey is kinda stand in one spot, Wiggle around just a little bit, That’s what you gotta do, yeah Oh babe whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on.’

Making my debut, along with Chloé who has been to a few sessions, it really felt like that: just have fun. Nobody is watching. Or judging. Or sneering. Or laughing. Or … anything. There’s just you, in the dark, with great music. Go for it.

The whole idea is not to dance for show, or to be seen, but instead to do exactly the opposite: dance in a dark room so that nobody can see what you’re doing. Pull off whatever moves you like. There were just enough people there to feel like you were part of a crowd you couldn’t quite see, but with enough space on the dance floor so that the better, or more expressive dancers could go nuts without taking out their neighbour.

Dance like nobody's watching.

Dance like nobody’s watching.

As far as I could tell anyway, in the murky quarter-light. A woman just behind Chloé seemed to have amazing moves, all angles and elbows and shimmy. Another woman close to me chose to just sway and rock. I didn’t focus for long. In fact, I closed my eyes for minutes at a time, just letting in the music. Chloé told me later that in summer, when there’s more natural daylight in the evening, the room is nowhere near as dark, but even then, I think it would work, because it’s an unwritten but understood code not to pay too much attention to the dancers around you, visible or not.

By the second half hour, as the beats picked up and drove through Kylie and through Lou Bega (Mambo No. 5: a little bit of …)  and Elvis, through some borderline doof doof I didn’t know, and then all the way to a remix of eighties techno classic Pump Up The Jam, which took me way back, I had a decent sweat worked up and was deeply regretting not bringing a water bottle.

All around me, human shapes were moving. Occasionally somebody would fly past, whirling or leaping, even running around the room as they danced. At the end of each song, applause would break out and then we were off again. You could dance to raise a serious sweat or you could dance to release stress, or maybe you could just dance because, fuck it, dancing can be fun. Especially when you turn off the self-conscious and internal critic.

Given my hood, you’d think No Lights No Lycra would be a hipster paradise, but it actually seems to draw a diverse crowd, from what I could sort of make out, peering vaguely around the dark room. I had expected the dancers to be almost entirely in the under 35 demographic, but I wasn’t the only person blowing that statistic out. When the music finally slowed, and somebody in the darkness yelled: ‘Last song!’ and then the music stopped and the lights were finally turned on, so we could safely make our way out, I was surprised by the mix of body shapes, ages and fashions.

We all dispersed back into the night, grinning and sweating and ready for dinner. Was this a first step to dancing my way to hockey skating proficiency? It’s a long shot but, having done it, who cares? It was so much fun to watch the dark shape of Chloé busting moves and letting herself go. She dances with such joy. And there was her hockey player husband, experimenting with just how crazily he could move to a Jacksons remix, while simultaneously working various muscle groups.

Same time next week? Why not?

Each to their own

I went to the soccer last Friday. A much-hyped A-League semi-final and a Melbourne derby for flourish, between the Victory and City.

Soccer fans getting passionate.

Soccer fans getting passionate.

Soccer makes such a minimal impact on me as a sport that I literally can’t remember if it was my first A-League game or not. I have a dull feeling that I might have gone to one once before, but if I did, I couldn’t tell you who played, let alone who won.

Yep, it may be The World Game but not in my world.

But that’s okay, because it was a fun event. On a classic Melbourne night, the sort of night where there were 50,000 at the MCG to watch Collingwood-Geelong and who knows how many thousands watching a rugby union game at AAMI Park, and who knows how many more thousands watching the Backstreet Boys at the tennis centre, I was among the 50,000 people gathered at Etihad Stadium on a freezing but clear night. Victory started favourite, got a goal after 18 minutes (I know this because by some random chance I had selected the correct player as opening goal scorer in the sweep, but got the scoring minute wrong by 6; thereby totally bluffing the people around me that I had some kind of clue about the game, and almost winning a decent cash prize) and Victory controlled things from there.

Victory fans having fun. Pic: Getty.

Victory fans having fun. Pic: Getty.

I sat, not really caring, but happy to let the occasion flow over me; even chatting to an ex-Socceroo who happened to sit next to me. (My bluff of knowledge came to a crashing end when I had to confess I had no idea his son currently played in the EPL or for the Socceroos.)

Mostly, I watched the fans. Because they were seriously into it. My biggest immediate take-out was that it was a larger male crowd. I’m used to AFL crowds and AIHL crowds, and they are both heavily mixed gender. I feel like I can’t confidently say whether a Melbourne Ice or Mustangs crowd would be skewed more male than female. Likewise, AFL is probably not 50-50 but there are many women there, and passionate about the game.

