The UK development organisation and membership
body for community and participatory dance
Animated Edition - Spring 2005
Why dance...?
Jeremy Spafford asks his fellow dancers from DugOut, an adult community contemporary dance group
After a long day at work and the trudge home on a cold grey February evening, a warm fire, a big glass of wine and an evening of undemanding telly seem just the ticket. So why drag yourself out to a church hall to leap about and roll around on the floor to music? After all, we're grown ups, aren't we?

Children, left to their own devices, will run, jump, roll, bump into and stroke one another; they will invent scenarios, develop and divert story lines; they will play and play and play. We know that we learn skills and develop creativity and social confidence through play. Yet, once we get to school, playfulness becomes something that is only allowed at certain times: it is separated off from the more important business of work. And so it goes on until, as adults, the opportunity to make things up or run around or try something out or bump into one another are severely limited.

Dance, however, allows us to play. We can shed all the rules and inhibitions of ordinary life and, with the right tuition, discover less cluttered and more straightforward ways of being ourselves without words and without the usual rules of personal space. As Suzette, a dancer with DugOut says, dance 'is the most fun you can have with (most of) your clothes on.' Indeed, one sound you can guarantee to hear from a DugOut class is laughter - not a polite titter but a truly eye watering belly laugh.

DugOut is an adult community dance group in Oxford led by Cecilia Macfarlane. It has 25 regular participants most of whom had no formal dance experience before they joined, though a few did ballet and tap when they were children. Originally delivered through the community adult education programme, the group had to branch out two years ago because nobody wanted to leave: none of us could say we had learnt to dance, because through dance the learning never seems to end. The reasons for the name are buried in the mists of time, but there are resonances of escape, down to earth, shelter, a community held in space and time - which we hold dear.

Ursula is nearly 85 and started dancing when she was 77. She dances because 'it makes me feel irresponsible and younger'. Another dancer develops this sense of discovery and immediacy: 'it is creative without having to explain or justify anything - combining a sense of physical and emotional freedom.' Leslie describes dance as good for his health simply because it makes him smile.

So we dance because it is fun and, through the laughter and playfulness, we rediscover the child in each of us. But there is more.

Penny, 44, describes the 'liberating feeling when the body takes over from the brain as it can do in the taught sequences and when travelling across the space using improvised movement.'

Val is 67 and has been dancing with DugOut for 7 years: 'I have often wondered about the source of the feel-good after-effects of dancing, even when at the start of the evening I am sure I am too tired to dance. I think it is because when dancing, I live totally in the present. I am not anticipating tomorrow or regretting today - I am totally in the now! Also the music, the challenge, the laughter, the creativity, the physical exercise all combine to affirm my self image as 'doing OK' despite the ageing process.'

The creativity is crucial. We are not simply exercising or learning steps (though we do that), we are also researching ways of expressing how we feel about ourselves and the world and then refining our movements with care and attention. Despite the laughter and playfulness, it is wonderful to watch the seriousness with which members of the group will approach a dance task or performance. It feels as if it really matters.

Naomi, aged 24, confirms a simple but important truth: 'it keeps me fit.' The exercise is important. One dancer describes how 'it extends me and leads me to adopt better posture and movement... it enabled me to cope with a severe and chronic disc problem.' Richard is 51 and has only been with the group for 4 months: 'it moves and stretches all the parts of my body that I like to see moved and stretched.' Many members echo Fran's observation that 'I always leave feeling energised even if I've arrived tired. I am hopeless with gym and formalising the exercise experience.'

The group consists of men and women aged 24 to 84, of all shapes and sizes, abilities and limitations who return week after week, term after term. And it is not just a class: the group performs annually and this year is touring to four venues with a performance based workshop called Wraps, Riddles and Rhymes which will culminate in a gala performance at Pegasus Theatre in Oxford showcasing not only the work of the group but also that of the people joining their workshops.

How is it possible for ordinary folk with no particular history of dance to find this confidence to move together, choreograph and perform? The answer lies in the group and in its leader. A group works well if it is led well and Cecilia Macfarlane combines an authoritative commitment to artistic integrity with a celebratory inclusive style:

'It provides the opportunity for both self-engagement and sharing. It never feels competitive. We can choose to be solitary or collaborative. The group has a genuine sense of shared responsibility and a caring quality so it tends not to feel burdensome, while being inclusive and satisfying... and it's different to thinking all day.'

'I keep coming back to DugOut because of Cecilia and the other people who go there, even though I don't know them that well, I always feel welcomed.'

"...constant encouragement and appreciation of our efforts; her confidence in us as creative dancers capable of surprisingly (to me) proficient performances; the whole becomes greater than the sum of the individual parts and it is wonderful!'

So we dance because we like to play, we like to express ourselves in new ways, we feel better for it, we enjoy being part of a supportive group and we relish the challenges set by our teacher. Fran pleads for 'it to be more acceptable for middle-aged people like me to dance. There are too few places for us to dance!' And, when asked why she keeps coming back, 84 year old Ursula replies 'because I'm not yet dead.'

Jeremy and DugOut were featured in Dancing Nation, a film by Rosemary Lee and Peter Anderson, produced by the Foundation for Community Dance in 2001. For more information about DugOut contact ceciliamacfarlane@talk21.com

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Animated: Spring 2005