In a mirror-lined dance studio of the Islington Arts Factory, movement choreographer Polly Bennett is helping me unlock my “inner showgirl”. The ebullient 36-year-old, the daughter of a trumpet player, grew up around rehearsal rooms and auditoriums, and watching MGM musicals. Today, she is responsible for shaping some of the most celebrated screen performances: she’s the woman behind Austin Butler’s snake-hipped Elvis, Rami Malek’s Oscar-winning Freddie Mercury, and Barry Keoghan’s triumphant naked dance scene at the end of Saltburn. She worked on both The Crown and The Great and is currently helping Timothée Chalamet find the “confident self-consciousness” of Bob Dylan in the forthcoming biopic A Complete Unknown.

The author with Bennett in the studio
The author with Bennett in the studio © James Anastasi

“I work closely with actors to help them find a way to channel the physical and psychological through their bodies,” she explained when we first met, more than a year ago, at a dinner to celebrate Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis. When Butler later won a Bafta, Bennett was the first person he thanked. 

We kept in touch. Movement and dance have been far from my life in recent years, partly because I have been unable to move properly due to arthritis, and my love for dancing has been consigned to watching it on stage or screen. But a year ago I got myself a new pair of hips, and with them came a resolution. I messaged Bennett: “Will you help me dance again?” “YES,” came the reply.

As preparation, Bennett asked me to send her three songs that meant something important in my life. “That way I can start thinking about what suits your character.” I sent her “One” from A Chorus Line, along with “On Broadway” by George Benson and “All that Jazz” from Chicago. A pretty camp selection. “Why does A Chorus Line resonate?” she asked. It was where it all began for me. I was 14 when I first saw the show in 1976, and something inside me shifted. The world, the stories, the dancing, the singers; I wanted the leotards, the leggings, and I wanted to dance. I bought the record and played it on repeat. I still play it, to this day, and I’m now 62.

“Will you help me dance again?” asked the author. “YES,” came the reply.
“Will you help me dance again?” asked the author. “YES,” came the reply. © James Anastasi

Dancing became something that I could get lost in, a physical revelation; it allowed me to be fun, to flirt, to release emotions and express myself. A whole language with no words. I told her having two new hips had given me such unexpected physical freedom that I want to make the most of it. 

Bennett set about warming me up by asking me to roll my shoulders, my hips, my arms. Soon she had me take long steps across the entire space and then short staccato ones while raising and dropping my shoulders, Bob Fosse-style. There was not a moment of self-consciousness, because she makes things fun. I felt my body become looser.  

“Yes!” she cried. “Now drop your wrists like you have a lot of jewellery weighing them down. Now we’re making phrases, we’re on a catwalk, we’re saying, ‘Oh hey! Look at my hips and how I can move them’. Now shake those shoulders because you’re flirting in a nightclub, now turn your leg and pose for a photographer. Now you’ve made it into that chorus line – lean back, drop your arms and move forward, kick and kick and turn!”

The author at Islington Arts Factory, London
The author at Islington Arts Factory, London © James Anastasi
Bennett has worked in productions including Saltburn and Elvis
Bennett has worked in productions including Saltburn and Elvis © James Anastasi

Soon I was so immersed in the movement and the elements of my story she was feeding back to me, I forgot to be embarrassed. All I could feel was my body responding to the beats in the music and her words. If I stopped to think, a mist would come down and I’d forget everything she’d taught me. 

At the end of three hours, we had created a small routine that lasted one and a half minutes. I have no idea if I was good or not. It didn’t matter. I felt a reconnection to a part of myself that I would not have thought possible; my body felt like it had come back to life. When I got home, I said to my husband: “I’m so aware of being happy!”

“Movement is life,” says former professional dancer and Pilates teacher Polly Benge. “Studies show that while it is good for us on an aerobic, bone-loading, muscle-strengthening level, it also improves cognitive function, increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, helping with concentration, an increase in energy levels and a decrease in anxiety.”

Together, Bennett and the author created a minute-and-a-half routine
Together, Bennett and the author created a minute-and-a-half routine © James Anastasi

Later, as Bennett and I sat on the floor leaning against the mirror, I asked her how she translates her characters. “It’s a bit like being a private investigator. I find out what someone’s story is and piece it together. Why did Elvis hold his head lowered? Because he had acne as a boy and developed the habit of hiding his face. Or why was Barry’s character in Saltburn unapproachable at first, hiding behind his glasses with his chin pulled in, hunched over? Because we placed an imaginary rucksack on his back as he was carrying secrets. By the time he dances at the end he is open and free, he’s got what he wants!”

These insights are the key to her work. In the three hours we worked together, Polly Bennett had taken my story and woven it across the studio, opening me up, mentally and bringing movement back into my body through my own narrative. One “singular sensation” I can call my own. 

Choreographer Polly Bennett: ‘If you can’t say it, dance it’

She nominates her favourite dance scenes and characterisations in film

Strictly Ballroom 

Paul Mercurio and Tara Morice in Strictly Ballroom
Paul Mercurio and Tara Morice in Strictly Ballroom © Cinematic/Alamy

When protagonist Scott craves expression over the rigid structure of the ballroom world he engages with lowly dance-studio cleaner Fran. Fran’s father is played by one of the most famous Spanish dancers in the world, Antonio Vargas. I saw it at the Scoop, with the whole audience drumming the Paso Doble rhythm. It was electrifying. 

“Easy Street” from Annie

Choreographed by Peter Gerrano who is the little-known co-choreographer of West Side Story. It’s an amazing display of comedy, storytelling and characterisation. It travels through locations seamlessly and throws treats to the audience throughout to keep them entertained. I would die to be in a room with Carol Burnett and Tim Curry.

Million Dollar Mermaid 

Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid
Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid © PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy

Busby Berkeley does undefinable things in this MGM aqua-musical: his trademark kaleidoscopic routines in water. I find watching the shapes emerge mesmerising and an inspiring reminder of what human bodies are capable of. Not to mention it being a fantastic advert for waterproof make-up.

Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf 

Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose
Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose © Photo 12/Alamy

The greatest transformation in film ever, and I won’t have a word said otherwise. Even without the prosthetics and extreme hairline shaving, Cotillard’s body tells us everything in this film. More of a spiritual possession. 

Pride & Prejudice

The dance where Elizabeth and Mr Darcy meet is real alchemy. Choreographer Jane Gibson has worked to make the camera part of the weave of the dance and Joe Wright’s choice to make the crowd disappear after our protagonists spar is such a creative way of showing intimacy.

Gary Oldman as Drexl in True Romance 

Gary Oldman in True Romance
Gary Oldman in True Romance © Collection Christophel/Alamy

This is a masterclass in characterisation. So many incredible details, from how he walks to how he uses chopsticks. I love the detail Oldman has found in this pimp. And to think he went on to play Churchill. 

Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf

Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavant in Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf
Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavant in Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf © Cinematic/Alamy

A masterpiece of camera, location and physicality. Juliette Binoche is losing her sight and Denis Lavant is a street performer she becomes dependent on. They dance along the bridge in Paris. It is an extraordinary scene with no vanity and maximum connection.

The First Wives Club 

Bette Midler, Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn in The First Wives Club
Bette Midler, Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn in The First Wives Club © Photo 12/Alamy Stock Photo

Bette, Diane and Goldie dancing to “You Don’t Own Me”. A cracking way to end a movie (spoiler) of three women having overcome the misery their husbands put them through. When you can’t say it, you dance it. It’s usually what I end up emulating on a night out.

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