On a casual observation, the soccer crowd felt male – between 20 and 50 years old. And it was an occasion for these men to go nuts. There were the usual flares and horns and chants. As Victory took the ascendancy, an entire stand to my left was heaving with people dancing and chanting and waving. The atmosphere was fantastic, yet I felt totally removed, like I was at the zoo, watching from behind glass.

Soccer fans having fun.

Soccer fans doing their thing. I’m not judgmental: Red Wings fans like to throw octopi on the ice.

It got me thinking it’s so strange how some sports can grab your soul and others leave you totally cold. Like, cricket is polarizing in a love it or hate it manner, and so is American football.

I have watched and reported on and experienced and studied many sports over my 30 year journalistic career, aside from being an enthusiast, and I can say with certainty that I am resolutely unmoved by basketball, soccer and baseball. I never had much time for NRL and still don’t really, except that a couple of people who understand the game have explained subtleties to me that made it more interesting as I watched. I can stomach it now but I still wouldn’t pay for a ticket.

Rugby union, when it’s flowing and it’s an important game, like Australia in a World Cup, can be exciting. The characters and sheer danger of boxing, as well as the strategy and fitness, has always gripped me. Tennis lost me, largely, after I had to spend too much time around certain Australian prima donna tennis players, and after I had to watch too much of it as a reporter, and in places where the matches simply didn’t matter: a second round loss for a player just meant an earlier plane to the next city. When the stakes were Grand Slam high and somebody as good as Sampras, Graf or Federer was at their peak: then it got good.

But that’s just me. Whatever you’re into is fine. In fact, English Premier League soccer (and yes, I use the word soccer as an abbreviation of ‘Association Football’, especially because the Melbourne Football Club was formed before any of the English clubs, so screw you ‘world football’; okay, that’s another story) but EPL soccer is kind of like seafood for me. I don’t enjoy eating fish. Some of it I really dislike, while certain flavours of seafood I can tolerate. But when everybody around you is having a mouth orgasm because the food is so amazing, and you’re just ‘tolerating’ it, you feel guilty and wonder what is wrong with you? What are you missing, and why? I’m like that with the EPL competition. So many of my friends have EPL teams, follow it in the middle of the night, start work conversations with a quick discussion of last night’s results or pending big money transfers … and I have nothing to add.

It doesn’t mean I’m against it; not at all. A really great game of soccer can be fun to watch, especially if it’s attacking and end-to-end and the crowd is at fever pitch, but you know, shrug. The World Cup can be fun.

One of my mobs. Go Tigers!!! (you hopeless, underachieving bastards)

One of my mobs. Go Tigers!!! (you hopeless, underachieving bastards)

By contrast, Australian Rules has held me from before I can remember to now, when Richmond continues to be remorselessly shit, no matter what, and when I still run around, feeling the leather with a bunch of men old enough to know better who gather once or twice a week for the pure joy of landing a pass in the outstretched hands of a fellow player on the lead.

Hockey? Well, hockey grabbed me from the moment I turned on my television years ago now and saw my first Stanley Cup final game between Detroit and Pittsburgh and something in me stirred. Immediately. Grabbed me! Made my heart beat. Has seen me holding my head in my hands, screaming at Gamecenter as the Wings performed miracles or screwed up, soaring as the Ice achieved the three-peat of cups, slumping as the Ice lost last year’s grand final; even physically taking on such a crazy sport as an activity, having never skated.

All of that. All. Of. That.

Blood pumping. Passion burning. Feeling alive.

One of my other mobs: The Cup-winning Red Wings that captured my heart.

One of my other mobs: The Cup-winning Red Wings that captured my heart.

Which is why I found it so strange, so abstract, that I could watch those Victory fans last Friday night, screaming and yelling and jumping up and down and foaming at the mouth, and realised that I was just staring at them, completely unable to bridge the gap between us. The bridge of caring.

And I found myself wondering how many pieces of silverware are fought for across the globe, in how many individual sports and individual competitions within those sports, and by how many teams and cheered for by how many millions, whether from NFL to Brunswick trugo? Somebody everywhere willing to bulge at the jugular, to ride that scoreboard or that goal or that umpire’s decision; that bounce of a ball or a puck or a footy or a punch or a shot; the fans’ sporting existence living or dying on the fortunes of that moment in their chosen passion.

Ice v Mustangs at the Icehouse. Now we're talking ...

Ice v Mustangs at the Icehouse. Now we’re talking …

There’s no deep meaning to any of these observations. It’s totally okay. Those Melbourne Victory and City fans would probably stand on the glass, politely observing, when the Ice and Mustangs were going at one another’s throats, and be wistful that nobody is throwing flares.

Each to their own, I say, and go the winner in this weekend’s A-League grand final.

I wish those chanting, excitable hordes well.

