Portrait

How Liz Cahalan is using motherhood, dance and Beyoncé to change lives. By Lou Heinrich.

Liz Cahalan’s Bey Dance

Not far from her studio in Brunswick, Liz Cahalan’s house glows in almost-summer sun. It’s the first warm day after a Melbourne winter. Light pours through the living room window, beaming onto offcuts of red PVC littering the floorboards. She crouches in a summer dress, sweeping strips into her arms, and her 22-month-old, Rose, crouches with her. Liz dumps the shiny material onto a chair, next to a dining table with two sewing machines and multicoloured piles. These will soon be 20 leotards for Bey Dance’s end-of-year performance. Liz holds a piece of canary-yellow Lycra against her chest. “See – it folds here and here, and she can wear it how she likes.” The neckline plunges to navel level.

I push aside sewing patterns on the couch while Liz makes rosehip tea and peels a mandarin for Rose in the kitchen. Their steps pad in tandem. It’s no surprise Liz has built a business around the playful worship of a pop star who is the closest thing we have to a fertility goddess. Ancient religions called God “mother”: she alone had the ability to create new life. Liz felt powerful when she was pregnant despite being constantly unwell. She returned to run Bey Dance six weeks after Rose arrived.

When she sits, she tucks bare feet beneath her and tells me she was once terrified of dancing. Parties were off limits. She had no idea how to move: childhood ballet schooled her in rigidity, and chronic fatigue syndrome plagued her adolescence.

“I had to disconnect from my body,” she says, pushing strawberry-blonde hair over one shoulder. Rose squeaks, points at the TV. Liz switches channels without skipping a beat. “Because it was a source of pain, it was something I had to escape.”

When she took women’s studies classes in her honours year, she wore jeans and T-shirts and never ever heels. She was a very serious university student. Now, she sees this refusal to embrace her body as a denial of her whole self.

“I had nightmare after nightmare after nightmare of decapitated bodies – mine, animals’, people. I realised I was living too much in my own head and I’d lost connection to my body.”

At a hip-hop class, she learnt to grind her hips to Beyoncé’s “Naughty Girl”, and felt her thighs jiggle. “I started to love the way the movement felt.”

Rose jumps in front of the TV. Little feet on floorboards.

“It would make me laugh, and then the nightmares stopped. It’s important to live in our bodies while we have them.”

At first Liz seems all glitter and sass, another white woman making a buck off the commercialisation of feminism. There is a short-sightedness to this defiant doctrine of sexualised empowerment. But within its privilege, Bey Dance preaches intersectionality, an ideology inspired by the tradition of service in Liz’s family.

When she was 16, her grandmother asked her to leave school to become her carer. “That’s what she had done for her own relatives – she cared for three uncles and her parents. But the idea of giving up the tiny bit of my life I had managed to claw back from chronic fatigue to move in with my grandma was disgusting. So she moved into an aged-care facility. My father visited every week to watch the football with her and pluck the hairs from her chin.”

Rose reaches up and squawks. Her eyes are her mother’s. “Do you need a cuddle?” Liz pulls her into her arms and settles her thin body in repose. Pats her back whole-palmed. Slow. Rhythmic. Rose rests, panting like a puppy, sweaty fist plunged in the neckline of Liz’s dress. They are each an extension of the other.

Liz avoided her grandmother, repelled by the home’s debilitated residents, its smell of reheated soup. But in her 20s, an art therapy degree saw her return to aged care with a program called Moving Through Memory. She played the Andrews Sisters and encouraged residents to talk about memories the songs evoked, while following simple dance steps. She made friends, listened to history; her understanding of dance was transformed.

“Exercising the brain to remember movement is good for Alzheimer’s and dementia, but also for wellbeing. Choreography can be just as good as crosswords.”

“ ’scuse me!” Rose has lifted up the hemline of Liz’s dress. I pretend not to see. The girl whimpers. “You want milk, do you?” Liz slips off her shoulder strap and unbuttons a maternity bra. “I did the program for all different levels: low-care, high-care, even a deaf unit. Some people could get up and dance. A survivor of a stroke couldn’t move his body at all – he started to twitch a finger to the music and everyone was like, ‘Woah!’ ”

Rose hums as she drinks. To see a mother with her small child is to know the song of bodies.

“That connection to sound and music and body does something to human beings,” says Liz. “Even if you can tap your foot or at the very least blink your eyes to the music, that’s dancing.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 4, 2017 as "Bey of plenty". Subscribe here.

Lou Heinrich
writes about women and religion.