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Animated Edition - Summer 2004
Urban myths - a rumble in the jungle
Amanda Roberts, Director of Derby Dance Centre describes Urban Myths a rolling three-year development programme, which seeks to harness the incredibly strong influence urban culture has on contemporary culture as a whole. The project has been in development for many years, but was launched in April 2004
Background
From its inception, based at Derby Playhouse before moving to its dedicated space, which opened in 1998, Derby Dance Centre (DDC) has retained its roots in community dance building a strong reputation for work with young people.

We currently house four youth dance companies, run popular regular class programmes, holiday activities and support groups across the City, Derbyshire County and East Staffordshire. Our outreach work includes one off visits, is project based, or is part of a longer lasting partnerships, and often extends to those perceived "hard to reach"; excluded individuals and groups with limited access to, and little or no experience of, dance provision. This work has led us into partnerships with Youth Offending and Derby's Pupil Referral Unit, with whom we developed the UK's first Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) accredited qualification in Breakdance.

When I joined the Centre in 2002 it was apparent that the demand for break or street dance was more than Leonard Jackson, my experienced dance worker, could deliver. Although we had strong links with local and national B*Boys & B*Girls, we had to ask what level of support and training needed to be in place? Particularly when urban artists are more comfortable earning money competing or simply living & breathing Hip Hop, where the natural passing on of skills is done within a crew rather than in the more formalised teaching setting of a studio space?

Demand for this style of work was also increasing in urban, suburban and rural communities, where arts officers and youth & community workers wanted dance - and the arts in general - to address diversity. Rural communities in particular ask us to introduce "diversity" and, more frequently, contemporary youth culture. They are seeking to develop cultural awareness by the introduction of diverse styles within communities with little or no Black & Minority Ethnic (BME) make-up, or to address the particular cultural needs of possible clusters of BME groups. At DDC we began to investigate ways of connecting communities. As well as introducing diversity, this style of work engages young people with dance. Youth culture, regardless of location, has a very strong interest to embrace the values and aspirations determined by the phenomenon that is Hip Hop.

If DDC was to start to meet demand and continue to nurture emerging talent, as well as and advance the form, we needed to explore new approaches to engage young people and consider different ways of developing the strands of urban dance which, until this point, had stood as an isolated art form. The result is Urban Myths.

What is Urban Myths?
Urban Myths is currently led by DDC, but is a partnership between local, regional and national individuals, agencies, organisations and support services. It provides a focal point for the sheer phenomenon that is Hip Hop, allowing us to advance the form on a community, mainstream and commercial level. This allows us to work in a strategic way, helping to build a sustainable infrastructure to support the growth of urban talent in a supportive creative climate. We are building a positive framework for performance, exhibition, learning and development that directly appeals to the diverse base of participants and audiences for this work.

Urban Myths addresses all the components embedded in urban culture - dance, music, spoken word, graffiti art and urban sports such as skateboarding and BMXing. The interdependency of dance and music in this form is particularly important, a relationship we were struggling to divorce. With this in mind we have embarked on a journey to link dance and music education that has, over the past 18 months, led to the development of a relationship with Birmingham based music organisation Punch Records.

Led by Ammo Talwar, Punch Records is a perfect example of an urban hub organisation; their associated artists span community and commercial worlds. Originally a record shop based in Perry Barr, Punch began delivering DJ workshops in 1999, developing a regional, and increasingly national, reputation for high quality education work. The collective includes professional DJ's, lyricists, studio engineers, filmmakers and writers.

As our relationship developed, Punch artists began to value the steps DDC were making to positively engage and develop "urban" talent and, perhaps more importantly, how we linked our outreach programmes to physical access at the Centre itself. It challenged their preconceptions of what a 'contemporary dance centre' is, and whom it can be for. We provide an environment where a wide range of young people feel comfortable, are encouraged to express themselves and can just enjoy hanging out with their friends.

It became increasingly apparent that there was a lot of commonality in our shared agendas. We had mutual respect for each other's work, matched by a readiness to connect with different communities. This connection is particularly relevant to the work in East Staffordshire where we both frequently work with specific BME groups who are deemed better placed to respond to the urban dance & music forms we offer. What was apparent, however, is that these minority groups didn't often have a shared meeting point, with Punch and DDC delivering independently to develop the same young people.