I’ll just be watching the hockey and the Tigers. It’s what I do.


Guest blog: Author Will Brodie’s two hockey lives

WORLD EXCLUSIVE: Nicko writes: I met Will Brodie through mutual writing/journalism friends quite a few years ago, and before my hockey adventure began, so the fact that he’d played as a kid didn’t resonate with me at the time, as it does now. However, as he’s rediscovered his love of the sport, and played a vital role in getting media oxygen for the AIHL at The Age Online, and now through his excellent book, ‘Reality Check‘, it’s been fun to see him reestablish himself in our crazy world. A while ago, I invited hockey players to write for the blog and had a series of guest writer ‘origin stories’ as a result. That offer has always remained open (and remains open, for anybody who wants to tell their story). Will found time, between marketing and selling ‘Reality Check’, to tell his yarn. Here it is:

A tale of two hockey lives

By Will Brodie When I chatted to Nick Place about his hockey journey, he remarked that the experience of those who first played in the 1970s was unknown to many of those who have taken to the sport since the advent of the Icehouse. He suggested I write about my origins in hockey and what it was like back then, and I was keen to share reminiscences of a formative, fondly remembered era.

Will Brodie, centre, as a young Blackhawk in 1977. With his best mates, Glenn and Tim.

Will Brodie, centre, as a young Blackhawk in 1977. With his best mates, Glenn and Tim.

I have had two hockey lives. My first began when I was a young child in the early 1970s, when I used a sawn-off stick as I mucked about with mates including Glenn and Tim Grandy at our Dads’ senior Blackhawks practices early on Sunday mornings. When senior scrimmage took over the entire ice surface, we repaired to the worn floorboards of St Moritz to improvise endless games with pucks made from balled-up discarded stick tape (suspiciously like electrical tape in those days). If we bribed our fathers at the right moment we would get cokes in small bottles, a style revived decades later as a ‘retro’ marketing/packaging ploy. Later we all played together in the Blackhawks juniors, starting as 10-year-olds playing under-16s. When I was 14, playing a game of footy and two games of hockey each Sunday, I hurt a knee, perhaps inevitably. The initial niggle came in a way unique to rough rinks in those days – condensation or leakage from the roof dripping down and forming nasty little yellow stalagmites which rose off the ice surface. I skated over one, felt a twinge and a later tackle from behind in a footy game finished my cartilage off well enough for me to spend weeks on crutches. Living on the suburban/urban fringe, I had started attending school in the city and, when I recovered, the prospect of training at midnight Friday – with a merged team which included members of our previous arch-rivals – was not enough to bring me back. I never made a decision to never again play, merely not to play that year, then the usual adolescent distractions intervened and by the time I was into young adulthood, the five-rink league of my youth had shrunk to just Oakleigh. As I write in Reality Check: “I meant to get back to hockey but never did”.

All hail the 1977 junior Blackhawks.

All hail the 1977 junior Blackhawks.

This first age of hockey of mine was blessed by a golden age of rinks in Melbourne. Like visiting VFL home grounds, playing at Footscray, Ringwood, St Moritz and Oakleigh was exciting and fascinating, each rink possessing a unique atmosphere. Dandenong was a good size, but felt like the converted factory it was; St Moritz was a magnificent faded relic, all art deco timber, and all too vulnerable to a cynical match; Footscray was always wet and less scary than you thought it would be; Ringwood was like the MCG of the sport, housing the slick Rangers and home to the brief incursion of the sport on to ABC TV; Oakleigh was the tiny, combative rink where they played stirring American marching band anthems ahead of senior finals games.

The old Ringwood rink. Man, couldn't we use that now!

The old Ringwood rink, ‘The MCG of the sport’. Man, couldn’t we use that now!

We played the Monarchs, Pirates, Hakoah, Rangers … Many of the clubs familiar to players these days are unfamiliar to me. Jets? Sharks? They are long-established but they were the product of mergers or changes which came long after my playing career. When we weren’t playing, we were often forming a very small, shrill cheer squad for the seniors, banging on the hoardings at the Dandenong Coliseum. When I walk through the Icehouse’s St Moritz bar these days, many of the names on the trophies are those of friends of my Dad that we cheered for, friendly hockey types who held court at the backyard barbecues where Glenn and I played hockey with fallen lemons. My Dad and his hockey friends consistently lunched long on Fridays, bottled wine to raise funds for the club and the Australian national team and went on holidays with their families together. They eventually all bought a property together, in the glorious bush of the Victorian Great Dividing Range. I still camp on that property with my family. Old hockey sticks were redeployed alongside our tents as prospective ‘bong-bong’ sticks in case errant snakes strayed too close to habitation. My brother still has a relic of one of those sticks, a shrunken red Titan. To me, Titan sticks were the fancy newcomer – I had grown up accustomed to KOHO and Sherwood, but such is the foreshadowing of memory; Titans were probably around for most of my childhood. The first impressions remain the strongest.

