The power of vulnerability
When we talk about engaging young people in dance, particularly young people of the teenage variety, we often use words like ‘accessibility’, which in this context can mean two different things. Accessibility can refer to all young people being able to access, appreciate and benefit from a project regardless of means, identity, or ability. This is my favourite of the two meanings and this one is always relevant- in any context, on any day, in every way- this rocks. The other meaning of the word though is a little more nuanced. Because sometimes it refers to the process of creating a dance project that will appeal to young people and often this means creating something they are already interested in. Now this is where it gets muddy. Yes, we want to engage as many young people in dance as we possibly can – dance raises self esteem, health and fitness, promotes social interaction and empathy, and generally lessens the chances of said young people engaging in other pursuits often popular with their age group but by far less beneficial and more dangerous (drugs, petty crime, irresponsible sex, unhealthy relationships…) But, given that dance as an art form holds limitless and valuable potential to challenge, question and stimulate do we not also have a responsibility to offer young people something they are not already interested in, perhaps something they haven’t yet considered?
Though I had taken perhaps one or two street dance classes in my entire life prior to graduating from dance school I sort of fell-in to a break-dance and contemporary fusion project my first year out of college. I say fell-in because I never set out to make the project about break-dancing at all. I planned a series of workshops in schools, a summer school and performance and I just so happened to choose a colleague I knew from training who, prior to that, had been a break-dancer. The marketing team who were selling our workshops got wind of his experience and used this to appeal to the children and schools, calling the project Breakout! (Yes with the exclamation mark, it was highly imperative and exceptionally cool-adjacent.) As it turned out, we had hit upon a winning formula. The project became popular because of the allure of break dance, but we combined the grounding, rhythmic, strength building breaking techniques with fluid contemporary warm ups and creative and improvisation tasks that built confidence, creativity and sensitivity. People (schools, families, new audiences…) understand what break and street dance is. They are far less confident about what the heck this Contempt-or-airy-fairy Prance is. Not to mention the layers and layers of elitism that we are still unpicking in our efforts to invite new people into our theatres… BUT that doesn’t mean they won’t like it! I am a firm believer in art. When an artist fully invests in their practice and follows a thread of genuine research, fascination and discovery with rigor and passion- out comes gold. And whether someone is a 15 year-old netball lover, a car mechanic from Milford Haven or a 67 year-old regular at Sadlers Wells, they are capable of and willing to ‘get it’ if only they are given (here’s that word again) access. By the way, I know all three of those people and they all LOVE contemporary dance. The mechanic once cried in one of my more abstract shows because he so connected to the performance. Disclaimer- yes, street dance can be art too, but- as in contemporary- only if the artist in question is highly trained in their style and applies said process of research and rigor and therefore I am not capable of creating art in any street dance form.
Having said that I have since collaborated with many break-dancers not only for the marketing perks, but because I love their physicality, energy and attitude. Learning a bit of breaking myself has changed my relationship to my body and my dancing for the better. I am braver. I want to keep training when I get the chance, and I intend to continue to expose my students to it as well. Furthermore, given the historical origins of street dance are rooted in black culture it’s a valuable tool for inclusivity.
However, I do think we must be wary of creating a youth dance culture that is entirely focused around street dance and hip-hop culture. These dance forms almost exclusively involve a certain amount of posturing. This is not meant as a criticism, posturing can be a huge confidence boost, and I’ve seen good street / break-dance teachers turn even the shyest of children into bold heroes through shifting their body language. But I also think that vulnerability and sensitivity are extremely underrated. Contemporary dance more often includes contact work and a wider variety of relationships to other dancers, softer dynamics as well as athletic ones, and expression of gentler and/or more complex emotions. These things can be hugely beneficial to a teenager who is essentially forming his or her adult self.
It’s no surprise that street dance is more widely known and more popular than contemporary, not just because we lack a catchy name and Beyoncé keeps forgetting to credit her ‘inspirations’ *coughs and links to Anna Teresa comparison video. I propose that the higher value mainstream culture places on appearing strong, tough and aloof (as one does when dancing most street dance forms) is arguably linked to both patriarchal ideas and capitalism. Patriarchal in that those qualities stereotypically attributed to masculinity have a higher commercial value than qualities stereotypically attributed to femininity. And capitalist in that the image one projects is of an independent ‘I can do anything alone’ ‘its all about me’ character, sometimes almost aggressively so. I do not mean to say that street dance is either patriarchal or capitalist, far from it, but rather that society’s preferences can be traced back to social conditioning. Compare the amount of stick a girl would get for break dancing with the amount a boy would for ballet. This is a very common problem… girls can wear trousers and escape criticism but boys can’t where skirts, girls can like blue but boys can’t like pink… feminism has changed a lot in the last 20 years for women (and we’re not finished yet!), but we are struggling to change things for men. Do we value ‘boys stuff’ and ‘male’ qualities more due to our internalised sexism? This does a disservice to young men AND young women, not to mention all the young people somewhere in between.
After re-touring my work Herstory recently conversations turned to a sequel- would I do a group piece set in a refuge, or perhaps History, looking at men’s relationship to vulnerability and abuse? I decided against it because, neat and tidy to market as that double bill would be, it’s so painfully binary! Many feminists and domestic violence campaigners acknowledge that men need to be given more options for masculinity. We as a society desperately need to acknowledge that masculinity can take many forms and to value individuality, self-expression and emotional maturity in men. This would arguably reduce cases of male suicide, domestic violence and many other endemic problems.
When I was young I didn’t do street dance because I didn’t feel cool enough to embody those shapes. I feared being exposed as the geek I was (am). But I connected to contemporary because it allowed me to be my emotional, sensitive self. Yet as an adult who sees ‘cool’ as something quite different these days, I love dabbling in other forms and shaking up my habits. If someone had placed break dance in my way back then, would I have been braver, sooner? Would it have helped me escape my chronic perfectionism and desire for a ‘ballet body’ that led to so many problems? Quite possibly. It definitely would have benefitted my career and made me a more versatile performer. Conversely, if I run a project for young men, do I not cheat them if I don’t offer the same opportunities to be gentle, empathic and delicate as I would a group of young women? In my opinion, combining street dance and contemporary in a young person’s early training (or life, if they don’t go on to a career) is the best of both worlds. They learn to embody the power, rhythm and confidence of one, and find sensitivity and vulnerability in the other.
After a colleague pointed out a lack of contemporary dance performance made for a target audience in the 14 - 21 age bracket, I resolved to fill the void. It’s taken some time to find the right theme/inspiration. I am now in the planning stages of a large and ambitious project combining my work in dance and spoken word to offer up a performance and accompanying workshops that advocate for young people (of ALL genders) to connect to their bodies and voices- and to use them with confidence, strength, vulnerability, sensitivity, empathy and power. Look out for #Tongues in the coming year.