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Animated Edition - Winter 2008
Introducing dance traditions from the African Diaspora to the UK
Independent Artist Rosaria Gracia travels through geography and history to bring Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian dance traditions into community dance
As a Spanish national living in Britain for the last eleven years,there are few dance styles that make this dance teacher as alive as the Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian traditions. The roots of these traditions are embedded in the history of many slaves who travelled from Africa to South America; these traditions have managed to keep their love of nature, their respect of differences in human nature and of life.

When I first started to integrate these traditions into my teaching practice in 2003 I did not foresee the richness I would experience in every class. Women and men, boys and girls of all ages and backgrounds, find an element within these styles that feels very close to their hearts and at the same time, challenges the structures they are accustomed to.

Participants react in different ways to the stories that surround these traditions. At first some treated it with resistance (this is a style that is not so British!), some embraced it as a fresh approach to dance, some are interested in learning the technique to work with their bodies in a new way. Whatever the approach adopted, the richness of these traditions allows people to enjoy the dance, the music and forget their day-to-day problems while relating to others in different ways. For example, these traditions have a religious system where each god and goddess has adance or dances, a colour, food, day of the week and their particular music. This framework gives a whole array of areas and energies to work with in each session.

Experiences and reactions are seen in groups of all ages. Witnesses of young people's work in Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban traditions will observe that many youngsters that normally are quite challenging within the school setting find a place of their own in these dances. They seem to blossom and feel their self worth in the representation of the gods and goddesses. They move within a tradition that is completely new and therefore free of any expectation, labels or conditionings they are often subject to. After surmounting the conventional "I am not doing that!" they are unable to resist the vibrancy of the music and the freedom of the steps - they immerse themselves in the rhythm and make it their own.

People find it interesting, not only in terms of learning from other cultures- each god and goddess represents an element, a characteristic of humanness, e.g. Yemanja is the goddess of the sea and represents some aspects of womanhood; Xango is the god of thunder and represents courage and some aspects of manhood; Oxum is the goddess of fresh water and represents beauty and vanity - but also in the sense that it provides the basis for a very enjoyable, fresh and open minded approach to dance and keep fit.

These narratives provide a safe framework for participants to learn the moves with ease. At times it can be frustrating when one cannot move one's arms or legs 'correctly,' but this anxiety gives way with the realisation that what is important is the feeling behind the move, and how we engage with other people in the process.

The advantages of these traditions, which I often teach in fusion with other styles such as flamenco and street, are that they focus on elements that travel through borders, geographically and historically, calling to an older order where people related to nature and to each other. These styles can be taught very well with other arts disciplines, such as singing and music making. The nub of the issue is letting oneself go within a safe environment provided by the story of the tradition, and developing our own creativity within it. This is not done without resistance. Some people do not feel loose enough to followthe steps and at least initially they are still compelled to move within a dance culture that calls to perform, paying too much attention to how they look rather than how they feel. Other people react in the opposite way by completely abandoning the steps and doing their freestyle. None of these reactions are wrong or right. They bring up issues around being comfortable with ourselves, our communities and our environment.

I have found that these traditions coming from the African Diaspora give support to the individual and group, enabling the development of technique and creativity, whilst allowing dance to been joyable. In these traditions dance is a group activity and a cause for celebration.

Whatever the age and background, participants are able to surmount physical and mental resistance to dance within traditions that are very different to their own. Perhaps this offers a new way for people to look at dance, group interaction and themselves.Belonging to one nationality or another is not a reason to enjoy, or not enjoy dance. It depends on each individual's will to embrace the good and the not so good in all of us, to work with the difference and have fun in the process.

contact rosaria.gracia@googlemail.com

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Animated: Winter 2008