Hockey as Will Brodie used to know it: The 1977 Australian team that played West Germany.

Hockey as Will Brodie used to know it: The 1977 Australian team that played West Germany.

My second hockey life began in 2010 when my brother Craig took me to a game at the recently opened Icehouse. I fell back in love with the game instantly, amazed at the venue – the seemingly grandiose, unrealistic dream of decades previous made real – and the remarkable crowds, but mostly just the game itself, better than it had ever been played in Australia, and presented so much more ‘professionally’, with music and announcers. My hockey renaissance via the Icehouse came at around the same time Nick and so many others were taking their newfound enthusiasm to the next level by buying skates, taking lessons and learning how to play. Nick is a wholehearted sort of hockey lover – he had to play, not just watch. For those of us who have played but been away for a long time – the itch to play again never goes away. There is nothing like playing hockey. If you don’t play for a long time, it seeps into your dreams. I had my first skate in 30 years in mid 2012 and did my (other) knee (on terra firma) a week later. I don’t drive, I am not wealthy and my lower limbs are faulty – returning to playing hockey is not an easy choice to make at 48, especially when I have such vivid memories of being a competent junior. But the more I watched, the closer I got to the players and the ice surfaces by writing my book about the AIHL in 2014, the more the hockey dreams returned. The smell of sweat in the cold. The smell of lacerated rubber matting, decades old. The clacking sound of sticks, skates, pucks, boards. It is little wonder that the subconscious is activated by hockey – while one is sleeping, the most affecting sensations have their run of the mind and soul. Asleep, there is no rational mind saying ‘you’re too old/hurt/poor to play again’. My hockey dreams bring back very specific moments and sensations. I remember the jelly-legged fear and excitement when pulling up at a foreign rink ahead of a game. I remember the intoxicating odour drift of exhaust in the pre-dawn fog at Sunday morning practices as a diesel-powered tractor with chains on its tyres trudged up and down to clean the ice. The same tractors I would see in the fields near our camping getaway; Massey Fergusons rolled through my childhood like pets. I remember the forbidding holes at the corners of some rinks where snow was shoved down by flat, wide person-powered shovels. The red digital scoreboards which glowed either warmly or tauntingly depending on the numbers they exhibited.

1980 Blackhawks, featuring Will Brodie. You can tell they're hockey players because nobody is looking at the right camera.

1980 Blackhawks, featuring Will Brodie. You can tell they’re hockey players because nobody is looking at the right camera.

I recall the completion of pulling a jersey over your gear before a game, and suddenly being transformed into a player; the perfect satisfaction of a pass setting up a goal-scoring mate; the oxygenated agony of stops and starts; the post-practice glow, with all of Sunday still stretching ahead; ignominious losses that taught me that teams beat talent; the sensation of gliding a circle after having hustled for speed; the sensation of beating a goalie, sometimes a mystery worthy of In Search Of investigation, sometimes as simple as just being there in the slot. The game gets brutal at about the point I left it as a teenager – the need for elite physical conditioning and mental and physical toughness kicks in and angsty veins pump anger around the rinks. I may not have been tough enough to go far in hockey, and I was certainly not a good enough skater to end up playing for Australia like Glenn did. But if I had learned how to handle myself, I would have enjoyed that rush and slide of hockey for a lot longer. Truth is, when the game shrank to just Oakleigh, it took rare dedication to keep rocking up, travelling long distances, putting up with yet another year of the cold. You had to be a complete hockey tragic, and thank god there were enough of those wonderful beasts to keep the sport going. And thank god for the Icehouse, which gave the softer hockey lovers like me somewhere to reignite our passion for the game. If I was to play again, I would want to start by marching from Huntingdale station to brave frigid old Oakleigh. For the first time with a stick in my hands at least, I would have to reconnect with the rough charms of my childhood hockey, where everything is reduced to your skates, your stick, the ice and your teammates. Then I would accept the luxury of the Icehouse without shame, and maybe pull some strings to get them to put on that John Phillip Sousa marching music so I could imagine I was about to play a senior final. * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * THE PLUG: Will Brodie’s new book, Reality Check, is a personal account of following the Melbourne Mustangs and the Melbourne Ice through the 2014 AIHL season. Will went on all the road trips with the teams and hung out behind the scenes at the Icehouse. It’s a beautifully crafted and fascinating account of an exciting year in the AIHL, and the players, coaches and volunteers who make hockey happen in this country. I fully recommend it, and not just because Will is a mate. It’s a cracking read! CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE REALITY CHECK.