Tracey Emin – Why I Never Became A Dancer

Tracey Emin - Why I Never Became A Dancer

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 soared 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 ’70s. 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:

EMI World Disco Dancing Championship

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

Tracey Emin Wikipedia:

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11 Responses to Tracey Emin – Why I Never Became A Dancer

  1. TV February 12, 2015 at 12:59 pm #

    Good piece. But you have been misled by Wikipedia: Tracey Emin never appeared on “After Dark” (I think the clip is from some kind of Late Show discussion but I’m not sure about that). See a list of all the “After Dark” shows here:-


    I have just edited the incorrect reference out of the Wikipedia page about Tracey Emin.

  2. Greg Wilson February 12, 2015 at 8:54 pm #

    Hi TV: I watched the programme live in Dec ’87 and was pretty sure it was After Dark – it was late night on Channel 4, had the same format, and was broadcast the same year After Dark went on air. Maybe the After Dark list on Wiki is incomplete, or maybe it was some kind of Turner Prize special that followed a similar template. There’s a link from The Guardian in 2008 that has it as After Dark, but I must admit that a Google search came up with far fewer results than I would have anticipated. I’ll err on the side of caution for now and just list as a late night Channel 4 discussion show. Thanks for pointing out – if anyone can give a definitive answer on what the programme was called I’ll add later.


  3. Greg Wilson February 12, 2015 at 9:03 pm #

    Just found Guardian report from the time – definitely Channel 4, but no mention of After Dark. So only half the mystery solved. Here’s the piece:

  4. Lisa February 12, 2015 at 10:15 pm #

    Heya great to get onto this, I’m not really well educated though not uneducated. Came across tracey’s bed, happened upon it in London by chance wasn’t sure what to make of it….it meant more to me however than a pile of bricks lying on the floor in the next room. And then i saw a little bird on a pole, in liverpool, i recollect, i liked it.
    Seeing this film i now know why I like Tracy Emin.
    Thanks Greg another piece falls into place.

  5. TV February 12, 2015 at 10:42 pm #

    Here is a link which gives the name of the late-night Channel 4 programme she appeared on in 1997 after the Turner Prize:-


    It was called “Is Painting Dead”. Hope that helps.

  6. Greg Wilson February 13, 2015 at 12:06 am #

    Thanks TV, that’s the same link I just put up a couple of comments back 🙂 I saw that it said the discussion was titled ‘Is Painting Dead’, but I didn’t take it to mean the name of the programme. Just had another dig around the interweb and I think I’ve found the full title:

    The Turner Prize Discussion – Is Painting Dead:

    We got there in the end 🙂


  7. Charlie February 16, 2015 at 12:04 am #

    Brave and defiant! Just watched the film at the Turner Contemporary today. A very moving and uplifting piece and yes, that is why we love Tracey Emin. The audience was mesmorised. Thank you for bearing your soul.Your work always strikes a chord.

  8. Noble Savage April 24, 2015 at 11:23 pm #

    Not a massive fan of hers (she was rude to me but apologised years back) but I cannot stand the gratuitous sexism that follows in any comment section associated with a piece on her (apart from this one obviously!) Those that post that strain of stuff should be named and shamed…the self hating little pellets.

    General rule of thumb: If someone seems to ruffle certain feathers, bring out irrational behaviour they’re probably doing it right.


  9. Saucer People May 18, 2015 at 12:07 pm #

    Many thanks, Greg, for pulling this one out of the memory hole

    “I felt like I could defy gravity, as though my soul were truly free” – such a wonderful line and such a strangely moving and compelling film – for anyone who has had those out-of-the-body moments on the dance floor, where time becomes space and space becomes time, that line will be particularly resonant… the look of triumphant joy at the end as Tracey became a whirling dervish to Sylvester was so joyous and so life-affirming.

    Watching this actually brought up a long forgotten memory of a ‘disco dance competition’ in junior school – the last track they played was ‘Upside Down’, so it must have been 1980, and I remember it was the first time I experienced just letting the ego go, not caring what anyone thought and just going for it! (If I remember correctly, I came 2nd, lost out to a girl who busted some jazzy tap-shoe action!)

    I’m guessing the apes that chanted ‘slag’ could just not bear to see Tracey experiencing pleasure unmediated by their cocks – experiencing the subjectivity of the Other was a little too much for their egotistical minds – sadly, it seems this deep misogyny is still with us here in the UK, buried beneath the simulacra of post-feminism…

  10. catherinek672 September 18, 2016 at 7:58 pm #

    Love this, the film and your piece. It slightly brought tears to my eyes when she started dancing. I think that’s part of what I like about Tracey Emin, that the emotion is right there. Maybe that’s part of what her detractors hate too?


  1. Why I Never Became a Dancer | The Agency - July 17, 2015

    […] film was also recently featured on Greg Wilson’s blog, Being a DJ. Along with being a world renowned DJ, it is also very clear that his knowledge not only of music […]

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