This season, we are exploring the question “What is dance for?” - Is it about art or self-expression? Is it about belonging, finding a community, or finding yourself, transforming your life, discovering things about yourself? Who gets to dance? And why?
In our second conversation, Celeste Dandeker-Arnold OBE, co-founder of Candoco Dance Company and LCDS 2019 graduate Annie Edwards talk about their very personal journeys. How did they discover dance and what impact did it have on their lives?
Celeste: My mother had been a dancer, so she wanted the same experience for me and took me to ballet school when I was two and a half. I did ballet until I was 16 but I hated point work and was looking for something else. My brother in law was an actor and he went to Martha Graham classes to do movement for his acting and I went along to watch him. I immediately fell in love with Graham technique: more expression, more grounded, more exciting, no shoes… I could go on and on!
I auditioned for the school here at The Place and became one of the first fulltime students here. I had my first term still at Berner’s Place and then in 1969 we moved into this building that I know so well. I joined the company in 71, but had a very short time with LCDT, my accident happened at the end of 73. How about you, Annie, how did you discover dance?
Annie: I have a musical family, so it was quite an artsy upbringing. I don’t remember if I asked to start going but my mum took me to a local dance school when I was about 7 and I just did everything – Latin, ballroom, line dancing, ballet, tap, street dance, competitions - it is all I remember of being a child, just dancing all the time! When I was about 11, I auditioned for a hip hop theatre show with ZooNation and hip hop became my favourite thing. My first introduction to contemporary dance was in 6th form, when I was 16. Then I joined the National Youth Dance Company where I worked with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui which felt grownup and professional and showed me what an amazing career this could be if I wanted to make that my living. Dance has really shaped me and my thinking and who I am.
“There were no role models, no disabled dancers I knew, so I felt a bit of a pioneer in a way.”
Celeste: Dance was a world I always wanted to be part of. When I had to stop dancing it was a big blow. I had no desire to teach and I’m not a choreographer at all. When Darshan Singh Bhuller invited me to dance again, 16 years later, I thought, at the time, is this really dance? I never wanted to emulate a non-disabled dancer. There were no role models, no disabled dancers I knew, so I felt a bit of a pioneer in a way. I wasn’t sure. But once I met Adam Benjamin and we decided to experiment further in a dance studio, we found new and exciting ways of dancing together and I never questioned it again.
Annie: Dance means a lot to me as well in terms of self-esteem and faith in a future for myself. It’s been a great platform for becoming somebody that I like, and also someone who can make a difference. I don’t know how I would do that without dance, if I’m honest.
Celeste: It’s very, very powerful, isn’t it? After my accident, I completely lost my confidence. When I came to see performances, particularly here at The Place, which had been so familiar, it felt so wrong. But once Candoco started and we performed here on this stage I felt like I’m back in the room!
"Dance gave me an understanding of my own body, not feeling like a ‘no you can’t’ kind of body, but actually being really capable and loving what it can do.”
Annie: There are definitely two sides to how empowering dance can make you feel if you have any kind of difference. On the one hand, there are ways in which dance can be very excluding and can make you feel not great about your body because of who you compare yourself to or spaces that you can’t be involved in because they are not made accessible to you. But at the same time, dance was also a massive escape for me from feeling isolated at school. I could go away with all my friends and do something I was really proud of and was good at. It gave me an understanding of my own body, not feeling like a ‘no you can’t’ kind of body, but actually being really capable and loving what it can do.
Celeste: People do stare. You can’t go into a room without being noticed. And being on stage gives people permission to look. Not just at our bodies but actually at what we do. Candoco doesn’t make work about disability. The aim and focus has always been to make work of artistic quality and integrity and to be seen in the mainstream of contemporary dance. It took time for audiences to get to know and accept us as dancers. People sometimes say “oh we don’t even notice the wheelchair” … They must do, let’s face it. But it’s encouraging that they’re thinking in a different way and enjoying the difference.
“I am in a more positive environment now than when you joined dance. I’ve been allowed to expect more and be a bit more forthright or unapologetic with what I am asking for and how much space I deserve.”
Annie I would hope for someone to say “we do see it, and it’s great”! You don’t have to pretend that it’s not there or divorce yourself from the disability to be considered a good dancer.
I feel like I benefitted from pioneers such as yourself and I am in a more positive environment now than when you joined dance. However, I feel like because I have benefitted from an initial access, I’ve been allowed to expect more and be a bit more forthright or unapologetic with what I am asking for and how much space I deserve.
I wanted to study at The Place because I felt valued by the school in general and not as someone they’d have to work around. I did apply to other places that made it feel like I would be an issue, rather than someone they wanted to work with. But I was one of only two in my year who were disabled. I could access a lot of the school and enjoy it and have my own personal journey, but there was also a lot I had to do for myself because people didn’t always know how to facilitate me. And I didn’t know either, because I’d never been in an institution. People like me generally aren’t. One of the things disabled dancers have to deal with is being the first a lot of the time, and teaching people how to work with you but also learning for yourself how you need to work.
"I wanted to study at The Place because I felt valued by the school in general and not as someone they’d have to work around."
Celeste: There’s a pressure to being pioneers.
Annie: Now, I love to represent people and be someone that people can learn from, but I didn’t always want it as a student. You don’t always want to go for this ‘fight the system’ energy, just because your body is already political without even asking for it.
Celeste: Candoco has been going 30 years next year. Now, there are so many other inclusive dance companies that have formed since, nationally and internationally. When Candoco first started touring, we couldn’t even get into a lot of theatres as audience members, never mind backstage as performers. We were quite instrumental in making these changes, and then the National Lottery Fund gave grants for public buildings to make access easier for disabled people.
“It might be easier if you don’t have to learn to work with someone that uses a wheelchair but, in the end, I think that’s your loss.”
Annie: I like the idea of making dance more of a home for people like me and pushing for change. I hope that dance can become a place people wouldn’t have to question whether they should be there or not. That’s a good thing that happening now. More people standing up saying I deserve to be here.
Inclusivity or diversity is only a burden if you don’t value what that person has to offer because of your one idea of what is useful or impressive. It’s a burden if you think it is about virtue signalling or tick boxing you must do because it’s 2020 now. It won’t be a burden if you believe everybody’s differences or abilities give them amazing wealth to share and make everything richer. It might be easier if you don’t have to learn to work with someone that uses a wheelchair but, in the end, I think that’s your loss.
I’m not always angry, though! I do watch ballet and enjoy it. But I think that if at the core of something it excludes people - you can say it’s a ‘creative choice’ or a tradition ‘best for the job’ - I don’t think that’s a viable excuse. I have lots of thoughts about ballet - but I also love a pirouette!
Celeste: But there are many ways to do a pirouette, aren’t there? I was listening to Desert Island Disc the other day and Ian Wright was choosing a Tina Turner track that he said whenever it comes on, he and his wife have to stop and boogie together. When you see babies, barely standing, hear music, they’re off clapping their hands or tapping their feet. It’s just part of who we are. It’s a very fundamental primitive instinct. We are all dancers in a way. Just everyone does it differently.