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Every Body Dances
Ken Bartlett explores the challenge to the western European tradition of who is and can be a dance artist.

Ken Bartlett, Presentation, Barcelona

 

I’m grateful to my dear friend and colleague Bush Hartshorne for providing a starting point for my presentation.

 

Bush was, until recently the artistic Director of Yorkshire Dance one of 10 National dance Agencies in England charged with the development of professional dance practice and widening access to and participation in the art of dance in the English regions.

 

Yorkshire Dance’s legend is:

 

Everybody Dances

 

In this seemingly simple phrase are held a depth of values and ideas about  the relationship of people to dance as an art form and dance to people. A simple English reading of the phrase would be that we all dance. However, if we split the first word and make it:

 

Every      Body    Dances

 

It presents a more significant challenge to the western European tradition of who is and can be a dance artist, who we can include in our dances and whose stories and voices can be portrayed and heard in the dance. It also challenges which categories of bodies we can include in the dance we want to make and as a consequence widens the aesthetic framework and aesthetic opportunities in which we operate and the range of dances that are given credence and support in the dance culture of our country. It seems to me that it also challenges orthodox pedagogic approaches in dance teaching.

 

And this in a sense has been the ‘project’ of community dance in the UK for the past 30 or more years

 

Dance artists recognising that there had to be new ways of making work and reaching out to engage more people in dance, dance artists recognising the fact that most of the population were being excluded for economic, social, cultural and educational reasons from access to the approved canon of state supported arts activity and artists identifying with the civil rights movements of black people, women and gay people. Artists in fact who wanted to see a different world in which there was increased respect for individuals, minority groups and cultural differences whether they were based on class, gender, race, sexuality, age or disability or economic and educational status. Artists who wanted to demystify the art of dance. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, to make the extraordinary accessible and to provide opportunities for ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things.

After a number of years of developing this new area of work in dance it was decided to establish a national organisation which evolved into the Foundation for Community Dance, to provide a focus and support for the work. At that time, 1986, there were only 15 people, now 21 years on, the Foundation for Community Dance represents nearly 5,000 people working professionally in community dance. When we undertook a national mapping exercise in England alone we identified the there were nearly 5 million people taking part in over 70,000 opportunities and there was an estimated audience of over 10 million people. In that same year the audience for dance subsidised by the Arts Council of England was 1.4 million.

 

We established that the people participating in community dance include people from the ages of 3 to 93; that it included people across all disabilities that it was a key feature of both urban and rural arts activity, that it engaged with all culturally diverse groups, and with socially excluded groups and individuals.

 

We also established that it connected positively with the fields of education, health, social care and the criminal justice system.

And as well as taking place in or in the outreach programmes of our national, regional and locally based dance agencies and dance companies it takes place in youth and community centres, prisons, schools, churches and old peoples residential  and day centres.

 

Community Dance in the UK has many significant achievements it can point to:

 

  • The organisation and development of South Asian and African people’s dance gathered its momentum from the community dance experience, many of our current professional dancers and choreographers starting their professional lives in community dance.
  • The dance of disabled people has been championed and supported by the community dance movement. There are now 25 professional dance companies in the UK who are led by disabled artists or feature disabled dancers and the work of disabled choreographers, across the range of disabilities.
  • Most of national, regional and local dance agencies across the UK began as community dance driven initiatives, though they are now more inclusive of a wider range of the dance ecology
  • The largest group young men applying to the dance conservatoires started their dance ambitions in community dance.
  • Many of our emerging and some established choreographers are using the approaches developed in community dance in the way they approach making work – with their dancers not on their dancers
  • Much of the dance taking place in our state school sector, where dance is compulsory till age 14 has been sustained by community dance professionals and dance companies
  • There is a strengthening youth dance culture in the UK where the approaches of community dance rather than the conservatoire have been the predominant pedagogic influence
  • There has been a significant growth in the number of older people participating in community dance and working in inter-generational companies that contribute to community cohesion.
  • The approaches developed by community dance artists are becoming increasingly recognised by the criminal justice system as making a significant contribution in the rehabilitation of offenders and those at risk of offending

 

One of the ongoing debates hinted at in my last two points is about the importance of the art process in dance, compared with its instrumental benefits.

 

Community dance practice has long argued that there are significant instrumental benefits to people participating in community dance: improved academic and physical achievement; emotional, physical and social well being for individuals and communities; improvements in general and specific health conditions (for example obesity and cardio vascular performance).

 

I would argue that these benefits are an important strand of engaging in dance, but they are dependent on a deep and quality engagement in the art making process of dance. Striving for excellence in the process, doing the best we can, celebrating what we can do, rather than pointing up what we can’t do. Paying equal attention to the quality of the dancing, having a say in what the dance is about and how it is made, having a voice about who the audience is and the context in how the dance is seen and experienced; reflecting seriously and critically about how successful or otherwise the dance was in achieving its vision and aims, not just basking in the afterglow of warm wishes by relatives and friends.

 

I’d like to finish by quoting the USA dance artist and choreographer Liz Lerman:

 

“There was a time when people danced and the crops grew. I think they danced as a way to heal their children. I know they danced as a way to prepare for war. I think they danced to understand what was completely impossible to understand in any other form, and when they did that they weren't pretending: it was real. That was how they felt the energy of the world around them in their bodies. When I imagine this time I like to think: Who got the best parts? Who were they going to trust to do this important thing for them? I think they maybe chose the fattest person, the person with the most weight, or maybe the oldest person, the one with the most wisdom. I imagine that they had a set of values that they agreed on. I like to think that everybody who was there understood the dance, that they didn't have to wait until the next day to read in the papers what it was about. They had some incredible way to connect to it. I don't think it was because the dances weren't abstract - in fact, I think they were highly abstract, symbolic. It wasn't about dumbing down. People knew the dance because they had learned it or been part of it. Or maybe they had been there at the beginning, when they decided 'This means that the sun is coming up, okay everybody?' Once you are in at the beginning everything is possible.”

 

I like to think that this is also the contribution of community dance to the dance ecology, we put people at the centre of their choices about the dances they choose to make, so that however abstract or difficult, they are accessible and understood because those dancing were there at the beginning and actively included throughout.