Citizen Dancers (UK/AUST)
Journal article by Michelle Hall

May 31, 2004

It has taken me one year and one month to finally piece together this back-track of my life in dance away from Australia and for the most part, here in Oxford, UK. I have incessantly moving – in dance class, in the studio, around the world!

I am a dancer. I dance Tribal, I dance Contemporary, Street, Flamenco, Samba, Salsa, West African, and while away I have encountered all of these forms and learnt so much about how beautifully different one dancer is from another and one dance form is from another…but how we are, and they are, indelibly connected.

It started with the school I was assigned to work at here in Oxford. A very rough, dowdy, pretty depressing place. I had to come in as an ‘emergency worker' and get the students ready for there exams which where happening in four weeks! The girls loved their former teacher, who was loud and aggressive and energetic to-the-max, and they didn't really want to hear from a new-comer what they had to produce to pass the course.

Dance education in schools over here is quite sophisticated, in that the Graduating Certificate of Secondary Education Dance syllabus asks of students to be conversant with the technicalities and style and forms of renowned practitioners in a pretty advanced way.

I have mostly worked with the choreographic techniques of Christopher Bruce and Lea Anderson in educating the students in working with dance as a means to communicate distinctly about important issues and life itself. To be concise, the girls got through with shining results and we even got to be on greeting-in-the-playground terms…which I thought was an achievement in itself.

Feeling incredibly homesick, about the third week I had moved to Oxford, I decided I needed to get involved in a dance community. I scoured the net, talked to people, most Freelancers and Community Dance workers, like myself, where pretty sporadic in their involvement as they were obviously operating autonomously and got involved when it suited them, rather than as a ritual weekly event. But I was missing my dance community in Perth, especially Alaine Casey and was looking for some dance mates!

I finally found Hathor. A lovely bunch of gorgeous Oxfordshire women who I saw perform at a local festival. I approached one of the dancers, immediately after their performance on stage and though she was sweaty in that Balady outfit and dying to be served at the bar, she gave me her number to talk dance. One night I visited them at a monthly gathering and I instantly felt that this was a group who danced from the heart. I was impressed by how organised they were with their own website ( www.hathor.org.uk ) up and running and importing overseas and local artists to hold workshops and organising regular dance events open to all. There was a true sense of commitment about the Hathor women, to each other and to the community. They were even more welcoming when I took out of my bag a few blocks of Turkish delight chocolate!

I held a workshop with the Hathor dancers and I hope to see them up performing my choreography in the near future. Look out for up-dates; I will post photos from their June hafla.

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Still, I wanted more from the United Kingdom. I found Pineapple, a funky, trendy, up-town studio in Covent Garden, London. Talk about competition! I attended a two-day Hip Hop dance workshop and I have never been so sore in my life! I'm 29 and was one of the oldest in the class! So you can imagine a lot of young, sweaty, very ‘trained up' dancers crammed into this massive warehouse type studio. I loved it!

It pushed me beyond myself, particularly in a physical sense. I learnt a lot about where the Street Dance scene is right now in London from going to Pineapple regularly for about four months. I was taught by the dancers of Zoo Nation, a leading commercial Street and Hip Hop dance company that are featured in many UK festivals. One of the principal teachers KT, frequently gets to the states and so there is a real mix right now of American and British Hip Hop movements in the latest choreographies. I hope to get back there and get into some Bollywood fusion classes in the next six months.

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Before I came to the UK I had plans to somehow get to study at Laban in Greenwich. I took the opportunity to do this in July last year and attended the yearly two week summer school intensive programme. While I was there I took classes in Contemporary dance, Classical Indian Dance, Labanotation and Yoga for Dancers. These were exceptionally well taught and very demanding! However just being at Laban was a big deal for me as I am fascinated by the work of Rudolph Laban and find the whole place an amazing hive of weirdness, energy and intelligence. The building is quite incredible – set amongst a dirty, industrial part of London, it is this colourful block of curiosity which when you enter appears like a place of immaculate, thriving grace and motion…a bit like The Wonka Factory but with better looking accompaniment!