It was apparent that music and dance in urban culture could not stand alone; however, neither organisation had a real understanding of the others' art form and, as yet, had not had an opportunity to test the boundaries or potential of our joint education work and professional development. The choice of the art form that would need to take prominence would become an interesting artistic and partnership tension.

Concrete jungle
The outcome of our increasing desire to work on collaborative projects led to Concrete Jungle, presented under the Urban Myths banner. This project began in February 2004 and was financially supported by an Arts Council West Midlands BME Dance & Theatre Award and East Staffordshire Borough Council.

The project offered:

  • Taster dance and music workshops delivered separately and combined to new and existing youth groups
  • An intense residency to an existing group based at Utoxeter, led by DDC artist in residence Irven Lewis and Punch percussionist Andy Mason
  • Tour the Floor, an intense residency led by DDC's Dance Worker Leonard Jackson
  • A commission for Irven Lewis to lead a joint hothouse for professional dancers and Punch artists
  • A shared performance of community and professional work drawing on a mix of groups from Derby, Utoxeter, Burton & Chapel en le Frith, High Peak.

We were particularly excited about the hothouse commission, although we were aware of potential conflicts that could have arisen during the process.

"[Dance education] is a different beast - the process of how people learn, with dance at forefront of the education work; the approach of the dance artists is more structured whereas my artists and engineers are more freestyle and flexible in their approach to sessions. This is about pushing the artists, giving them and opportunity to enter an area of unknown led by a choreographer who had gained their respect." Ammo Talwar, Director Punch Records.

Irven Lewis, DDC's artist in residence, was specifically chosen as choreographer as it was felt that he would be able to break down potential barriers. He proved an excellent choice; Punch artists and young people could relate to him partly because of his career path. His initial training was in the unorthodox setting of clubs in Leeds before his formal training at Northern School for Contemporary Dance. He blends a wide range of forms, including urban, jazz and contemporary. His versatility proved essential; he was able to utilise the diverse musical base provided by Punch.

Artists from Punch's side of the table were lyricist Juice Aleem, Beat boxer Mad Flow, Percussionist Andy Mason & DJ Moyo. Punch artists are used to being at the forefront of delivery and were in the unusual position of being led by dance. As an observer to the education and hothouse process, it was interesting seeing the struggle between the choreographer and the musicians, who normally dominate in club / performance context.

The initial mutual uncertainty was overcome when both sides realised that not only was contemporary dance offering something relevant to the musicians, but it was also finding a way to connect to, and be influenced, by the range of beats, breaks, scratches & sounds the versatile human, instrumental & mechanical devices were producing. What emerged wasn't just a soundscape to act as an accompaniment to the dance performance, but a performance where the vocals and lyrics informed and reacted with the movement to form an essential part of the dynamic of the piece.

The professional work challenged the young participants' and audience's perceptions of what urban arts and artists can be, and say. The package offered sustained access to positive role models, not just role models as artists, but role models as Black British males & females. This is particularly relevant to even the most "urbanised" areas of East Staffordshire, where the visibility of the Black community is limited. The relationships formed with the artists, and the dialogue outside of the delivery sessions, are vital; they break misconceptions people may have about Black culture, particularly when their only reference point is the gangsta bling lifestyle MTV offers them.

The holistic nature of the programme is one of the reasons the project proved to be such a success. Having the programme run over a six-month period allowed us to be strategic in the delivery of the education strand of the work; every diverse element fed, somehow, into another. This is unusual in the delivery of work in rural settings where the funding favours one off projects. The portable elements of the dance & music happenings such as the Tour the Floor, a touring street dance lecture demonstration, allowed professional artists to interact with a variety of youth groups from across East Staffordshire. It is unusual for us to be able to travel to such isolated areas, and the kudos and confidence building factors for these communities cannot be underestimated.

Punch and DDC will continue to collaborate, albeit mainly in professional terms, joining us at The Hip Hop Happening, in Normanton Park, Derby on Saturday 31 July. Perhaps the most important legacy from our short rumble in the jungle is the establishment of artistic dialogue, recognising the difference in planning and delivering collaborative "urban" forms. The recognition of joined up thinking with all our partners will lead to strategic investment to aid the cultural and personal learning of young people within and across their own communities.

For more information about Derby Dance Centre's work contact Amanda Roberts, Director on 01332 370911 or email: amanda.roberts@derbydance.co.uk For information about Punch Records contact Ammo Talwar, Director on 0121 2247444 or see www.punch-records.co.uk

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Animated: Summer 2004