Study Day 2014 - British Dance and the African Diaspora

British dance: Black routes. Open space event.

January 16 - South Bank, Royal Festival Hall, Level 5. 11am to 5pm, 10.30am registration.

This was the final public event of the British dance and the African Diaspora research project. It began with a presentation by Christy Adair and Ramsay Burt who gave an overview of what they had found during the project. They described the project’s three, one-day ‘Roadshows’, the exhibition and Symposium, and a study day. Noting that the often used term ‘Black dance’ suggests that all Black dancers are doing one type of dance, they pointed out that this makes it difficult to recognise the diversity of different dance practices and styles which British-based dancers who are Black have been exploring and developing. The distinctiveness of African-derived and African inspired dance in Britain, compared with related work by European or African American dancers, they suggested, comes from events in the 1970s and 1980s in British inner cities. At a time of recession, high unemployment and social tensions, dancers of Caribbean heritage engaged with dancers and drummers from Ghana and other West African former colonies to develop a distinctive, British approach to African People’s Dance. Three issues that emerged form the ‘Roadshows’ were discussed in this presentation: rhythm, spirituality, and community. The presentation ended with the following question which was presented as a theme for the rest of the day.

In what ways can this research assist people to understand the British legacy of African disaporic dance forms so that the sector can move forward in a productive way?

The rest of the day was given over to discussions using Open Space Technologies, and led by Martyn Duffy of BridgeBuilders. People were invited to call meetings to discuss issues of importance to them. A recorder in each group made notes on large flip charts, and these have now been transcribed and are published below.


photo: notes from groups were posted on the wall.

For those not familiar with Open Space Technologies, these are the guiding principles and one law:
1.    Whoever comes is the right people.
2.    Whenever it starts is the right time.
3.    Wherever it happens is the right place.
4.    Whatever happens is the only thing that could.
5.    When it's over, it's over.
Law of two feet
If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else.

There were eleven group discussions held during the day

[1] Wiped out of history and how this affects the future young dancers.

[2] Education in dance through the eyes of a black dancer.

[3] The burden of responsibility

[4] Black dance: how do we develop a sustainable legacy?

[5] Ownership & transmission of black dance. Who can define themselves a ‘black’ dancer?

[6] Why does the meaning of dance change when it moves from Africa to the UK (or vice versa)

[7] Do we have a suitable language for defining quality?

[8] British black female dancer/choreographers in contemporary culture.

[9] How do male black (youths?) find and articulate their identities through performance?

[10] The future for the mature dancer seen as backside big & too heavy

[11] Why must we be Jack of all trades?


[1] Wiped out of history and how this affects the future young dancers
- There is a great interest in the past, now, but history is based on very partial memory. Some of the main protagonists have already gone – therefore young people are on shaky ground.
- Black dance was emerging very strongly in mid to late 1970’s – part of fight of all independent dance to gain funding.
- MAAS Movers in 1st Umbrella Festival.
- Riverside studios – an important & radical venue.
H Patten:
Most black dance started in communities, not with funding. ‘Roots’ on TV & political groups helped awareness.
George Dzikunu brought Sankofa from Ghana and many other groups came out of it – Steel ‘n’ Skin, Ekome, Lanzel, Delado etc.
Black dancers were told that they couldn’t do contemporary dance. Maas Movers started to dis-prove this. Maas Movers succeeded in establishing black contemporary dance and finding audiences.
H produced many productions in African countries but none of this work get’s attributed to him here.
A lot of work is not documented – mainly funded productions.
Black Dance Archive will contain oral history.
There is a big weight on black dance of its African roots – ritual, spirituality etc.
“African diasporic dance” can be a useful phrase to include all the different strands.
H Patten:
Early on, all the dance was considered ‘black dance’ – ‘Afrikan People’s dance’ was coined to differentiate it.
At the beginning it was a matter of identity – so race was very important, Now it is maybe not so crucial.

- There can be oppressive expectation of one as a black/ mixed race / whatever.
I just wanted to dance, but the issue of black or not black enough – it’s sad that it’s still there.
Dance is an oppressed art – privy to divisiveness
H Patten:
As Freddy [Opoku-Addaie] said, we’ve always had the burden of social conscience etc… But I’ve given that up.
At the beginning, African dance was taught as a strict set of steps you couldn’t change. Later I discovered that I could use the vocabulary how I chose & create with it. The next generation has to learn the passages, understand the histories, but then use it creatively.
I also learnt many techniques, Graham, Spanish, Caribbean and it all came into dance.
H Patten:
Whatever camp you were in, the funders wanted you to do something else.
One of the things we found was a very strong ‘creative hybridity.’ Are more people looking at Caribbean now rather than African.
Like black music, African & Caribbean dance has influenced all dance, both here and across the world – even in social dance.
- Did Martha Graham ever acknowledge Africa?
All the different Caribbean countries had a huge range of influences from their colonies: French, English, Spanish, Jewish.
None of this discussion can be divorced from the big movements – modernism etc.
H Patten:
Rex Nettleford talked about multi-culturalism being cultures living side by side, but not intermingling. Hybridity runs the danger of rootlesness.

