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Animated Edition - Autumn 2005
Slow dancer: moving in the material world
An adaptation of a paper by writer, researcher and consultant François Matarasso (1) given as the keynote speech at the Country Dancing? symposium, May 2005
Why dance?
Dance, like all the arts, can be practiced in many ways and with varying degrees of distinction. It has art's basic function of articulating the values that people use to create meaning in their lives. That, simply put, is the defining characteristic of what, in Western culture, is called art: it expresses and communicates values. (People have trouble recognising art now partly because they lack a strong, shared value system, so what one person understands as a compelling expression of how they understand the world is meaningless, or worse, to another.) Each artform does that in different ways, and those ways also carry meanings and values. A form, evolving over thousands of years, develops a genetic programming which makes it act in specific ways, and express some core beliefs. It is like the body, with its inherent capacities and limitations.

The dancer's task, like that of all artists, is to work with the body of their artform, stretching it in new directions while respecting its limits. You can only do certain things with dance, as you can only do certain things with music and visual art and theatre; and it is in its specificity that the character and value of each art form can best be understood. So it is appropriate to begin considering some of what make dance what it is - those aspects that are unique, or almost so, to itself.

To begin with the obvious, dance is the most physical of art forms. It needs nothing but the body - no costumes, no props, no music; it doesn't even need the whole body. As a form that is inseparable from the physical presence of a person, and whose language is rooted in the communicability of experience through movement, it is essentially humanist. It claims, by its very presence, respect for the physical integrity of the person, and their autonomy of action. It values the individual, by focusing attention on them directly; and it values cooperation between individuals.

Whatever else it may express, dance values health and life in the present, celebrating the human animal's being and worth. Although, in some forms, dance has become tyrannical in its pursuit of certain ideals of physical beauty, one of the most heartening aspects of its recent evolution has been the recognition that people with all kinds of physiques and of all ages can be marvellous dancers. As Fergus Early has written, 'We who are working with dance and older people are challenging the general misunderstanding [...] that ageing is about the failure and disintegration of the body.' (2) The acceptance of wheelchair users, blind people or elders in contemporary dance has enormously enriched its language. However abstract or complex the ideas in a dance performance become, they cannot escape - indeed cannot want to escape - the physical reality of the performer and their humanity. Because the body is the medium of dance, it is also necessarily its subject. And what a subject: there is nothing it does not touch, from ethical questions of how the body is used and by whom, to philosophical speculations about the nature of existence. Understanding of the body is now being interrogated in new ways as a result of medical and genetic advances; dance will help define what it is in future and, more importantly, champion its integrity in the face of attack, whether from natural causes of nutrition, disease and age, or from human ones like war, terror and torture. It can do that because dance is an art that, in the end, always comes down to what someone can communicate through gesture, expression and movement: and that is the most fundamental human interaction.

Secondly, dance has a fundamentally spatial character. It was a little sweeping to say earlier that dance needs only the body: clearly, it also needs space within which to move. In that sense, it is the original site-specific art form. Unlike theatre and music, it is not constrained by acoustic considerations, and unlike them, it must define and use space as an integral part of its language: hence the absurdity of dance on radio, which has done so much for the other performing arts in the 20th century. Dance also defines space in other ways, by using it in unfamiliar ways, by re-imagining it as other than it is, by changing awareness of its possibilities. A dance performance in a disaffected church, a cattle yard or a street is not only different in itself; it changes the sites of its creation.

Thirdly, dance takes time as well as space. Like other performing arts, it cannot exist in three dimensions. Unlike theatre and music, it has been difficult until relatively recently, to record it by writing it down. It has therefore been an essentially oral and physical practice for most of its existence, depending on people directly passing on movements, ideas, forms and narratives to other people. That, of course, is very appropriate, and has helped keep dance among people, when other art forms have become intensely professionalized or taken up the academy, albeit at the cost of a comparatively reduced critical hinterland. The development of time-based media, notably film and video, is changing that, making it easier to build up the material that makes external study and organisation possible, and there have been consequent changes in how dance is taught, studied and analysed. But every artist and every audience member knows that the record is not the experience, and, though some artists are exploring the potential of dance film, the importance of the actual lived reality seems to be more important than ever.