The summer school was particularly exciting for me because just a couple of weeks before, I had decided to go for it and put my dance and choreographic skills to the test by auditioning to study at Laban on the Community and Professional Dance Diploma course.

I worked hard at the day-long audition and was particularly happy with my choreographic work in the devised dance class. I was accepted into the course and so being at Laban for two weeks that summer was a wonderful, creative and hugely learning experience for me – knowing that I was going to be there for two years learning from brilliant teachers…there was a small practicality in all of this…how I was going to pay for it!

Unfortunately the course fees were pretty sizeable and as I had only been in the UK for about three months I was not financially in a position to take the course on. I applied unsuccessfully for an Australia Council Fellowship. I was pretty deeply disappointed when I had to let the place in the course go.

However, I have travelled and danced on!

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I journeyed to Southern Spain and embarked on a trip of Andalusia indulgences. I made sure that I saw a Flamenco performance in every new town or city that I arrived at. By far the most beautiful, authentic and soulful performance was in Seville. It may come to some as a surprise, that it was not a performance I chanced upon in one of Seville's gothic quarter Tavernas, but it was actually an organised show for tourists.

The thing about Seville is that it is as you probably know, very heavily steeped in Moorish-Andalusian dance and music tradition and so many young students of Flamenco go to Seville to seek good quality tuition and accompaniment.

Unfortunately there is a definite hue of the ‘tacky-placky' Flamenco around parts of Southern Spain but I am pleased to say that as Seville attracts these young artists there are still times when the Duende cracks open the floor and shoots into the hearts of all who are there to see. And that night's show, in Seville was an unforgettable example of that happening! The young male singer sat spent from a long, roaring exertion of canto-song with his head between his legs. The dancer, beautiful, dark and buxom stared at us all with intense authority and then sharply directed her glance away as though to deny us the privilege of her magic.

The magic had just begun…the guitarist lead the trio with a commanding ------------. After circling the dance space before us she stamped once and lifted her strong head with instinctual pride as the singer sung out an old canto jondo, flinging his head upward, long hair and sweat flickering into the dark, a rapido plea of pain tumbling out in indecipherable Spanish. The show gave us this story of poignant age-old pain, fits of exact stamping and hands raking the red-hot, Seville night-air, the dancers torso pushing out strength like a women possessed by furious determination. Her emerald scarf whirled wildly around her as she got lost in a tumult of barrel turns and charging steps within the songs of loss and persecution.

I first began researching the origins of Flamenco and Canto Jondo, for a Spanish-Egyptian choreography I was to teach to students at UWA Extension. What emerged was the beginning of my absolute fascination with the history of the gypsies of the world across time. I found myself profoundly affected by the stories of Gypsy life that formed the magnificently simple but profound Canto Jondo.

Each time I see a Flamenco performance I think of where this fearsome and incredibly beautiful dance form comes. I remember that while we sit in comfort and safety these originators of this awesome craft had lives infested with the extremes of freedom, joy and pain. The truth is no one can actually point to a particular date or event that marked the creation of Flamenco and that is why I love it. I am currently taking classes with La Vida Flamenco in Oxford and for once I am the first to class each week!

But what I have learnt most from the dances and stories of the Gypsies and as I travel through the wider world I see that the immense power of dance and of music is in releasing our total humanness. Wherever you go, you can find movements that are almost exactly like that of a culture from somewhere miles and miles away. You can see the stories present in the movements and they are the same stories the world over.

This year has seen me change nearly everything in my life. I have moved into a bigger tribe – not everyone in it knows me by name yet, most probably never will…but never-the-less I am finding in dance, an answer to my questions of belonging. Wherever dance is being made, done, taught is where all of us belong, it is the one language that absolutely anyone can share and be part of.

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I will write of my travels to Egypt, Turkey and Edinburgh and my work with Oxford Youth Theatre in a couple of week's time.