The Enduring Perfection of Nadia Comaneci

One of my most abiding Olympic memories is of the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Montreal games. As I recall, there was a heatwave that summer, one that scorched its way across the US like a smoldering fuse-wire, raging through cities and forests, melting tarmac, setting prairies alight and drying my lips to paper.

I was 9-years-old, watching the Games while on holiday at my grandparent’s house in the New Hampshire mountains that smelled of pine trees at sunset. A chunky colour TV beamed Nadia’s hipless frame right into my pre-pubescent consciousness. In her unforgiving white leotard, stripes up the sides popping like arteries, 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci performed like no gymnast had ever done before.

She was fearless and focused way before life coaches brought the Gospel of the Goal to the mainstream. Nadia was angular yet kittenish, pure muscle, with an anatomy of metal and spirit of steel that shames the chronic public anorexia of today. She also had these huge, brown, sorrowful eyes that betrayed the fact she was still a child. I was transfixed by her every move both on and off the apparatus.  She was like no girl I had ever seen before.

Back home in London, my city was agitated.  IRA explosions had rocked the West End earlier in the year, the punk movement was bubbling under with the Sex Pistols just months away from signing to EMI. I was slightly too young for punk to get under my skin, but Nadia felt like a peer. To me, she embodied subversion with every sinew of her slight yet powerful frame. She was the pale, mechanical, aloof ‘other’, perfectly fitting the cliched perception of ‘Eastern block’ citizens we had back then, before the walls and Ceausescu came crumbling down.

Nadia’s performance on the uneven bars on July 18th 1976 is etched on my mind forever. After a gravity-defying routine, there was a delay before the Omega scoring system showed a result of 1.0. The crowd and the commentators were initially confused before it became apparent that Nadia had actually scored the first ever Olympic perfect ‘10’ in gymnastics. “She broke the machine!” I thought in wonder. The computer had, quite literally, said “No”.

I was entranced by this idea of unexpected perfection. A completion so exquisite that it broke the rules, a perfection so persistent that an outdated system had to redesign itself. We did not know then how symbolic this would come to be. Nadia’s faultlessness seemed so transgressive and useful and desirable, anything less seemed suddenly pointless.

I learned everything I could about perfect Nadia. I was delighted to find she shares my birthday, 12th November, my Scorpionic twin ~ I took this as symbolic of our probable affinity. She was my first female icon, the one that led me though puberty. Nadia set the bar for what one could achieve by aged 14; suddenly the possibilities of my life as an adult had some tangible form.  Whatever I did, I wanted it to matter. In my young mind, she was the embodiment of Cold War austerity and pain and I was embarrassed by what I perceived as the flabby ‘too-much-ness’ of the West. Our gymnasts had breasts, curves, cellulite and no medals. It is probably because of Nadia that I studied Russian at school.

But over the years, like my personal dreams of perfection, Nadia’s image was replaced by pictures of women who symbolized other ambitions, new guardians of my creative journey. My photos of Nadia would be covered over by ones of Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, Joni Mitchell and other goddesses of music. Then by writers and artists who stole my heart and weaved their magic; Sylvia Plath, the Brontes, Toni Morrison, Frida, Georgia, Elisabeth Frink.

Sometimes I think of that bedroom wall in my childhood home and imagine how an archeologist, chipping away through the layers of my own personal iconography would find at the foundation, a pull-out-and-keep spread of Nadia Comaneci in the saturated inks of 1976, still perfect.

Empty Orchestras: On Karaoke as Medicine

Music Karaoke Medicine

The room is dark apart from the blue glow emanating from a giant flat screen. The wallpaper is lush and there are velvet cushions everywhere. There is a button on the wall that reads “Booze’. When you press it a young male appears who, enthralled by your mightiness, brings alcohol. I already assume I must be in heaven but it is about to get better.

I love it here. It feels like an illicit womb that I am temporarily sharing with seven sisters. I’m ready for whatever is conceived in this secret place tonight but you should know Dear Reader that usually, whatever happens in a room like this stays in a room like this. Until one of you blogs about it.

It transpires that I am not in heaven but in the karaoke bar above the aptly named Paradise Pub in London’s Kensal Green. Karaoke translates as ‘empty orchestra’ and no phrase on earth sums up the pathos of singing your heart out in a darkened room apart from some unallowable juxtapositions of words like happy/sad, mortifying/liberating or brilliant/awful. Why oh why oh why is singing loudly with your mates such a stress reliever? Why does it feel so damn good that I actually had a comedown the next day?

Perhaps the answer lies in the physiology of singing. Apparently you need a ‘vibrator’ (the vocal folds of the larynx) an ‘activator’ (the air from our lungs) and a‘resonator’ (the throat cavity) to make a singing sound. If this all seems vaguely sexual, that’s because it is. In what circumstances do women let go and allow big primal sounds to come out of our mouths other than in the bedroom or when we give birth or when we sing? The facts are that singing has a balancing effect on the hormones, increases oxygenation of the blood and works muscle groups that only pilates and gynecologists can touch. Singing makes most people feel bloody brilliant psychologically and physically even if the vibrator/activator/resonator alignment is a bit out of whack and the resulting sound is something only a mother could love. All these ‘well-being effects’ are multiplied when humans sing as a collective; if there’s one thing we cannot resist, it’s resonance.

The ritual of karaoke unfolds like this: at the beginning there will be performance anxiety but luckily its pervasive laxative effect can be easily countered by saucily named cocktails. You and your friends will attempt to ignore the huge karaoke screen that glistens alluringly in the corner like a pole dancer’s pants. The two dead microphones lying on the table in front of you will seem impossibly big and way too phallic to handle. Suddenly, several cocktails in, one of you (in our case my mate Polly) will go for it. It’s Sex on Fire by Kings of Leon. “Yoooooooouuuuu, consumed with what’s to transpire…” and there it is. The Banshee-wail of the undervalued, underpaid, overworked mother is something magical. (David Attenborough voice) “At the same time as this siren call of the Kensal Rise she-wolf cuts through the night air her husband, miles away, experiences a mysterious chill whilst watching Police Interceptors.” Such is its power ladies and gentlemen, such is its power.

Once the full force of ladies doing karaoke is underway, it’s like unleashing a hurricane on a Wendy house. My sisters and I were unstoppable for the next two hours becoming increasingly high on singing loudly. In nature, a bunch of females making this much noise would be viewed as sending a signal of either empathy or warning to the surrounding tribe. Judging by our waiter’s increasing reluctance to respond to our booze bell, we were perhaps sending out the latter message. Mind you, if confronted by a room full of wild-eyed women-of-a-certain age screaming a rendition of “Sister’s Are Doing it for Themselves” with the kind of ferociousness usually reserved for the January sales, I too would be scared shitless.

I know the NHS is cutting back, but couldn’t we just have a little singsong session every Friday at the local surgery? If they had karaoke in the waiting room, most patients would self-cure and cancel their appointments after one communal round of Rod Stewart’s “We Are Sailing”. Karaoke as medicine could save the NHS millions of pounds. The ironic thing about all this is that I used to be a singer. For fifteen years I lived breathed and puked music until one day, worn down by disappointment, I decided I’d had enough. I placed my music on the pyre named Thwarted Dreams and simply stopped singing. My Kensal karaoke night was a timely reminder that one can sing for many things other than ambition; for joy, for love, for life itself.