Another key characteristic of dance is its essential sociability. Dance is probably the most widespread artistic activity in this country (by which I don't mean to suggest, as some have done, that all movement equates to dance). (3) Millions of people dance regularly in clubs, community centres, retirement homes, sports centres, village halls, arts venues, schools and dozens of other places. They dance in all sorts of styles, with little sense of exclusion because of culture, education or ethnicity. They don't need public funding or encouragement: they do it independently, out of choice, for the fun and pleasure of dancing. They mostly don't care about how good they are, though in some areas they are focused on getting better, because, with obvious exceptions, dance is not competitive. It is a vital component of social interaction. Artists working in other forms may dream about making their work central to everyday life: dance has never been anything else.

Finally, dance shares with other art forms the wonderful characteristic of ambiguity, but filtered through its other characteristics of physicality, spatial and temporal constraints and sociability. Ambiguity is essential in human affairs: it allows people to explore multiple perspectives. It allows people to test alternative realities knowing that there is a safe exit. It encourages people to see that there is more than one way to see the world - which is one reason why repressive regimes and demagogues do not like art. Dance, with its physical, non-verbal qualities has always had the capacity to stretch the limits of social tolerance, from the Dionysian bacchanalia that threatened classical order to the all-night raves that disturbed some country people in the 1990s. (4) The ambiguity and deniability of social dancing, at least in Western culture, is an essential part of how people decide what they feel about each other: if it didn't exist, it would have to be invented.

Why in the country?
Country Dancing? is about dance in rural areas, or dance away from the urban centres, which is not necessarily the same thing. So one key question is how dance may be different in rural areas than in town. But before considering that, it would be sensible to establish some parameters to the concept of rural areas. One of the besetting problems in this discussion is that we remain trapped in a cultural idea inherited from the classical Greece and Rome, which presents a simple dualistic opposition between town and country: urbs and rus, the origins of the terms urban and rural. In this framework, the city has the attributes of dynamism, diversity, creativity and modernity, while the rural is left with quiet, backwardness and tradition. But, if this was ever true, it is not today, in this society. First of all, rather than a simple polarity between rural and urban, England is a 'lumpy, multidimensional continuum' (5) that includes immensely varied kinds of places and communities, from remote hill-farming districts to prosperous suburban villages, or from former mining communities to industrialised farmland. There is not one rural, any more than there is one urban, and even within an individual village, there may be wide economic, social and, above all, cultural differences. At the same time, there is greater inter-connection between town and country than ever before, with people who live in one area working in another, as well as commercial and social connections. What is most important, in a discussion about art, is that there is no reason to think that rural audiences have intrinsically different tastes or cultural values from urban ones. People who live in rural areas form a large part of the audience at urban venues: about 45% of Nottingham Playhouse's audience comes from the county, rather than the city. That traffic flows the other way too, with the audience at rural venues and festivals often including people from towns, visitors and holidaymakers.

So it is essential to understand rural areas as highly diverse parts of the complex, interdependent social landscape of Britain today, not as isolated backwaters with strange ways. Given that, it should be expected that they are changing: after all, the rest of the country is changing very fast, and there is no reason - except that old cultural idea of the timeless serenity of the country - to think that rural communities are immune. But that change also shows as much diversity as any other aspect of rural life. The restructuring of the agricultural industry is certainly a distinctively rural business, but its pattern is very different in upland pastoral areas and in fenland vegetable farms. Likewise, different social, geographic and economic factors will affect the kind of new opportunities available and how people are dealing with that change. The first task of an artist wishing to work within and with a rural community, therefore, must be to understand it. Of course, that is true of any community, but a rural area is easily mistaken for familiar ground: in fact, diversity, movement and change all make the territory much more unstable than it might appear.

In recent years, there has been a remarkable growth in the quantity, variety and quality of the arts in rural areas. The reasons are varied and include issues of quality of life, cost, culture, personal ties and so on. But important among them is an interest in some of the cultural, ethical and political issues that characterise rural England today. Questions of the environment, landscape, the culture of food, the pace of life, community, among others, are distinct and acute in rural areas, and artists have used them as a focus for their work. The recent exhibition by Jenny Graham and Pauline Rook documenting change in Somerset farming life is a characteristic example; there are many, many others. (6) These works document and reflect on the historic change now happening in rural areas and, in doing so, they play a vital artistic role of questioning who we are and what we are doing.

