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Animated Edition - Autumn 2004
Dance and the Muslim context
Eckhard Thiemann charts Woking Dance Festival's engagement with local Muslim communities
Woking has the largest Asian Muslim population in Surrey, and also has the oldest built mosque in the UK. Woking Dance Festival has presented South Asian Dance since 1995. Akram Khan, for instance, was a regular visitor in the early days and the festival's community programme has occasionally led short projects with the local Asian community, such as Kathak classes with Alpana Sengupta and a boys project with Imlata Dance Company.

When I started working for the festival two years ago, I felt it was time to look at a longer and deeper engagement with the local Muslim community. I began by asking myself how a dance festival can be useful and meaningful to those members of our community, who have very specific cultural conventions and approaches to movement, performance, perceptions of the body and visits to the theatre.

My starting point was the shared experience of Woking Dance Festival (WDF) and local schools in previous joint projects, wherein a considerable number of pupils from the local Asian and Muslim communities enjoyed participating in dance activities, but often did not take part in subsequent performances or theatre visits. It was quite common for some pupils to be part of a dance project at school, but fail to turn up for the final performance or sharing or theatre visit. Sometimes this was due to parental influence and the concern over the 'exposure' of the dancing body to a public audience. Sometimes religious convictions prevented pupils from sharing their acquired skills with a wider group.

I soon encountered the Home School Liaison Team, part of Surrey County Council Ethnic Languages Minorities Achievement Team. Members of the Home School Liaison Team make the necessary connection between parents and schools, informing parents of the curricular and educational needs and opportunities for their children, and schools of the cultural and religious needs of their pupils. I began discussing issues of dance participation and performance with teachers and members of the team and we identified some of the most common reasons for non-participation: some parents regarded a situation where women (especially girls) perform to male audience members as not traditional or un-Islamic. Mixed sex groups in workshops or in shared performances were problematic and the tight-fitting 'costuming' worn (or presumed to be worn) in dance performances and workshops was seen as contravening traditional codes of propriety.

The Home School Liaison Team manages a programme of summer holiday activities, so we decided that our first step would be to offer some dance as part of this provision. Liz Lea, Artistic Director of Lea Dance led three half days of dance sessions in August 2003. Over 20 girls took part, aged between 12 and 18. The participants enjoyed learning new movements and be given creative tasks. But it was also apparent that for some girls dance was of limited interest, yet they had come because it was the only holiday activity available to them. So while this caused a challenge to the workshop leader (with Liz managing admirably!), it proved the need for more varied opportunities for this group. The established trust between the Home School Liaison Team and the parents was the single key to successful recruitment. We did not print a single leaflet: all 'marketing' was done by direct approach to families. Much care was given to ensure that the physical conditions of the workshops were right. This included an emphasis on female-only participation, female teaching and supervisory staff, transport help for some participants, and privacy of the workshop space (we simply blocked out some windows).

While the first project offered simple 'taster' experiences, we then wanted to develop approaches to dance that address in a more conscious way the participants' cultural and religious background, while at the same time using dance as a creative tool for self-expression. The simple question we asked ourselves was: How can we create an experience that is fully rooted in movement and the body, but where the final outcome is not impeded by cultural barriers to live performance?

WDF - in partnership with Bishop David Brown Performing Arts College, the Home School Liaison Team and supported by a grant from the Arts Council South East - subsequently planned GHAZAL - a dance/video residency. We believed that technology could offer a positive answer to the above question. Through technology, the participants should be able to control both the imagery and the audience of their work. We hoped to create 'One Minute Wonders', which are 1-minute long unedited single take video films. The dancing body could be shown in a variety of ways: as a recognizable individual, through unidentifiable close-ups of body parts or 'disembodied' as the moving camera eye. The distribution of the 'dance video' is entrusted to the participant, allowing opportunities for private showings in people's houses rather than public showings in theatres.

The five-day GHAZAL residency was led by Birmingham-based Kathak dancer Sonia Sabri, video artist Shelly Love and musician Sarvar Sabri during the 2004 February half-term week. Recruitment was once again mainly done through the Home School Liaison Officer, but we were also assisted by the local Connexions Ethnic Youth Project personal advisor. The artists used the poetry form of Ghazal as a starting point, introducing Kathak to create movement and express the lyrics and concepts of this poetic form. A total of 17 girls took part, aged 8 -17. Not all girls attended every day, but there was a core group of 9 girls who came to virtually all sessions. It is these girls who completed the final dance and appear in the video and on the music CD. The age range of the group was lower than originally planned, with the average age of the core group being 8-12 years.

Due to the younger age range, the artists decided that the aim to produce 'One Minute Wonders' was not the appropriate way forward for this age group. Notions of body image, identity and cultural tradition are inevitably very different in an 8-year old than in a 16-year old. But each group member had the opportunity to handle a camera and experiment with filming movement and body parts. The cameras were subsequently more used for documentary purpose, filming newly created movement material, rehearsals and the final group dance.

At the end of the week the group had created a short musical piece and a short group dance. Each participant received a CD of the music on the last day and we distributed copies of the videos to each pupil later. The week required much 'on the spot' thinking and changes by the artists who had to adapt to the younger age range and the changed circumstances.

Some members of the Home School Liaison Team are also members of Woking Asian Women's Association (WAWA), with whom Woking Dance Festival had collaborated separately on two workshops for the Over 50s. It seemed logical to develop the next stage of our work in close collaboration with WAWA. Members of WAWA are in contact with many local families and organise occasional events, such as outings, Eid parties and Over 50s gatherings. As a small local volunteer-led group, WAWA was also able to apply to the Local Network Fund, a fund not directly accessible to either WDF or the Home School Liaison Team.

We worked closely with WAWA to develop a project application with three strands of activity: more regular workshops for the younger age group, possibly through after school-hour dance clubs; intensive half-term projects for girls aged 12+ continuing the use of dance and technology, and a special cultural event during our next festival period in March 2005. In addition, and funded separately, WDF will once again provide a number of workshops for WAWA's Over 50s members.

We have now begun discussing what festival event we would like to see. Current ideas include bringing the groups from the dance clubs together for a joint performance in a local neighbourhood centre, and to provide a cultural programme of professional and community dance as part of an Eid party. What is certain is that the event will not be in a theatre, and will most probably be female-only.

I believe that our approach is a long process, and the relationship to our participants, WAWA and the Home School Liaison Team needs to grow organically. But I feel we are testing out a new arena where we - as primarily a performance-based festival organiser - are finding new ways of developing dance activities and events with our local Asian Muslim community, that are respectful to the cultural and religious framework of this group of Woking residents.

Importantly, all partner organisations in this project always stressed from the outset that although activities were targeted at local Asian girls from Muslim backgrounds, participation was not exclusive to this group. We were pleased that a small number of girls from other backgrounds took part. What was important was that our partnership approach and the recruitment process through the Home School Liaison Team, WAWA and Connexions Ethnic Youth Project gave us the confidence that these activities meet and continue to meet the interest and aspirations of members of the local Muslim community.

Eckhard Thiemann is Director of Woking Dance Festival, contact 01483 726438, email or see for more information.

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Animated: Autumn 2004