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Animated Edition - Summer 2006
Community dance in a northern Irish context
Heather Floyd, Director of Community Arts Forum in Belfast, argues for the importance of community dance as a term that describes a process which places equal emphasis on the dance and those who participate
Within Northern Ireland, the term community arts is widely used and recognised. Community arts usually engages with people from disadvantaged or marginalised backgrounds. It refers to a working process during which participants produce an original piece of art work. This process comprises significant elements of:
  • Access: everyone has the right to participate in the creative process, to speak, to be listened to and to ask questions
  • Participation: everyone has the right to be actively involved in the creative process
  • Authorship: everyone has the right to contribute to what is being recorded in the creative process
  • Ownership: what we have recorded through our active participation belongs to us collectively.
I want to take each of those tenets and explore how I feel they relate to community dance.

Access: many forms of dance are inaccessible to people from social classes C2,D and E. Barriers can be practical (too expensive) or in peoples' minds ('it's not for people like me'). Within a northern Irish context, local traditional dance such as Irish dance can be extremely expensive, as the intricate costumes can cost many hundreds of pounds. Without an education in dance, it can be difficult to interpret and/or appreciate well-known dance pieces such as Swan Lake. Community dance opens up opportunities for access.

Participation: Community dance is the first opportunity many people from disadvantaged backgrounds have to participate in creative dance activity. Community dance physically brings dance to the heart of the community and community dance practitioners can facilitate groups to develop their own dance pieces and help individuals to interpret complex dance pieces.

Authorship: A community dance piece gives a voice to a group during which it can express issues relating to the local community and to individuals in the group. This gives groups which may not normally have access to the arts a creative tool with which to express community issues. This is a specific process of community dance, rather than dance workshops where participants may learn movement and dance but may not have the opportunity to devise a dance piece themselves reflecting issues core to participants' lives.

Ownership: At the end of the community dance process, the group will own the devised piece. This leaves a strong legacy in a community; a skills legacy as well as a practical artistic piece. Skills learnt during the process can be passed on to others.

The Community Arts Forum (CAF) recently organised an international community arts conference: Arts: Towards An Inclusive Society. Almost 200 delegates attended from 18 different countries. The conference included speakers, panels and participatory arts workshops (including dance). It was evident at this event that delegates from other countries were looking at community arts within a northern Irish context as an example of excellent practice. In many of the other countries which delegates were representing, artistic processes in communities were often artist or institution rather than community led. In Northern Ireland community arts projects are community led. Delegates from across the globe welcomed this working definition and practice and subsequently brought the practice back to their own working situations.

Community arts practitioners from across the north of Ireland embrace the term community arts and within that community dance. I feel it is very important that the Foundation for Community Dance retains the word community as a way of defining a working process, recognising that process and placing equal emphasis on community and on dance.

Heather Floyd is Director of the Community Arts Forum (CAF) and can be contacted on admin@caf.ie - see www.caf.ie for more information.

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Animated: Summer 2006