Clare Connor, CEO of The Place, reflects on the transformative power and her personal history of participatory dance projects.
Today, I am in Essen to give the honorary speech for the German Prize for Dance 2019 for my long-standing colleague and friend Jo Parkes. Jo is a dance artist, director and dance educator in Germany and the UK, and she works with socially engaged, co-creative, participative dance.
My own access to the world of dance was through community dance, through the Association of Youth Clubs, after school with an inspirational teacher called Stephanie Franklyn in a village outside Cambridge… so Jo’s passion also has a special resonance for me. My earliest memories of dance come from the excitement and the sheer joy of being able to move in “Country Dancing” at primary school. After having to sit still in school all day, it was such a release and I can remember running to the hall and being told to slow down as I could barely contain myself. Performing in community dance projects is also my earliest memory of travelling and being able to see and experience the region in which I lived. Later when I studied at LCDS, I wrote my dissertation on the history and development of community dance in the UK. It involved understanding the policy context including Graham Devlin’s seminal work for the Arts Council titled “Stepping Forward” which set the scene for the growth of the national dance network. As part of my studies I interrogated the significant regional ambitions that were being realised in Yorkshire and Swindon– led by truly inspirational women, Ruth Till and Marie McClusky. What I learned was what I knew: that community dance can sustain people and sustain communities but I understood better the importance of an infrastructure for dance activity that reaches across local and regional areas, to develop and support quality dance provision at every level and ability, nurturing connections across cultures and borders.
I have worked as a teacher and artist on community dance projects and I met Jo in 1998 when we worked together at Newham Sixth Form College in East London. Together with teaching staff Graham Jeffery and Trish Kehoe we conceived the Higher National Diploma in Performing Arts in the Community programme at the University of East London, now a BA (Hons) in Performing Arts and a BA (Hons) Dance: Urban Practice. Students from the most diverse backgrounds whom we both taught, now feature in university faculties while others are choreographing, programming, producing, touring, performing, trailblazing – socially-engaged dance practice, in the UK and world-wide.
In 2004, commissioned by East London Dance Jo and I wrote 'People Moving', a one-day course for artists giving them the skills to adapt their practise to inclusive settings and work with disabled and non-disabled dancers.
Jo’s reach through dance is always towards a greater sense of belonging and to a stronger appreciation of humanity. Socially engaged dance practice can all too often be disregarded or considered “less” important. Jo’s focus on the quality of participatory dance experiences gives them credibility and ensures an equality of access, process and celebration of the so often uncelebrated.
At The Place, in our Partner Schools Programme, our CAT programme and our youth dance programmes, we celebrate the co-creation and the ownership young people can have over their dance experience and every year it is an absolute highlight to witness these events but equally important is seeing the impact of these achievements on the family and friends who come to support.
One of my favourite moments in community dance was when I was a teacher and artist and I worked with Chris Thomson at The Place on a boys dance and youth dance project called "Cyberdream" with Wayne McGregor. We worked with an intergenerational group of boys and young men from the East End, some of who have never ventured outside of their local community. By the end of the project they were travelling across cities and continents, not just spatially but in terms of life experience and transformation. They performed the most amazing dance project, in part because Wayne and his dancers including Philip Van Huffel were outstanding in the way they connected with an energy, dynamism and ambition that especially spoke to the young men we worked with.
After this project, I was challenged by the Principal, Sid Hughes at the College where I was employed at to share the experience of teaching and learning and more specifically “differentiation” when working with intergenerational groups with my peers. Differentiation is where you really think about the different levels people work in, in a learning context, recognizing that they all start from different places but each one of them has a potential they can realise by creating the best possible learning environment and conditions. The challenge was to put together a presentation for about 200 staff who were teaching a whole set of different subjects from business and law to IT and that was my first public speaking moment. I used my experience with Wayne and I used dance as a way to share that experience with a wider group of peers. For me it was really a coming together of all the things I believe in - community dance, working with great artists, amazing experiences for young people and then an opportunity to share the art form beyond that audience as a teaching pedagogy.
The experience really deepened my learning. We learn the least through chalk and talk, when you just tell somebody something. You can learn the most when you teach somebody, so for me teaching something to my peers meant that I had to understand it on a deeper level. The whole experience was transformative for those young boys and then it became transformative for me. My life in dance is a lived experience of community dance and how far it can take you away from where you started but also closer to yourself.