Dancing in the Olympics 2000 Closing Ceremony

Don Herbison-Evans ,   donherbisonevans@yahoo.com
(updated 3 January 2010)

I was privileged to be one of the 1,000 dancers in the " Love is in the Air" segment of the Olympics 2000 Closing Ceremony. There were so many of us that we had to have rehearsals on playgrounds and playing fields of various schools around Sydney. The location of each rehearsal was kept secret, and we had to swear an oath before an Olympics official that we would tell noone of the locations, not our spouses, not even our pets, and especially not the press.

We spent about three months in rehearsal, averaging about one 3 hour session per week. There was a slight problem for the initial month: our choreographer, Adele Hyland, had no music. She knew only that we had to do a Samba for about eight minutes. So she gave us some lovely complicated sequences to practice, planning to use them when she could crystallize them with the actual music.

Finally the music arrived, and we were told about the general dancing arrangements. That was when we found out that we had three strikes against us:

  1. the music: we had to dance a Samba with about 180 beats per minute. Being a competion dancer, I was used to dancing a Samba at 120 beats per minute. Would my feet/hips/anything move fast enough?

  2. the surface: a sort of rubber matting laid on the running track to give the athletes non-slip traction, but rather difficult for dancers doing fast turns.

  3. the giant Kewpie Dolls: I do not know which idea came first: the 6 metre high dolls or the 1000 dancers, but whoever put these together missed the point of ballroom dancing. A lone dancer or even a group of dancers often needs extra things to give their dance an energy lift: noisy shoes, exotic costumes, whatever. But Ballroom and Latin American Dancing are not just about dancing, they are about the relationship between two people. This is its extra thing. Ballroom Dancing does not need 10 metre high dolls in principle, and in practice they were a disaster.

Our Samba had sections where we danced in and out and around on the spot, and sections where we travelled along the track. But to accommodate the Kewpie dolls, we had to lose the non-travelling sections, and replace them travelling steps. A group of us tried to keep up with the continual choregraphic changes by writing out after each rehearsal what we thought the latest version was on secret internet pages, and then discussing the differences in our various pages by email. Even so, I personally found it very hard remembering the "latest" routine.

Eventually, the great day arrived. The ladies had been given the choice of either wearing conventional abbreviated competition latin dresses (with the man in black shirt and trousers), or ballroom gowns (with the man in bowtie and tails). Being of more mature years than many of the couples and having less decorative figures, my partner and I opted for the gown and tails. On the day this was a blessing because we were called to wait for an hour before our appearance in the cold and very windy corridors at the top of the audience stands. The ladies in the brief latin gear froze. My partner pulled up some of her many ballgown petticoats up around her shoulders to keep warm, and a couple of the girls in their brief latin dresses snuggled under the remainder, making a picture like mother hen and her brood of chicks.

However the ballgown proved our undoing. At our cue, we were all supposed to run down about 100 steps from the top of the stands through the audience onto the running track. But it was dark and the steps were steep, and we could not see the steps under my partner's voluminous gown, so we had to walk gingerly down the steps. Consequently we arrived on the running track after the music had started.

So, for about eight minutes, 1,000 dancers appeared before a worldwide audience of billions. That averages to about 1/2 second of fame per dancer. I was rather lucky : I had about two seconds of world-wide coverage. But did my friends and relatives spread over three continents, waiting with bated breath to catch a glimpse of me, see me dancing? No. Being late onto the track, they saw me running witless to avoid being run over by a mountainous Kewpie Doll.

The dolls scattered us like chaff in the wind, and when we did find a safe place to dance, the choregraphy had evaporated from our minds like the morning mist before the midday sun at Uluru.

Janette may be seen in her aqua coloured ballroom gown about halfway up on the right hand side.
I'm the handsome bloke in tails hanging on to her with one hand, wondering what steps come next.
(Photo: courtesy of Newsphotos)

The television directors loved this. It was nearly as good as Peta Roby dancing on the podium at that time catching her heel in the hem of her skirt: much better television than showing the actual dancing. Who wants to see dancing on television? It just does not work. Fred Astaire knew how to do it on film: no cuts, no zooms, no pans: just let the dance speak for itself in a single extended shot. But television is different. It has such limited resolution: only 500 or so lines of colour to make each image, compared with 5,000 or so in film. If television shows a wide shot of a whole dancer, then the limited resolution means that you cannot discern the disposition of the individual fingers or the expression on the face. So the television directors cut and pan and zoom to try to make it interesting, but to no avail. They know this. Dance and television mix together about as well as dance and giant Kewpie Dolls. So for the billions of armchair viewers around the world, our dancing was lost.

But luckily we were not dancing for them. We were dancing for the Olympic athletes, trying to give a little something back to them, as they had given to us their skill, endurance, and years of perseverence. And that worked. Only a metre in front of them we gave our eight minutes of passion and colour, and they revelled in it. The energy exchange between them, and us, and the volunteers alongside them, and the audience at our backs, made a crescendo of emotion that turned the eight minutes into a triangle of dream, fantasy, and reality. Never in my life have I experienced eight minutes like that.

So to Adele Hyland, our choreographer, valiantly trying to insulate us from the Olympics officials, and to Geoff Bovard, our dancesport representative, who incredibly treated our emotional winges as if they were sensible comments from concerned individuals, and to Andrew Gallagher, our marshall, trying to organise such a bunch of disparate and rebellious extraverts: a big thankyou. Also thanks to Janette McKenzie who stood in as my partner when Anna's arthritis flared up and she could not continue with the rehearsals.

The endless hanging around and the innumerable changes were a great pain, but were nothing. The eight minutes was the real thing.