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The future of Black British Dance
Animated, Autumn 1998. Do more career opportunities exist for black dancers as we approach the millennium? Deborah Baddoo reports back on The Association of Dance of the African Diaspora's recent seminar
Take four distinguished black dance artists, who have consistently managed to maintain themselves in dance related employment throughout their careers - Namron (Founder Member of London Contemporary Dance Theatre, currently on the teaching faculty of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance), Thea Barnes (Artistic Director of Phoenix Dance Company), Leon Robinson (former dancer and independent film maker and archivist), and Jackie Guy (former Director of Kokuma Dance Theatre Company, freelance choreographer and director of Britain's first fulltime foundation course in African and Caribbean dance developed in liaison with Irie! Dance Theatre Company). Add a wide cross section of enthusiasts from students and newly qualified dancers through to administrators, academics, experienced artists and dance development workers; recruit a proficient chair, Kenneth Tharp (long-term member of London Contemporary Dance Theatre, and currently an independent freelance dancer, choreographer and teacher) and you have the makings of an extremely lively debate on the future of black British dance.

The panels' collective experience as practicing black artists highlighted a number of common experiences that they had encountered during the course of their careers - particularly the importance of appreciating their cultural history - the roots of black dance emanating from Africa, and their own artistic lineage. Whilst issues of cultural identity were raised, all felt comfortable with their own personal approaches, interpretations and responses to the artform, and were in agreement that these should inform practice rather than overwhelm it. Although it was acknowledged that for today's black dancers a number of discreet agendas exist not only within the funding system and its inherent workings, but with audience expectation as to what constitutes black dance and in particular what roles and issues it perceives black artists can tackle or portray. Something Barnes empathises with, for although a former soloist with the Martha Graham Company, she confesses that she was often seen as eligible for roles such as the Maid in Seraphic Dialogue, but not as the Bride in Appalachian Spring.

Jackie Guy offered his perspective of the 'black British dance experience' highlighting his belief that black dance can become relevant to black British people, especially the young, if they are exposed to the social, historical and cultural perspectives of the form. He spoke of the black dancers of the present as, "making a quest for identity and seeking an opportunity for self expression" (1), and emphasised the need for more training and resources to be devoted to this.

The plight of the black dance student was raised who has, for far too long, had to study within the constraints of Western contemporary dance forms and be judged physically and aesthetically by the rigid criteria often imposed by dance training establishments (where there is a tendency not to acknowledge individuality if it falls outside restrictive cultural boundaries). A view shared by the audience who were in agreement that black dancers are relentlessly cajoled to pointe their feet or straighten their spines, when it is abundantly clear that their physiology does not lend itself easily to the rigid codes of practice within these establishments.

And so it was felt that the time had come for a new black dance aesthetic - with a language and strength of voice that can compete with the current contemporary dance study that is on offer.

Barnes also considered it essential that younger dancers be given latitude to learn the difference between what she termed as 'assimilation and appropriation', through access to black dance resources, in order that they may learn to synthesise their experience, rather than simply regurgitate what they have learnt. This would further facilitate the development of a black dance language which could be embraced as the forms own medium, thus creating a more powerful and relevant means of communication and statement as to what black dance is about.

Further factors highlighted by panel members as being essential ingredients of success (and applicable to all dance genres and cultures) was 'strength of character' and true conviction in one's chosen career. As Robinson stated, he "came into dance (and stayed within the industry) because if you want something hard enough, by hook or by crook you will do it." (2) Sentiments understood and accepted by some audience members, but challenged by others who felt it their right to have paid employment - adamant that a career in dance should not be a constant struggle, dependent on personal sacrifice and self resourcing.

However, panel members and audience alike were unanimous in their opinion that being resourceful and utilising what Barnes termed as 'entrepreneurial skills' were an essential prerequisite to being a dancer irrespective of background or style. So too, was the desire, expectation, optimism and resolution of black dancers to remain within the dance industry for the entirety of their career.

Nevertheless, the consensus was that there are still fewer opportunities for employment for black dancers in todays' industry, although the pressures of poor employment prospects for dance artists are not exclusive to the black dance community. Tharp echoed this, deliberating that the pattern had changed for the whole dance economy over the past 15 years. During the 80s boom there had been more diverse opportunities for dancers with a proliferation of jazz and contemporary dance companies and musicals. Contracts too differed - nowadays, even in established companies they are no longer permanent, some are short-term, but most are freelance.

With the existence of only one large-scale black dance company in the UK and a handful of other funded organisations, the career route into an established enterprise is severely curtailed. Tight budgetary control also limits the numbers of dancers' companies are able to viably employ. However, the picture is not entirely bleak as there are opportunities for employment both within the regions and in Europe. Although the audience expressed their frustration that dance appeared to be taken less seriously as a career option in Britain's arts economy and considered it unsatisfactory that dancers should have to leave the country in order to find professional performance work.

A sentiment echoed by Namron as he spoke of the difficulties he experiences, and regrets he feels, when priming new black dancers as they leave the Northern School of Contemporary Dance at the start of their professional careers: "They have hopes and aspirations," he said, "but the reality is that they are unlikely to get a job at the end of all their hard work and training." (3)

Panel members and audience alike were unanimous in their aspiration for a more imaginative approach to funding, and for the need to fight collectively to redress the balance. But how, in the shifting economic climate, can this be achieved?

One suggestion was to seek financial support from black businesses or patronage for philanthropic individuals, as it is a funding source that is relatively untapped. It was also muted that in order for black dance to take a more central rule in the dance economy, there is a need for increased opportunities to research, articulate and experiment. Currently colleges and universities running dance courses have minimal information or resources on black dance - a deficit, which The Association of Dance of the African Diaspora hopes to go some way towards addressing with its new publication Articles and Interviews in Black Dance in the UK and its plans for a Black Dance Roadshow.

Prevailing cultural attitudes, funding structures, economic restraints, poor training resource provision and lack of job opportunities are all issues that face black dancers. However, although it is still early days, some of these are starting to be addressed. Training courses are being introduced, such as Irie!'s African and Caribbean Dance Foundation Course at the City of London College, and the Black Choreographic Initiative, funded by the Arts Council of England and three regional arts boards, which has provided invaluable support and development for eight choreographers who are at the cutting edge of black British dance. Such enterprises, when combined with and supported by, a range of networking opportunities, like this seminar, will undoubtedly act as catalyst in uniting and strengthening our voice and in the creation of a forum for black dancers to exchange ideas and information.

Ultimately, if we are to amplify existing strategic projects and are to continue to build an infrastructure, increased financial input is essential. With an emerging new language and points of reference, black dance will be enabled to celebrate and develop its cultural identity, eradicate barriers, create new opportunities for black dancers and be of long-term benefit to the artform.

Deborah Baddoo, Director, The Association of Dance of the African Diaspora and Freelance Dance Consultant and Performer. For more information or to became a member of ADAD contact +44 (0)1458 253264.

1 Guy, Jackie, South Bank, London, 1998.
2 Robinson, Leon, Ibid.
3 Namron, Ibid.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001