Being Asked and Answering

This was written as part of Cultured Mongrel’s on-going work : ‘There are no stupid questions” A pleasure to be asked and get my thinking cap on. The question (below) is asked anonymously and you can find lots more on Cultured Mongrel’s website here.

A bit of a rambly answer from me but hope there is something there that gives some context, support and food for thought 

“What happens when young amateur dancers (those with no intention to attend college) become adults and where do they go?

Open classes exist for choreography and technique, but where’s the creativity?

Should this aspect of dance be done alone or not at all?

(I can read bitterness, sorry)”

Bitterness accepted and legitimate! Thanks for the question which I’ll circle around, and hopefully shed some light on.

First a wee history lesson. My background is in what was originally called ‘Community Dance’. I began in the early 80’s on the crest of the Community Dance wave. Leading this in Scotland were Royston Maldoom at The Arts in Fife and Tamara McLorg with Stirling Council and as director of Dundee Rep Dance Company, now Scottish Dance Theatre.

This was a big time for contemporary dance development and signalled a change in terms of participation and opportunity for ‘ordinary’ people to dance, and who were not, and had no intention of training and becoming professional. It is the bedrock of what we now think of as participatory practice or social engagement.

There’s a massive history and legacy here to be shared at some point, but that’s for another day. Suffice to say for now that this exciting and groundbreaking era laid the groundwork for much of Scotland’s Contemporary dance scene as we know it today – both community and professional practice.

There’s also some terminology to get clear on here – the distinction between amateur practice and community/socially engaged/participatory practice. Here in the UK, they don’t mean quite the same thing. The former is associated more with self-organising constituted groups or associations who organize themselves to produce art works (think amateur dramatics) whereas the latter is more about people’s right to access the arts through and with the professional arts scene and professionally trained artists. I’m assuming here we are talking about the latter – community/participatory/ socially engaged.

So, back to the 80’s. Adults were very much part of the Community Dance scene. My own contribution in parallel with Tammy and Royston was in the development of disability-led practice and the right of disabled people to be included and have access to dance. I’ve continued with this work including working again with Tammy and Royston to develop Community Dance Practice in Europe. The philosophy focuses on movement as a human right, on everybody’s right to access dance as an art-form and on the contribution people can make to current contemporary practice.,

However, even from the beginning, there has been more emphasis on youth. The legacy of the Scottish Youth Dance Festival, initiated by Tammy and Royston in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and the development of Youth Dance Companies across Scotland continues today. Adults were always in second place

I’m no expert, but off the top of my head I think there are a number of reasons for this

  • Investment in youth is seen as an investment in the future of society
  • We live in an ageist society (the latest World Health Organisation report concludes that 1 in 2 of us are ageist)
  • Dance is a powerful educational tool that support more traditional learning, so it went into schools
  • Creativity itself is regarded as a tenant of the young unless of course you decide to train and make it your career. As if it is ‘natural’ to children but not to adults
  • And funding of course followed this thinking and artists follow the funding in order to be able to earn a living

So, part of the reason for limited focus on adults is embedded in the very history of participatory dance development, it has aye been, and youth are invested in as an investment in the future.

There are other reasons too.

There’s a split between performance created by trained dancers and performance created by community non-professionally trained participants. The latter has always been judged as lesser than, of less value, and often not as art at all. We ascribe particular aesthetics and registers to dance, then we aspire to that and judge anything else to be not as good as ‘the real thing’. Our idea of dance is in many ways very elitist. This narrow perspective of what good dance is, is also dominated by youth and young bodies who sit at the top of the hierarchy in our mind’s eye and our belief system. Community performance is therefore rarely regarded as a serious aesthetic form or language in its own right. This limits the possibilities and potential and our very idea of what dance can be and who gets to be a dancer.

In 2014 I made a piece called Glory in Tramway in Glasgow. It was part of the Commonwealth Games cultural programme. Deliberately and consciously, politically and aesthetically I wanted to involve the biggest mixture of dancers I could find. There were absolutely no auditions, all movements were equally valid and valued, as were all body types and levels of experience. Professional and experienced dancers, moved alongside first-time dancers, with ages ranging from late teens to 60’s and 70’s, both disabled and non-disabled dancers and dancers of different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds all moving together. Glory was, amongst other things, a statement, cutting across this hierarchy, moving dance from its vertical hierarchy to a horizontal platform that embraces diversity and different aesthetic registers and movement vocabularies. Movement is a language as diverse and individual as people are and dance is more than one thing – it can be, and is, many things.

The same goes for how vocabulary and content is devised. I think this what is being referred to in the question – “where is the creativity?” – where the body is an expressive tool, engaged in its own materiality as a way of discovering and creating dance vocabulary.

Again, creativity, and self-expression as it is sometimes loosely and referred to, is seen as belonging to the young, and often only the very young. This working from the inside out, from sensory and felt experience, and from the imagination is very rare in standard dance practice, professional or community. This way to developing and finding vocabulary, image and story for choreography, and as material to dance with and dance as, has gone out of fashion. Dance in our minds eye has become something else, often a set of steps or a form to be ‘mastered’ and learned from the outside in. As opposed to the liberation and experience of a vocabulary that is innate and already existing as potential in each of us. Accessing one’s own creativity and body language, is, in my opinion – in fact more than an opinion, it is my working method and practice – an equally valid place from which to build and create choreography. Our attitude to and understanding of dance, popularised by TV has become a two-dimensional athletic action to be learned and mastered rather than a three-dimensional living and breathing creative act.

The instrumentalization of dance I’m sure has contributed to this. We know this well. Dance being seen as a tool to counter and support social deprivation, inequalities, and mental health amongst other things. These are important and necessary, and dance can and does in the right hands, have that capacity. We have brilliant teachers, classes, workshops and infrastructures that all have an impact and make a difference in these areas, but we also have missing things.

This way of quantifying the purpose and value of dance can take us even further away from the artistry and creative aspects of it and adds to our increasingly limited and limiting understanding of what dance can be, what it is for, and how it is made. Classes become neat and packaged, easily understood, compact, quantifiable and recognizable. And we become removed from, perhaps we even become afraid of, creativity and the potential exposure to ‘getting it wrong’ emotionally and physically.  Also, to understand and value creativity you have to engage with it and know it experientially. Only talking about it, causes our understanding of creativity to stay in the realm of the abstract and the obscure, and this further removes and reduces any sense of the intrinsic value that the creative dance process can have.

To sum up and finish, I am very heartened by this question. And “should this aspect of dance be done alone or not at all?” It most definitely should be done, and it can be done alone and/or connect to other areas of dance provision. Think of it as a radicle practice – adults contributing to dance, adults mattering and being part of building the future, creative movement from the inside out as a vital life force, an alternative to the current limiting hierarchy in dance, and swimming against the tide to offer choice and access to a way of moving that belongs to us all.

There are some good adult classes in improvisation around – have a look for them, you might enjoy the creative practice that they offer

And finally, going back to the 80’s and the time of self-initiated ‘movements’, perhaps you could think about self-organising – getting a group of you together who want to explore a similar thing and way of working, finding premises, or working outdoors and then finding a teacher who works in this way. We don’t always have to wait for our big institutions and organisations to take the lead.

Janice Parker May 2021

Posted in News.