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Animated Edition - Autumn 2005
Country Dancing?
Dance South West's Kate Castle sets the scene for Country Dancing?
For most of my life I lived and worked in central London, I shopped in street markets, didn't need a car, slept to the bass beat drifting from passing cars. And then I moved to Devon.

No pastoral peace; the countryside at night is as noisy as any city street, a cacophony of sheep, cows, birds and farm machinery. The most profound difference for me was that instead of working with dancers who took daily class in near-perfect conditions I met Ben Baddoo, making African drums from wood hewn from Gloucestershire forests, Helen Poynor, moving stealthily against the backdrop of the Jurassic coast, attik dance touring to small village halls and Steve Paxton, fronting a revolution in the valleys of Dartington Hall. Apart from a passion for dance, what all these artists had in common was deep connection with the place and the people where they lived and worked.

Some 15 years later, and I'm back in the South West working with a group of inspired individuals, trying to create Dance South West - a new model for dance development. We assume as our by-line the phrase - 'where the place and the people meet'. We spend a great deal of time trying to figure out what's different about the way we work. We devise projects that involve dancers dressed as Cornish fishwives wading in Polperro Harbour, revive Ghurkha cultural traditions with isolated army families in Dorset. We invite celebrity choreographers to inspire young people in the suburbs of Gloucestershire and we support dance artists who are striving to find their unique dance voice in all sorts of extraordinary places. And we cannot understand why what we do, and by implication, the people we work with, is considered in spheres that count to be less important than what happens in the inner cities.

And so we began to amount the evidence for our region where 47% of the population live in rural areas. Last year, for example, after meeting with the rural arts development agencies in the South West, we commissioned research, which shows that there are over 300 village halls suitable for presenting dance. National Lottery capital didn't only apply to Baltic and Sadlers Wells. These spaces are perfect for dance, having sprung floors, dressing rooms, showers and dedicated staff (not to mention convivial 'get-ins' around plant and home-made cake sales). We learn that nation-wide there are 32 rural arts development schemes working with over 1,000 local promoters. Close reading of research undertaken by South West Arts Marketing shows us that rural audiences are risk-taking, appreciative and knowledgeable about the arts.

Country Dancing coincides with important policy developments on a national level. Arts Council England launched its major review, The Arts and Rural England, a process led by Amanda Rigali, Senior Officer, Touring: Arts Council England) and Andy Carver (Executive Director, Arts Council, Yorkshire) and guided by François Matarasso. The latter, renowned writer and researcher is the author of Only Connect: Touring and Rural Communities (2004) the seminal study on rural touring, commissioned by National Rural Touring Forum (NRTF). And the new national strategy for dance, resulting from the House of Commons Select Committee Enquiry (2004) contains a commitment to dance in non-urban contexts.

These developments at policy level reflected increased national awareness of broader social and demographic concerns, elegantly summarised in Fields of Dreams (2004) an article by John Lanchester for the Guardian (available through the 'search the archive' option at www.guardian.co.uk) illuminating the changing face of England, including the startling statistic that each year, the population of a city the size of Exeter migrates to the countryside.

This is not the place to explore these issues - the emergence of the 'slow food' movement, growing awareness of the down-side of living in rural areas: rural poverty, young people affected by issues of alienation and drug and alcohol dependence. But they are pertinent to the question of what constitutes 'a good life?' In this case not the subject of a television sit-com, but a deeper enquiry into matters of social cohesion and human happiness, in which art plays a role.

When planning Country Dancing, a conversation with François Matarasso was pivotal. Don't, he warned, get too carried away with exploring a supposed rural-urban polarity. For it is as much a question of the perceived marginal status of artists who have chosen, or have no other choice, than to work outside the conventional structures of dance. And as such, the issues have as much relevance to peri-rural and suburban areas, to market towns with no rail links and run-down seaside resorts, posing questions of distribution of funding, as well as relative value. So our focus shifted towards a celebration and interrogation of dance practice which takes place in a range of contexts, aiming to determine whether where we live affects the work we make, if support for dance is weighted towards inner cities and how we encourage artists to move between different contexts and environments?

Country Dancing? - with irony implicit in the title - is not quite a conference and not really a symposium - more of an inquiry. In planning this event Dance South West drew upon the experience of the National Rural Touring Forum (which supports some 4,000 volunteer promoters, attracting 150,000 audience members); Somerset-based Take Art, an exemplary arts development agency, and the Foundation for Community Dance, which believes that everyone who wants to dance should be enabled to do. And we looked beyond our borders, wanting to hear from, and compare our experience with others, such as Frank McConnell from Scotland, and artists, Jukka and Saila Ristolainen, who live and work deep in the forests of Finland.

The central questions are still - what meanings does dance have for communities that are increasingly diverse and discerning? How can we create and sustain an individual dance culture in a region of over five million people? How can we support artists in making dance that both has meaning to them and their audiences and achieves recognition in the national arena. Or are these two aims incompatible?

Kate Castle is Director of Dance South West, a consortium of dance agencies working together to encourage more people to make, watch and take part in dance. Dance South West is a National Dance Agency funded by Arts Council England. For more information see www.dancesouthwest.org.uk

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Animated: Autumn 2005