The UK development organisation and membership
body for community and participatory dance
You are here:> Home > Developing Practice > Animated magazine > Searchable archive > Summer 2006 > A generation game
Animated Edition - Summer 2006
A generation game
He was once described by the late great Peter Brinson as, 'the first in the second generation of community dance artists'. But that was a generation ago. In considering the revival in the Gaelic language,indigenous dance forms, and the values inherent in community dance, Frank McConnell argues that although time may have matured us, there is still plenty of work to do
Recently I was shocked to admit that I had now been earning a living from dancing for more than a generation. This revelation was followed shortly afterwards by a surreal conveyor belt passing in front of my eyes of many diverse projects: performing traditional Scottish step dancing with Dannsa on every small island on the West coast of Scotland, choreographing for dance companies - both professional and community, teaching with much laughter the Ardross Ceilidh Class, forming my own company - plan B, conducting research into indigenous dance forms, working for the Dutch National Opera, running several national youth dance festivals, monitoring with Peter Boneham, being inspired by Christine Yorston, collaborating with Gerry Mulgrew and Communicado... and then the scary voice of Bruce Forsyth screaming, 'Good Game! Good Game!' In some respects, this could be viewed as quite remarkable given that in the last twenty-four years (with two short exceptions), all the professional work undertaken has been of a freelance nature. Granted that the range of work has been extensive but my roots were in the early days of the community dance movement. Whatever work I do, the foundation stones from those early days still remain. Perhaps, as Linda Jasper explained in the Spring 2006 issue of Animated, I was an 'entrepreneurial dance professional' all these years and was never aware of it!

Having left college with a degree in physical education and no prospect of a job, it was Royston Maldoom and Kirsty Adam who offered a trainee-ship at the Arts in Fife for a period of 12 months which was then extended for a further year. It was an opportunity which is never offered now. Neither in terms of length of training, nor, I suspect, in an immersion into a complete world of inspiration and creativity. At that time, there was a constant stream of exciting artists visiting the residency - amongst them, Tamara McLorg (who was later to move to the area), Howard & Eberle, Yair Vardi, Pat MacKenzie, David Glass, Phoenix Dance Co, Gregory Nash, Sue MacLennan. And there were just as many emerging artists - Andrew Howitt, Liz Gardner, Bruce Campbell, Craig McKnight, Jacquie Gracie and many more fine dancers now making excellent contributions in education, health, social work and in their own communities.

There was an enormous range of work and as many discussions on 'what' we were doing and even more debates on 'why' we were doing it. This was no mere philosophising but always related to the specifics of the work. It was also a necessary process because those were the early days of the community dance movement. It was the very early days. No offence to Linda Jasper, Marie McCluskey, Veronica Lewis and Royston Maldoom but I was a very young man when I realised that they themselves were the community dance movement. To be fair I'm not even certain they used the term community dance then - the generic term was animateur. Interesting how our language can define ourselves through a particular period. And yet here we are a generation later debating whether the name of the organisation which supports many more than those four individuals should call itself something else? Is it really time to drop 'community' from the title of the Foundation?

In this generation we have witnessed the way we refer to what we do variously described as dance, dance in the community, or animateurs, perhaps dance artist-in-residence, to dance worker and dance development officer. Like the very nature of dance itself, language and the use of it moves, changes and creates different expressions at different times and for different reasons. Failure to do so results in the decay of the language. Living in the Highlands of Scotland and coming from a family with strong connections to South Uist in the Western Isles, I am only too aware of the decline of our ancient Gaelic language. Ironically it has been through the use of non-verbal music, dance and art where the most exciting developments in the language revival has occurred.

Twenty six years ago a young priest on the island of Barra, alarmed at the decline of the local language and the few numbers of young people playing music and dancing, established a festival (féis) of tuition in the islands' music, dance and culture. The festival was such a great success that Féis Rois followed a couple of years later. There are today 39 festivals throughout Scotland, each one completely unique, though they all celebrate the Gaelic language, music, dance and culture of the local community and the community itself. Indeed such has been the success of the féisean movement that on more than one occasion, local authorities and the Scottish Arts Council have endeavored to find a blueprint for that success in order that it might be applied to other artforms. But like all good art there is no magic formula. Only the commitment to create something new allows for the possibility that authentic expression may follow. There is also the very important fact that this is a grassroots movement and that, with one notable exception (Féis Rois), each organisation is led by members of the community on a voluntary basis. The umbrella body - Féisean nan Gaidheal never seeks to interfere but continually works to support and develop the 39 communities in its care. For all that this movement has been a tremendous success it pales when compared to the thousands of young people who feel confident in themselves, connected to their own community, interested in their own culture and who can find meaning in their own lives and the world in which they live, and consequently understand language, identity and expression in their own terms.