Another dimension of artists' engagement with rural areas relates directly to the changes and pressures faced by rural communities. In addition to the contribution they make simply by living and working in rural areas, artists are also engaged in projects concerned with farm diversification, cultural tourism, community development and above all, perhaps, working to bring the arts within reach of the many people in rural areas who have limited or no access to them otherwise. (7) Again, there are many examples, but the growth of rural touring is notable in the context of dance. There are now at least 37 touring schemes, which, between them, promoted 3,500 professional shows last year, for a total audience of about a quarter of a million people. (8) The contribution they make in bringing performing arts, including dance, to new audiences is outstanding: about a third of the audience does not see the arts except in this context. (9) But the value of this work does not end there: it makes an important contribution to the local community by bringing people together and creating shared experiences. It is also a significant contributor to community development, supporting village halls financially and encouraging the development of other local arts activity.

It is evident that artists have found a rich soil in rural areas, in which their work is thriving artistically and in other ways, and through which they are shaping people's understanding of changing rural life, and contributing to its renewal economically, socially and culturally. And dance is a vital part of that new rural arts ecosystem.

What is different about dance in the country?
So what, for dance artists, is different about working in a rural area, compared to a city? Perhaps less than at first sight appears. Both town and country are places of rapid change, albeit different in nature. Both have diverse populations, in terms of culture, values and lifestyle, though again, there are wide differences in that diversity. There is not even anything essentially rural about site-specific work. In New York, that quintessential urban space, Dancing in the Streets exists to 'illuminate the urban experience with groundbreaking public performances that evoke the poetic essence and vitality of natural, architectural and public spaces'. (10) In fact, the differences between town and country are like those one might expect between any two places, any two communities and with continuing change the ancient polarity of town and country will diminish further. Rather than seeing a simple division between an urban culture and a rural one, it would be better to see society as an uneven mosaic of overlapping identities expressed through culture, in which people's sense of connection and distance may vary widely in different parts of their lives.

That said, there are some key factors, some areas of common difference, that influence how work is made in rural areas. Most obviously, there is a lack of infrastructure for art production, distribution and presentation. There are few purpose-built arts venues, and rehearsal spaces are often inadequate, though Dance South West's research has shown that even this is changing, thanks in part to Lottery-funded refurbishment of village halls. (11) Marketing networks, where they exist, operate very differently. Artists based in rural areas, particularly performers, can feel very isolated - it is harder to see work and keep up with peers: social life is very different. It is also easy to feel that work done in a rural area is simply not noticed by the wider world, however positive the audience's response. It's true that critics rarely go beyond the metropolitan centres where it is assumed the best work will be, but how accurately can the story of dance be told, if important parts are not seen, still less understood in their own terms? There is an audience for the arts, and it is growing for various reasons, not least the growth of the rural population itself; but it is dispersed, and while some people can and will travel, others find it difficult even to get to the next village.

All these factors combine to making living and working as a dance artist in a rural area distinctively different, if not actually difficult. But, remarkably, things that were once seen simply as problems are being re-imagined as opportunities - not in a naïve, Panglossian sense, but as a new territory for artistic experiment and innovation. Thus, while some rurally based artists feel isolated, others celebrate the space and freedom to create at a distance from the dominant centres of their artform. Likewise, the weaknesses of rural venues are being transformed into an extraordinary strength, enabling artists to renew the relationship between themselves and their audience and challenge the increasingly commercial values that influence how art is made and engaged with in urban areas.

Almost every rural dance performance happens in a space that was not designed for it - a village hall, a chapel, a garden or a beach. There are two ways to respond to that situation. One is to try to bring the space as close as possible to the conditions available in a theatre or dance studio: that is the strategy some performers still adopt when faced with a village hall. But it is impossible to achieve fully: even if lighting and acoustics can be improved, there will be problems with sightlines, heating and similar things. But more importantly, the audience knows that it is in the village hall, and has the expectations and ways of being that come with that space. In fact, the most successful performances are those that accept the character of the space - in its strengths as well as its limitations - working with it to create experiences that are unique to the time and place. And temporary or multi-use spaces have some distinct advantages over purpose-built ones. They are often intimate, creating not only close bonds between artist and audience, but opening both to new risks and challenges. Because the space is not owned by the artists - unlike a theatre or arts centre - they are obliged to engage in subtle, often unspoken negotiations about how it can be used. The process of making meaning, of creating and expressing values, thus becomes shared in a much more complex and democratic way than in an urban venue, where the audience is limited to approving or rejecting what is offered.

