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Animated Edition - Summer 2007
Dance and diversity - international research project
Beverley Glean, Artistic Director IRIE! dance theatre and Rosie Lehan, Dance Lecturer at City and Islington College and freelance practitioner, retell their journey to the USA, Jamaica, Cuba and Ghana to look at cultural diversity and African and Caribbean dance forms in dance education
Dance and Diversity is an action based research project that looks at the place of cultural diversity in dance education and practice with particular reference to African and Caribbean dance forms. Phase One (2004-2005) of the research focused on practice in the UK. Armed with key findings from Phase One, such as: 'a lack of expertise in the field', 'no discourse' and 'not enough interest in the forms to warrant inclusion in formal education', Phase Two as described here aims to broaden the base of the research by examining International models of practise and open a forum for the sharing of ideas.

In this article we seek to present snapshot images of many of our encounters, describing an experience that was exhilarating, thought-provoking, at times exhausting but always exciting as we planned our next interview and negotiated flights, buses and trains, travelling to and through the USA, Jamaica, Cuba and Ghana.

Before we recount our tales it is perhaps interesting to reflect on the last issue of Animated in which the question of diversity and an intercultural dialogue was raised, as this remains key to the mission of the Dance and Diversity project. The mission of the project is to promote equality within dance education and practice to reflect the needs of very diverse communities currently living in the UK. Amongst our main concerns are young people and the future of their training, so for us it was key to be able to examine a range of provision and examine traditional models of practice against different criteria in very different institutions.

We were also interested in how culture and diversity in the arts impacted on social interaction i.e. every day life. Establishing an intercultural dialogue, a recurrent theme in the last issue of Animated was the pivotal point of our journey.

From January through to March 2007, we battled against both extreme cold and heat to meet a range of inspiring advocates for dance in many different settings; university departments, dance companies, schools and independent artists; in purpose built spaces and makeshift halls.

Beginning in the USA one of the most fascinating spaces was that of Forces of Nature, a company who describes its work as centred in an African and an American aesthetic that includes contemporary modern dance, traditional West African dance, ballet, house and hip-hop. Based in the crypt of the 115 year old Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine on the Upper West Side of New York, the company delivers a range of classes accessible to their diverse community. Dyane Harvey founding member of Forces of Nature tells us that diversity ' really important, it empowers people, an Asian student learning about African dance can transfer and compare cultures.' (1)

January 14 is Martin Luther King Day. This is a public holiday in the USA. Therefore, it seemed fitting that our first official invitation would be to a performance by Urban Bush Women (UBW) at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre in New York. Other artists and advocates of arts and culture appeared on the bill to the delight of a 750 strong audience who were as diverse in age as they were in cultures. This was a free event. One of the works performed by UBW was entitled Walking with Pearl...Southern Diaries. Dedicated to one of the founding mothers of American Black dance, Pearl Primus. It was a truly inspiring evening. It reflected, through the commemoration of a great cultural, political and social icon in American history, a legacy of strength of diversity; by allowing the wider community to celebrate together with professional artists and individuals in an environment that seemed to deepen connection and understanding of one another.

Time and time again we met passionate individuals who have devoted their lives to building up dance departments, projects and companies. They remain the lynchpin of organisations without who much of the inspiring work that we witnessed would still be in its infancy. The point has to be made that this seems to be the same the world over: much of the infrastructure of dance appears to rely on the drive of dedicated individuals prepared to struggle in often very difficult circumstances with limited resources to provide longevity for their organisation.

Barbara Bashaw, co-ordinator of PK-12 Teacher Certification, Dance Education Programme at New York University fosters an innovative approach to teacher training. The course is part of the Post Graduate programme and one of the most interesting things is that they are committed to working with the cultural forms that the students bring with them rather than imposing a standard contemporary training that must then be replicated in the schools. This is a change of emphasis from teacher training in the UK where contemporary is the dominant form with cultural dance forms being seen as advantageous but not essential.

"The schools are diverse so it's very important that the teachers are embedded in cultural practice, which tends to change their teaching and learning practice even if they are modern dancers. You are creating culture and community when you teach, which has to be understood. We are interested in offering diverse forms." (2)

Bashaw explains that the philosophy of teaching in the department is geared towards promoting individual voices in order to empower teachers to gain ownership of their own practice. This in turn will filter through to students as they find their own voice within different dance forms.

Again this is reflective of Ken Bartlett's article as he considers the need for dance to give a voice to individuals which ultimately... "leads to a better-shared understanding of, and respect for, each other and the cultural influences that distinguish us'. (3)

It seems common practice, certainly in New York, that dance companies attach themselves to universities in order to formalise their practice and provide a valuable diverse and cultural resource for performing arts training. For example Forces of Nature linked to Princeton University, Alvin Ailey linked to Fordham University and Urban Bush Women linked to Florida State University. This seemed to us a strategic way forward in terms of audience development and a way of firmly placing artistic work within a formal education system.