For my own part it was the discovery of traditional step-dancing almost twelve years ago which allowed me to make a very powerful connection to my own Gaelic roots. It also offered the opportunity of seeing for the first time that I belonged to an ancient culture and that dance, being such a powerful entity, had in some sense found me. The progress to discovering that dance can find you just as much as you find dance was enlightenment that has fuelled me for many years and reminds me of many of the enlightened discussions with Royston Maldoom twenty-four years ago. (Frightening to know that I am now older than Royston was then!) Back then I remember in one such discourse Tamara McLorg, who prior to her arrival in Fife had mainly worked in the professional dance community, offering that the 'community dance' - which Royston and I thought of as brand new - 'was no different to the traditional folk dance so fond of her relatives in Poland'. It was shocking then to realise that the Fife Dance Residency had a context, but also that forms of community dance had been around much longer than the previous ten years. Tammy's was the type of comment which had Royston and I questioning the work we were doing for weeks upon end. It never, however, stopped us encouraging people to dance. We did think long and hard about how to engage with traditional dance in Fife and the indigenous dance forms of Scotland. Strangely, a generation later, the present incumbent in Fife specialises in traditional dance.

While attending Dance South West and the Foundation for Community Dance's Country Dancing? symposium in May 2005, I attempted on several occasions to engage with others without any success about why there were no representatives from the English traditional folk dance world. In truth this was a reaction to hearing contributions which started with the phrase, 'When I first came down here...'. This occurred on at least nine occasions and left me with the impression that colonisation was still a popular pastime in the region. Sure times are a-changing and the mobility of labour has created different scenarios both in terms of employment, career and what lies at the centre of geographic communities. But just as language needs to change to develop, dance also needs a perspective which informs us about where we exist in an historical timeframe. I am very fond of aligning myself with a quote from the inspirational Welfare State International which explains that the Indian word 'parampara' means literally 'one foot on the ground, one foot moving', and in this phrase I see huge potential for understanding our past while at the same time forging a dynamic future. It is also a wonderful image of dancing. The absence of any indigenous dance representatives at Country Dancing? was remarkable also considering one of Europe's biggest folk music and dance festivals in sited in the region at Sidmouth. At the same event, in conversation with independent artists working in the region, I was left with a strong impression that a great deal of work still needs to be done to support the work of that particular community as well as building bridges with an existing network of community dance groups practising indigenous dance forms, and not only in the South West of England.

And this I feel is surely the crux of the matter - do we believe we are one community when in fact we are many. The phenomenal growth in community dance in the last twenty years, particularly in England, has led to a plethora of different projects, ranging from the regional dance agencies to independent projects and local activists working at a grassroots level. And within this range a spectrum which is vast in terms of form, style, and aesthetic values. And this is apparent whether we take community to be defined geographically or in terms of common interest. It takes a long time to understand that a crowd is made of many. But it takes even longer to get everyone in the crowd to realise we are all part of that one crowd. And rather than naval gazing on our own position we should balance this with a realisation that if we want to achieve one crowd for dance by the time the next generation comes along, there is still plenty of work to be done in building bridges between the many communities which are looking for connections through dance or community dance - or call it what they will.

So, it's curious to know why this question has arisen now. And who exactly is asking the question? Do we feel stuck in a rut? Are we bored? Have we won too many policy decisions? Have we defined ourselves at this given point? Or is it an attempt to say in a Bruce Forsyth type of way - 'Didn't we do well?'

The values I discovered inherent in community dance and which have remained with me through my professional life were fundamentally concerned with the word itself - to bring people together in a common unity to celebrate a certain joy which the uniqueness of dance affords us, and that in doing so we have the opportunity to enrich ourselves, our understanding of one another and the worlds in which we live. Its a generation since this notion first came to me and it has been refined over the years but that there is no intention to stop wanting to embrace it or to stop discovering more about it. In the last issue of Animated there was a delightful surprise when Penny Greenland, a woman I have never met but who has been an inspiration from afar for many years, admitted her complete fascination for BBC's Strictly Come Dancing. Until March, I would never have believed I would hear such a thing; such a surprise. It made me sit up, took me out of a comfort zone and, whether I like it or not, accept a new perspective which focused on 'why' we do what we do rather than 'what' or 'how' we do it. It is precisely a willingness to be open and to embrace other notions and ideas, perhaps other methodologies, which can easily be transposed to embracing other communities, other forms, other cultures and other models. And in this respect what we really need to be saying to one another is - 'Nice to see you! To see you - Nice!'

Frank McConnell is a dance teacher and choreographer and can be contacted on

Dance as Education: Towards a National Dance Culture - Peter Brinson, Routledge Falmer
Engineers of the Imagination, The Welfare State Handbook - Ed. Tony Coult and Baz Kershaw, Methuen

The content of this site is proprietary to the Foundation for Community Dance and any access to this site or the use of any content made by any person is expressly subject to these terms:

Unauthorised copying of any material (including artwork) on this site and the reproduction, storage, transmission or the distribution of any content, either in whole or in part and in any medium or format, without the prior written consent of the Foundation for Community Dance and, where appropriate, the author or artist, is not permitted.

Please read our website terms & conditions by clicking here

Animated: Summer 2006