At the same time, the economics of rural arts operate in very different ways from their urban counterparts. Venues are small, or sometimes very big, but with no effective way of restricting admission. Price sensitivity is much greater, partly because of facilities, and partly because of expectations. The costs for artists are often higher, because of transport, accommodation and the need to bring in technical support. The time involved - for audience members as well as for performers and crew - is often much greater. But some of these liabilities are offset by people's willingness to donate time, spaces, transport, materials and effort: the place of voluntarism is altogether different where rural arts are concerned. All that adds up to a quite different way of doing things, a way which has costs, but which values the time, effort and gifts that maybe involved. In other words, it takes more commitment on all sides, but rewards that commitment with experiences that are unique and often memorable: you have to be there.

At their best, dancers and other artists working in rural areas are renewing art itself by developing a kind of 'slow art' practice that parallels the slow food movement. (12) Its characteristics are:

A preference for the distinctive rewards of live rather than mediated experience; Recognition of effort and commitment, which is within reach of all, as integral to the value of the experience and the outcomes; Respect for the audience as collaborators in the creation of meaning and the designation of value; An implicit, and sometimes stated, concern with the ethical dimension of practice arising from working in partnership, and in other people's spaces; And a new economic structure based less in consumption than in cooperative production.

Of course, like rurality itself, the concept of slowness presents a challenge to urban orthodoxies, and so can find itself caricatured by a world that uses speed and pressure as symbols of importance. (13) But slow art does not need or seek to replace other ways of working; rather it explores methods with intrinsic value and the capacity to engage with dominant norms. Slow dance, in tying itself to place and time, to relationship and ethical considerations, to new forms of artistic economy and practice, is an important and distinctive element of contemporary dance. It renews the essential concerns of dance as the art form of the body, located always in the material world, but it challenges the materialism of that world as it is now constituted, valuing experience and the lived moment, over acquisition. It is not limited to rural areas, but their particular circumstances have encouraged and facilitated its development. Far from being out of touch or limited, as it is still too often perceived, dance in rural areas is opening up new paths that may prove to be among the most travelled - whether in town or country - in years to come.

(1) François Matarasso is an independent writer, researcher and consultant. Since 1994, after 14 years as an artist and manager in community arts, he has focused on project support and research, including work on the impact of the arts. He continues to work on cultural programmes, maintaining the link between ideas and practice. He has undertaken work for international and national agencies, local authorities, NGOs, foundations and cultural bodies in Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa; his work has been widely published and translated.

(2) Moving Age Symposium 1999 Proceedings Document, Institute for Choreography and Dance, Cork, Ireland, (1999)

(3) Cf. Havelock Ellis (1923) The Dance of Life, Boston.

(4) Dance is the defining (and ultimately terrible) centre of the Dionysian rites described in Euripides' Bacchae. In 186BCE, the Roman Senate passed a decree severely restricting bacchanalia, with limited success, a measure paralleled by the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act that was, in part, a reaction against rave parties in which large bodies of people took over fields.

(5) 'Defining Periurban: Understanding Rural-Urban Linkages and Their Connection to Institutional Contexts,' David L. Iaquinta and Axel W. Drescher; presented at the 10th World Congress IRSA, Rio, August 1, 2000.


(7) Shute Farm Studio, near Shepton Mallet in Somerset, is a local example of how the arts are contributing to diversification of the rural economy by extending access to disadvantaged people and developing understanding of agriculture:

(8) Figures for 2004/05 from the National Rural Touring Forum,

(9) Matarasso, F. (2004) Only Connect: Arts Touring and Rural Communities, Stroud: Comedia, p. 60-61; available to download free from:


(11) Dance South West commissioned research that identified over 300 village halls in South West England that are suitable for receiving dance performances:


(13) Honoré, Carl (2005) In Praise of Slow, London: Orion, p.49.

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Animated: Autumn 2005