Author: Vanessa McManus (née Deges) 24th February 2021

It was while I was working at Disney that my colleagues, who were taking part in the 2012 Olympics ceremonies, told me that volunteers were needed to perform at the Paralympics opening ceremony.  Although I don’t have a dance background, I was enjoying swing dancing at the time, so I thought I’d go along to the audition.

The auditions were held at 3 Mill Studios and began with presentations showing the costumes and concepts for the Opening Ceremony and the dancing at the Olympic ceremony. We were then shown a dance to learn and audition in front of judges which was nerve wracking!

At the rehearsals I was put into a group of four and with a partner we were taught the ‘Gravity’ dance which included elements of both ballet and modern. We were given props, headphones, bibs with a number and measured for costumes. Three weeks before the opening the rehearsals ramped up to 4 hours a day in the summer heat and I must have lost 5kgs - they had to take my corset in! We were practising at a full-size replica of the stadium built in a car park in Dagenham. They bussed us in and out, we had lunch packs and rest tents – it was a huge logistical operation!

Rehearsals were at a full size replica of the stadium in Dagenham

Each dance troupe had a portacabin to call home. Inside there were rows and rows of numbered hooks and benches like in the school changing rooms where we would leave our costumes after dress rehearsals. 

The Gravity dance and costumes were inspired by Newton's gravity theory and we were embodying trees dancing around a giant science book carrying apples. No two costumes were the same, some wore skirts, some trousers, with varying amounts of vines attached to them. For the headpiece we had a skin-coloured plastic disk stuck to our foreheads with synthetic grass shoots 'growing' out of it. We wore Dr Martens boots in white, olive or purple colours, mine were in olive. After the performance these were donated to shelters. 

There were around 80 performers, there were loads of us, jugglers, wheelchair and skate riders zooming in and out, people swaying on long poles dotted around the edges of the stage. You can watch the IPC's video of the 'Gravity' dance here.

Gravity dance at the London 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony ©IPC

For the last week of rehearsals, we moved to the Olympic stadium. It was so exciting to walk into the stadium, it was vast and impressive and made me feel slightly nervous to practice there. Our dance instructors were really supportive. We all had to have costume fittings and re-fittings, there were containers full of costumes. There were three dress rehearsals in the stadium on the 25th, 26th and the 27th, the day family's were invited. The opening ceremony was on the 29th. 

   

Vanessa's costume for the opening ceremony, had a bodice and long hooped skirt.

On the day of the opening ceremony our dance started in the evening just as it had gone dark. As we were waiting in the wings, the audience was asked to bite into an apple, left by their seats, on the count of 3, so there was a loud 'crunch' to mark the start of our performance. We then walking out into the stadium listening to our instructors guiding us via our headphones. We had been warned that there would be blinding light flashes from all the cameras and it was true - it was like looking up at a huge night sky with millions of twinkling stars, the atmosphere was incredible, I'll never forget this!

It felt such a privilege to be part of the sheer magnitude that is the Paralympics, to celebrate differences and the athlete’s accomplishments. It was one of the best experiences of my life.

And at the end we were allowed to join the athlete's parade which was incredible - this was why we were here, helping celebrate the tremendous achievements of Paralympians from all over the globe. 

One of my recollections was Stephen Hawking meeting us at the rehearsal and then hearing his speech on the day:

The Paralympic Games is about transforming our perception of the world. We are all different, there is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being, but we share the same human spirit . . . What is important is that we have the ability to create. This creativity can take many forms, from physical achievement to theoretical physics. However difficult life may seem there is always something you can do, and succeed at . . . The Games provide an opportunity for athletes to excel, to stretch themselves and become outstanding in their field. So let us together celebrate excellence, friendship, and respect.

You can read more about the London 2012 Games here.