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Animated Edition - Autumn 2008
From Calabash to cultural leadership
Still sharing, supporting, nurturing and unifying, Judith Palmer, Development Manager at IRIE! Dance Theatre, describes growing from herroots at a Girls Club in Nottingham to becoming a leader in African Peoples' Dance
When I look back at my time spent working in the African peoples dance (APD) sector, it appears to me to be made up of a patchwork of opportunities and progressions which I believe is guided by my ancestors and what others would call fate.

My introduction to it came from attending African dance workshops at a place called The Girls' Club in Gregory Boulevard, Nottingham. I remember feeling that urge, needing something to do, a regular commitment to something, anything, as I was getting seriously bored with being unemployed. After attending a few classes the regular attendees decided to form a dance group The Afrikan Kalubash of Performing Arts (Calabash for short), we performed regularly at festivals in and around the East Midlands.

News travels fast on the APD circuit and soon we had visits to our performances from other practitioners such as H Patten, Kofi Leo, Norman 'Rubba' Stephenson, Stephen Blagrove & Charles James from Ekome; it was through this network that I heard about the opportunity of a job as Admin Assistant with Adzido.

When I'm approached with the question 'what keeps me in dance?', even though my enthusiasm has fluctuated over the years, I think initially it was a hunger to affiliate with the land of our fathers (Africa) and to know my culture as a Rasta woman (I received a good dose of that culture in Adzido!)

That original energy changed to wanting to share the ecstasy (a feeling which is very difficult to describe, but anyone who has performed dance in the throes of music with that 'second-skin' knowledge of the movement, knows exactly what I mean), I wanted to reach those individuals, professionals, trained or otherwise but dancers all the same, and bring them to the level of that 'second-skin' knowledge of African dance.

I attempted it during my time as associate lecturer on the BA hons. Dance and Culture course at Surrey University and although I am grateful for being headhunted for this post, my experience was a lonely one. I very rarely saw any of my colleagues there and the only time I felt supported was when I had an adjudicator during exam times! I began to feel as though I wasn't really a teacher not having done any formal teacher training; the only training I received was vocational and non-accredited.

At this point I stopped working in the sector and went to work in Guy's Hospital for two years, only because as a child I wanted to be a doctor and thought it would be exciting to work in a hospital. After the first six months I started to have withdrawal symptoms and started performing as a freelancer with companies such as Sugumugu, Uthingo, Afidance, Bullies Ballerinas and Roots of Unity. I never lost touch with my network of artists from back in the day as well as my colleagues in Adzido - I needed that link with dance to keep me alive!

My realisation of APD as an under-represented form - under-funded and under-valued - came when I realised that there was no where else for me to go and dance but back to doing African dances at my local community centre. My clients were women of my age who were able to take the time out and sometimes came after work; the majority came for aerobic exercise and a minority had a particular interest in African dance.

I became frustrated: this wasn't my dream. My dream was to run a school with students in different rooms studying music, dance and singing! This dream brought me to IRIE! Dance Theatre's Diploma Course seven years ago. My first job at IRIE! involved 50/50 admin and teaching as Course Co-ordinator and lecturer in African dance. When the course was suspended in 2001, I was re-deployed to Admin Manager and effectively that's when I stopped dancing/teaching dance, and much of my work since has been about IRIE! dance theatre and the survival of APD.

I got involved in the politics of APD in 1996 when I joined the Association of Dance of the African Diaspora (ADAD) as a steering committee member. ADAD's agenda has advanced over the years from raising the profile of Black dancers/choreographers in the UK, to bringing the art forms of the African Diaspora from the margins to the mainstream as well as supporting the development of an infrastructure for APD.

Community dance has provided me with a career, a pathway that transpired as certain opportunities manifested themselves. I've maintained the pursuit of my personal professional development by taking up any training that I can get to enhance my work. I will make time for it - I'm a perfectionist, so I'm always trying to fill the gaps and find ways to perfect my craft.

Although I'm currently studying for an MA in Cultural Leadership, I wouldn't describe myself as a conventional leader, it is something that Beverley Glean, Artistic Director of IRIE! dance theatre, and I always talk about; we don't blow our own trumpets very well we just get things done which is why I would say that IRIE!'s work is 'unsung'. What people don't seem to realise is that most of the time we manage on very limited resources and shoestring budgets and are expected to produce 'immaculate' work, and even more so, to shout about it. With the resources we have at IRIE! our priority is to get the work done and it will speak for itself. My motto is that you get out what you put in, so if you want to see good quality work you should invest in it - that is a universal law.

The reason I am still involved in APD is that it has been my life; I work to promote and develop the form because it is an alternative to what is considered 'professional dancing'. I was never a 'trained dancer' because there weren't any institutions in this country at which I could have trained in my style of dance, and part of my life's work is to change those conditions for the next generation and give them access to the opportunities and facilities that I didn't have. What I've kept that is central to APD are the values that are central to African and Caribbean culture and they are sharing, supporting, nurturing and unifying and I use my work in APD to promote these values.

What brought me to the MA in Cultural Leadership was an aim to support the development and sustainability of IRIE! dance theatre's accredited training programmes. I wanted to hone my leadership skills for this purpose; at the time I wasn't thinking about my personal professional development. It was during the training that we were encouraged to focus inward on our personal skills, characteristics and interaction with others etc. It also made me realise that we are all leaders in one way or another, however the cultural leadership programme is specifically designed to develop leadership training within the organisation, therefore principally it is a work-based learning programme with significant personal benefit.

Although I have yet to complete the programme I have learned a lot about what it takes to be an effective leader, it has raised my level of confidence through the recognition of my contribution to the sector.

It seems a bit facetious to announce to the world that I am a leader. But I know that I am taking the initiative and making inroads into the development of an infrastructure for APD, being involved in development initiatives and I am touching the lives of many young aspiring dancers, so yes, I can safely say I am a leader!

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Animated: Autumn 2008