If people had known YouTube was on its way, the 1970s may never have happened. The video-sharing site now stands as the world's largest archive of best-forgotten moments, with the era of satin jumpsuits and handlebar moustaches providing the star exhibits. If you're a respectable middle-aged citizen with a house in the suburbs and a couple of teenaged kids, the video-sharing site can provide some very vivid and awkward flashbacks indeed. Just ask Virginia Hartley.
"Oh God, is that me?" Hartley said last Sunday, staring at a laptop screen in my garden. "Oh." Hartley used to be a member of the UK dance troupe Hot Gossip, who rose to fame in the late 1970s on The Kenny Everett Video Show. In the four years it aired on British TV (1978-1981), this hyperkinetic sketch comedy programme became a critical and commercial smash. The show was hailed for its groundbreaking approach to comedy, but there's little doubt that many people tuned in to get an eyeful of its resident dancers. Hot Gossip did moves that pushed the boundaries of decorum and human physiology. It was uncomfortable viewing for censors and chiropractors alike.
Hartley, now 52, is a retired dance teacher. She lives in Mirdif, drives a large SUV and is given to wearing colourful but conservative clothing. The video she watched on YouTube this week was called "Sleazy"; in it, she appeared as a blur of red hair and blue eyeshadow. Her outfit consisted of a leather leotard, thigh-high boots and a dog collar. "I haven't looked at this in years," she said. "It's hard to believe that's even me." As of Hartley's viewing, the video had been watched 65,304 times, and had a rating of four-and-a-half stars.
Born in the US and brought up in England, Hartley originally trained as a ballet dancer, but didn't have the body type. "I wasn't particularly long limbed or skinny," she said. "And I had trouble with my feet."She quit ballet school in her late teens and went out in search of work. Her first break came when the choreographer Terry Gilbert hired her to dance in an opera he was taking around the country. She also did some TV ads, including one for Dr Pepper directed by Ridley Scott.
When asked if she made any money during this period, Hartley just laughed. "I was young and adventurous," she said. "I learnt a huge amount, not only about dance but about surviving." Hartley went on like this for a year or so, working as a "jobbing person in theatre", until she came across an intriguing audition notice for a modern dance troupe. This was around 1978. Hartley was 20 years old, and she was about to become one of the highest paid, highest profile performers in the dance world. Having aspired to become a ballet dancer since she was six, Hartley reached the pinnacle of her career as a Hot Gossip girl.
By Hartley's account, the two years she spent on The Kenny Everett Video Show were not the happiest of her life. The schedules were gruelling, the choreographers catty, and there was a lot of heavy partying going on. "To be honest, I always felt a bit removed from it," she said. "I knew it wasn't a pace of life that I could sustain. You think you want all this high-flying stuff, but it was hard. It just didn't suit my temperament." In 1980, Hartley did something that seemed like the height of insanity to her co-performers: she quit. "I'd just had enough," she said. "I think I was the first one to leave the group without getting fired."
The following year, Hartley's husband, an accountant, landed a job in Sharjah, and she followed. Predictably, the transition was not a smooth one. There were few opportunities for dancers in the UAE, so Hartley took whatever work she could find. "I was the world's worst secretary," she said with a laugh. "It was hard." A few years later, Hartley and her husband divorced (she's since remarried), and there were times when she wondered if quitting Hot Gossip wasn't a terrible mistake. "I plunged myself into whatever was going on - the Dubai Drama Group, the Sharjah Singers," she said. "That was a lifeline for me, a godsend."
In 1993, Hartley took a course with the Royal Academy of Dance and qualified to become a teacher. She retired from teaching this summer, but won't rule out the possibility of starting up again. "I loved it," she said. "I loved the girls, watching them blossom." Today, Hartley doesn't dwell on her Hot Gossip days. She has an old Kenny Everett videotape somewhere, tucked away in a remote corner of the house. She recalled showing the tape to her two children - a girl and a boy, now aged 15 and 18 - but said they haven't pestered her for another viewing. "I think they're proud, but also a bit embarrassed," she said. "It's not nice to see your mum prancing around like that."
* Chris Wright