Travelling from New York to San Francisco with a morning stop in Philadelphia in the freezing cold might have been unbearable had it not been for the work of Professor Kariamu Welsh, Chair of Dance at Temple University in Philadelphia. Dr Kariamu has developed four African Courses at the University and has strived for thirty years to secure this presence. She openly challenges the view of the department that ballet is the dominant dance form but within that context she works to stabilise the place of African dance. Author of several books on African dance and its impact on world culture, she has also created the Umfundalai technique, a Pan-African contemporary technique that she has developed since 1971. Through this technique she has been able to create a niche in the dance department for students who want to study African dance, learn more about African cultures and find new vocabulary for their choreographic expressions. Through courses and the legacy of her technique she has embedded her practice into the life of the Dance Department at Temple.

Witnessing a class in Berkeley University California led by Professor C.K Ladzekpo brought us back to the research conducted in Phase One where we were asked whether there was a demand for African and Caribbean dance. Two hundred participants of many diverse nationalities joined together in an African Dance/Music class and on that afternoon it became clear how important it is to offer choice. Without this, the question would never be answered.

The atmosphere in Jamaica was more charged than usual. Cricket fever gripped the nation and here we were to witness culture and diversity (Caribbean style) in action. This was a Pan Caribbean experience, which meant that many of the islands had to work together to make the occasion a success. Given the daunting task of choreographing the opening ceremony, L'Antoinette Stines, Artistic Director of L'ACADCO Dance Company set about inviting performers from all the professional performance companies in Jamaica to take part in order to support and perform with numerous community groups from all over the island. We were invited to an evening rehearsal in a large semi open space - on a cool Caribbean evening - at the YMCA building in Kingston. Sixty-five professional dancers arrived for rehearsals. We experienced the cross fertilisation of movement vocabulary influenced by Africa, Asia, America and Europe. It was so exciting to witness cultural diversity in action. Jamaica has embraced its multi cultural roots, one that reflects its national motto 'Out of Many One People'.

The flight from Havana to Santiago in Cuba was a less than perfect experience that might have ruined the day. However, once again the end result was well worth the discomfort. Eduardo Rivera, Artistic Director of CompaniĀ­a Teatro de la Danza del Caribe arranged for us to view his company in rehearsal accompanied by live musicians, a truly unforgettable experience. The dancers, in command of their trained bodies, presented a seamless fusion of African and Contemporary techniques with work influenced by African rituals. In Cuba dancers have the opportunity to train in dance within a state system from the age of 11. The combination of the traditional folkloric dance with training in ballet and Contemporary produces dancers who make smooth transitions between styles, as they inhabit different genres.

Striving for excellence in the arts was apparent through rehearsals and professional classes. Walking past a music school the cacophony of sound was incredible. We looked up to find a number of young people practicing a variety of stringed, wind and percussion instruments spanning the balconies of the building and spilling out and up onto the roof. Such dedication seen against often-harsh economic conditions has to be admired. Here art appears to be embedded in the culture, no justification necessary.

We were fortunate to be shown around Havana by 18 year old student Adrian Wanliss, a Jamaican studying dance at La Escuela Nacional de Art because he believed, along with many of his fellow international students studying various art forms, that they would receive the best training in Cuba. Battling with a lack of Spanish and money he had developed survival tactics to help him get through what seemed to be a very confusing landscape. The strength of his determination enabled him to learn Spanish and orientate himself within a few months; all guided by his belief in the training which he was able to enthuse about at length.

Traveling on to Ghana we visited Legon University where Dr Willie Anku leads the Performing Arts Department. Although his doctorate is in music, he is very keen to stretch and develop the dance department and was particularly interested in links with the UK and our work around diversity and access. Dr Newman, Head of Dance, invited us to view a dance class in African technique. This experience was extraordinary; the live drumming alone filled the studio with an awesome energy. The class was packed with approximately 200 students dancing with complete commitment and enjoyment in temperatures of around 38 degrees C. This level of commitment is exciting to witness in any arena and again brings the question of choice into view, something that we need to take notice of within dance education in the UK.

Throughout our travels we were welcomed into many different arenas where the subject of cultural diversity was a priority for development. Consequently this experience has made us even more determined that the International debate has to take place. It really is a small world and commitment by a few, could influence so many.

contact or

(1) Interview Dyane Harvey, Founding member Forces of Nature Dance Theatre 16/01/07
(2) Interview Barbara Bashaw, co-ordinator of PK-12 Teacher Certification, Dance Education Programme at New York University 17/01/07
(3) What is intercultural Dialogue? - Ken Bartlett Animated Spring 2007

Further Reading/Resources
Phase one 2005/06
Dance & Diversity, Taking Stock & Making it Happen / DVD - available from IRIE! dance theatre - see

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Animated: Summer 2007