- Left alone too much – space is needed to talk freely – allows us to move onto the next point
-Robin Howard – invited small companies into space – enabling them to grow
- Saturated market – create own work as well as auditioning for others.

- The instability of digital media – with introduction of new formats we lose ability to access old

- The ability to look back – importance of analysing own work – finding trends, critiquing self & keeping thoughts going.

[2] Education in dance through the eyes of a black dancer.

- Technique in parallel to academia
- History through a white gaze
- Dilution or appropriation / assimilation
- Being aware of everything
- Be able to touch
- Sexualisation
- Social dances
- Teaching strategies to find a way in.


[3] The burden of responsibility

“I am a black artist without soul or rhythm”
- Liminal space – In between – positives and negatives to this place, the play between the two, the ‘grey area’ – do we have a language that articulates that?
- Why should responsibility be a burden?
- Soul & Rhythm
- Labels of identity
- Stereotyped
- Externally identified & judged – outside eye
- Collectiveness – collective history
- Recent history – generations have separate experiences – communication between generations/ experiences
- Bi-racial vs. Bi-cultural   
- Instinctual ownership
- ‘Black dance’ or ‘Black dancers’?
- Form (aesthetic) or ideas?
- Writing a history for ourselves …
- Minority status as contextual
- Has ‘multiculturalism’ made our identities more rigid?
- A respect for difference ----> respect for dialogue
- Unity is not to make everything the same – idea of fake unity
- Non-homogenous dance history


Political identity - The 'Black Experience' - Mostly from outside eye
                     Complexity of this/these experiences


[4] Black dance: how do we develop a sustainable legacy?

1- Continue programming
2- Education / giving back / artistic
3- Resources available
4- Artists to take responsibility – training
5- Looking at U.S model
6- International association of ‘black’ dance
  - ADAD – Who are they talking to?
  -Who are the makers/policy makers?
  - People of influence
  - Who can be the voice?

- Issue of NPO
- Resources – Books… Material
- State of Emergency – seize opportunities


[5] Ownership & transmission of black dance. Who can define themselves a ‘black’ dancer?

- Do people who are not from a ‘black culture’ transmit a tradition?
- What happens when we teach only ‘technique’ & not tradition? Have we lost something?
- Who can teach black dance?
- Should dance teachers describe their classes better & state what they are offering better?
- What is the use of:-
    - Dance history/documentation
    - Curriculum
    - Branding
    - Codification
    - Teaching technique


                         what constitutes a dance form?
tradition   -------------------------------------------------------   expression / technique
                           are we trying to teach both?


[6] Why does the meaning of dance change when it moves from Africa to the UK (or vice versa)

- Depending on the journey
- The ‘call & response’
- What is the impact?
-When it travels (who gives them the true information?)
- Sense of gaining or loss
- Influence
- It will have a new meaning – have a new context
- How movements are taken from Africa – by the time they get to UK they have been ‘exoticised’, eroticised? – circles back to black representation

- Embracing both academia & dancing – shouldn’t have to decide between the two

- Other groups of minorities dealing with same issues – ‘queer’ issues? Could we learn from other groups rather than separate them. Galvanise between all of these groups.

- Ajamu X – the 1st British archive documenting black ‘queerness’ in the UK – proving that people existed when being told otherwise – breaking the stereotypes we are fed.

- Need for documenting own stories and perspectives – get self out there - these different perspectives make up the truth.

- Too modest? Not considering ourselves history – not putting selves out there?


[7] Do we have a suitable language for defining quality?

- Why is ‘innovation’ prioritised?
- Is it relevant in all cases? Can it always be recognised?
- Breaking new ground within recognisable legitimate framework
-What is the framework, not recognised?
- Artistic quality, can it be defined? – Who has the authority?
- Artists need to learn to trust their vision
- New forms to respond to changing context
- Quality as judged by Art Council of England
- Is quality popular?
- Can artists chose how to promote themselves? Or power of funding/audience
- Negotiation between ‘languages’:-
  - Marketing rept’s
  - Practitioners
  - Academics
- Problem of ‘multiculturalism’
- Quality & Difference/diversity
- How to define quality in ways that recognise different oppressions & How to avoid being reduced to labels?
- Possibilities of resistance
- Ramsay has faith that structures of control are not complete and can be exploited
-Where is place for the political – is political demonised?
- Whose language is used to define quality?
- How ‘legitimate’ comments only allowed
- Quality needs languages relevant to context
- Who is the gatekeeper of quality?
- Role of new media?
- Critics circle resistance to comments
- Whose language is chosen?
- Who chooses how framed?
- How can artists be in control? – Use of web?
- Problems of value – whose values? Relational?

[8] British black female dancer/choreographers in contemporary culture.

- Looking to America:-
  - Can’t find information on UK black female dancers
  - End up looking to U.S but that is a very different experience so it is an unfair comparison
- Female to look upto – Pearl Primus – Brenda Edwards – Beryl McBernie (Trinidad) – Cathy Lewis – Greta Mendez … poorly documented and not in our education.

