Twenty-five years of tireless work to change perceptions of dance of the African diaspora have earned national recognition for Dr Funmi Adewole at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU).
The Dance researcher and lecturer has won the Dance of the African Diaspora Lifetime Achievement Award by One Dance UK, the national body representing the dance sector. The award recognises Dr Adewole’s professional achievements, as well as her dedication to building a legacy and changing perceptions in the UK.
Find out more about Dr Adewole and her work in the interview below.
How does it feel to have won this award?
It feels really satisfying to be recognised for the 25-years-worth of work I’ve done within the independent dance sector. I came to England from Nigeria in 1994 and got straight into the performing arts, which was funny because I worked as a journalist before then.
What led you to dance?
Performing has always been my true love. Coming to England was the opportunity to change paths and so I started working as a freelance dancer. I performed and toured for about 10 years with different companies and I also did a lot of voluntary advocacy work.
What kind of advocacy work did you do?
I wrote for magazines, investigating issues in dance. That caught the attention of policy-makers and academics, so I was able to push certain developments in certain ways.
It led to me becoming the chair of ADAD (Association of Dance of the African Diaspora) – now merged into One Dance UK - and I secured funding to start changing the narrative concerning black dance. Back then, black dance was pigeonholed as something people did just as cultural representation and I wanted it to be seen as artistic representation too. I started pushing that narrative through different projects.
Was there a breakthrough project?
When I was chair of ADAD I led a heritage project looking at dance companies and practitioners in Britain from the 1930s to the 1990s. We held an exhibition at the Theatre Museum and put on year-long activities like dance classes, talks and masterclasses. We also published a book called Voice in Black Dance, which was the first text that brought interviews of dancers together and started questioning why their work didn’t exist within British dance history.
Companies would come and go and there would be no record of the artists because they weren’t documented as part of the artistic landscape. It was as if their work was a tool for social policy and inclusion, and therefore they weren’t documented in an artistic remit.
How did you end up at DMU?
Around 2011 I answered a call from DMU looking for someone to write a thesis of black dance in Britain and was very fortunate to get the scholarship. My PhD focused on black British dance from 1985 to 2005 and I devised a methodology of how to write a history of the work of black British practitioners by looking at issues of cultural policy and art. I finished it last year and now I’m working on publishing articles from it and eventually a book.
Why is it important to study African dance?
There’s a lot of debate about the term ‘African dance’. Africa is a continent, so are we talking about one dance style that represents everything? Some people feel we should use the term ‘pan-African dance’ which suggests immediately that we’re talking about more than one thing.
What we’re really talking about though is an idea of dance that emerged with the taking of social and traditional dance forms into a theatre space. When that started to happen, initiated by Africans themselves in the 1930s, people began to see a lot of similarities between many African dance forms.
For instance, the use of a low centre of gravity and dynamics like rotation and undulation, as well as how the dance movements channel energy through the body in a very visceral and powerful way which connects strongly to the audience.
These techniques have influenced so many other types of dance, from tap and hip hop to tango and salsa. This is why learning about African-based dance is useful for students in anything they go on to do, including research, teaching and performing.
Of course, dance in general can open all sorts of doors because you learn how human beings move and communicate physically. Contemporary dance is just one option, but our graduates also go on to succeed in careers in marketing, business and communication.
Has there been much progress in changing perceptions of dance of the African diaspora in the UK?
It’s been hard, but when you look at the big picture there has been progress. When I arrived in England there was one book called Black Dance which covered everything very broadly and there was nothing in the curriculum.
Now we have academics and independent dance organisations specialising in dance of the African diaspora. Universities are proud to say they have African-based dance as part of their offer. This move from the margins to the mainstream has been a big improvement.
Posted on Monday 4th November 2019