- Female choreographers in UK
- Finding opportunities to stage work – little opportunities out there
- Age as a factor – no support network for women with families making performing hard later in life.
- Giving option to dance whilst pregnant (Greta Mendez did this) – Bravery of challenging notion – challenging typical aesthetic.

- Domino effect – lack of black female choreographers = lack of black dancers?
- CounterPointe – platform for female ballet choreographer (lack of)
- Key to problem = networking – creating platforms
- GalDem (facebook group) – platform for discussion between black female dancers.
- Group each went to different dance schools yet came back with the same /similar experiences
- Associations that could help- reluctance to associate with too early as come with ‘African Dance’ restrictions and that may not be what wanted to do?

- Education – leaving a safety net – outside you are told what you CAN’T do because of your race.
- Space needed to express what been through:-
-With people from similar experiences – cathartic – healing – understanding what been through – how feel about being black & female – creating space to work – frustration at not getting work (auditions all for men?) – graduated and ready yet still getting rejected.

-ACE dance – Gail Parmel
- Someone to look up to
- Commitment from members – working through the struggles and making it happen!

-Independent dance – fight for funding

- Framework needed after graduation? - Need to make framework for selves?

- Constantly fighting – racism – boundaries

- Questioning – why do we want to dance? – Artists life is difficult, need to know why & what doing to make it worthwhile.

- Can be a lonely space/time – standing own ground- knowing what want- finding what to connect with

- Pigeon holed as a dancer – a ‘black’ female dancer on top of that

- Constantly being taken off stage?  The ‘black presence’:-
- Who should be on stage? Technically proficient, yet in the wings



[9] How do male black (youths?) find and articulate their identities through performance?

    Dance has more of a sense of community/more collaborative dance is the starting point
    Multiple identity
    What  makes male identity different?
    What  make 'black'?
    Multi-media - A way of bringing various histories into one moment
(Keith Piper)?
    The Stage
    The burden of representations - pressure to be a role model
    Pressure to do high-energy dance i.e. hip-hop, capoeira?

[10] The future for the mature dancer seen as backside big & too heavy – You don’t give up dancing; dancing gives you up.

      • Continuing to teach
      • Experience is our forté
      • Being visible
      • Body image
      • Training - different needs
      • No classes for mature dancers
      • Sustaining the training - diversity of training
      • When you are younger it's about energy - As you get older the dance is more about style
      • How do you market a mature dancer(s)?
      • Dance is for life
      • General view of elders in Britain
      • Changing perceptions of a view of a dancer - youth - culture
      • Coming together
      • Development / Crafting - presenting your work!
      • Is there a place for  mature dancers?

• no.2
      • Exploitation of the culture of dance in current climate
      • Movement - experience more feeling as you gain experience & skills
      • Aging population - changing cultures
      • Classes - different process than  being on stage
      • An inspiration to younger dancers
      • Injury - techniques reduce injury - keeping dancing
      • Knowledge & Experience - expressing yourself
      • Networking
      • Being honest with yourself
      • Certain dance culture in Britain - bigger opportunities in Europe or overseas
      • Keep learning
      • Audience - builiding relationship - there is an audience
      • Mentality - state of mind
      • It doesn't always have to be young dancers - different market - who are we marketing to? - with more productions it will become more known

• no.3
      • Taking responsibility
      • Technique - More workshops needed - principles - learning from mistakes - What is technique? - consistent & persistent - specific to everyone - can evolve & transform  - fine tune.
      • Dancing is not just about money/funding
      • Training
      • Commercial sector difficult
      • Going through a journey - linking together
      • Feeling the dance - the individual will find a way through - innovation - returning to the feeling - it feels good to dance
      • Funding limited?  - funding system - divisive - strategy by gov. - no platform? - young against elders
      • Frustration at not knowing the mature dancers
      • Youth aren't generally aware of the backlog of black dance work
      • Theme of the work can be used to translate - presentation - marketing - what is the work about?
      • Respect - respect the elders - pass on knowledge
      • Touching the individual
      • Cosmic energy & spirituality
      • We still have needs - planting the seed

[11] Why must we be Jack of all trades?

•Building networks?
    •Finding a way - venue - to support
    •Push for community involvement and advancement not just art choices - linked to funding
    •Not enough crossover between academics who are practitioners - this is why we lack rep as we don't have voice in academia - not present in top schools
    •Education for performance different than academia
    •Funding becoming play the game
    •Perfect craft or teach first?
    •Specific language
    •Dance collective
    •Not allowed to focus on the art of performance
    •Must identify avenues for post college dance training - university vs. dance schools
    •Information is key - where do we get this?

    •You can't get it all from 1 institution so what do you want and how do you get it?
    •What are the strategies to create space to develop your own work?
    •How to find the entrepeneurs to support work?
    •How we use community network infastructures?
    •Create methods and avenues to pass down strategies of professional development
    •What kind of dancer are you?
    •Need to develop collectives and networks to support the making of work
    •What is the dance industry?
    •There is no job - so what is there?

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