Telling Tall Dance Tales
Artist Mary Grigg talks about her inclusive work during a 12-week dance project based on Aesop’s Fables for children.
How can I begin to explain my first outing as a community dance artist? How can I piece together words that would do justice to the experience that was the Tall Dance Tales (TDT)?
These were 12 inclusive, collaborative dance sessions for Key Stage Two children, with and without additional needs, based on Aesop’s well-loved fables. They were to culminate in a final performance at the RSC’s The Other Place in Stratford-Upon-Avon. The project was born out of a chance meeting with locally based organisation Entrust Care Partnerships, a social enterprise caring for children, young people and adults with disabilities and would be my first ‘funded’ venture with KiTh (my emerging organisation meaning: acquaintances, friends, neighbours, or the like).
I had always worked as a paid performer in commercial theatre or as a freelancer teaching artist, so asking for money from funders was another challenge I needed to get used to.
The previous 15 years I had founded and developed The Tap ‘n’ Groove Dance Workshops and a myriad of children have passed through the door, many with diverse and additional needs. Over the years I have seen an increase in anxiety and tense bodies in the children I work with, most of them transferring from sitting at desks at school to my dance sessions. At worst, I have seen an increase in mental health issues with teenagers, so it has been clear to me that young people carry a lot more around with them than bones, muscle and flesh. I wonder have I served them well as an educator, a facilitator?
In retrospect, the last four years have seen a chameleon-like process; I feel a physical reaction in my body from what this experience has taught me, the people I have met and the knowledge they have shared with me. I undertook an MA in Dance Pedagogy at Middlesex University and was led to the writings and ideas of Anna Halprin(1), Helen Poynor(2), Margaret Whitehead(3) and John Dewey(4). This heavily influenced my research inquiry at that time, seeking to understand: What are children getting from dance classes other than physical competences?
As a practitioner, I believe all bodies involved to be central to the creative collaborative process. Movement is a way ‘in’ to discovering the creativity and potential in oneself; and dance for a person can facilitate and grow the artist, not only putting emphasis on the skilful dancer but being another way of communicating.
All these strands led me to Helen Poynor’s Walk of Life Training, to look at the community and the humanness of dance that begins with ‘the body’, and how those bodies relate and respond to one another. We all have a right to dance equally and to share the same platform, whatever body structure we have and whatever we emotionally and experientially bring to that platform. These are our resources.
To unpick the thread that led to TDT’s final performance is to me what participatory dance practice is all about and something I had to experience and navigate for myself to find out, rather than learn from a textbook. It’s unpredictable, it’s connective, it gave agency to the participants and it was embodied and meaningful in a truly human and inclusive way. It also had some beautiful moments that no one could have planned.
I felt different from the beginning of the project. There was something in the air after the initial sessions – we all felt it – the volunteers, the dance assistants and myself.
It was very different than working on a fixed project maintaining that we all fit the same model. Seeds of trusted relationships had been nurtured – the communications, the processes, the planning, the noticing, the developing, it was all in there. There was an air of expectation in the group as to what might happen and that whatever that was, it was okay. We could dance, run, jump, draw, sing, shout, cry, play, rest. We gave the children a non-judgmental container for them to gain skill and control in their processes and for their dancing ideas to be followed. In fact, that unexpectedness became part of the development towards performance and it really suited the participants.
One example was when we were left without our recorded music and a child took a drum in his hands, started to play and a whole new piece was created. For the boy with Asperger Syndrome, who had become primarily focused on the vibrations of the music player and had been very still, it was a way in, a new resource. We recycled this occurrence and so discovered a new creative method, to use the drum in the making of the dance. He ended up leading me to dance a duet with him. This is very different from my past, when a teacher or choreographer held all the power and the aesthetic licence.
The skill that community dance artists hold in the facilitating, listening, noticing, reflecting and even more so, the activism they bring, may be taken for granted by those that have practiced this way for years. However, for me, it has been a sort of unlearning, an awakening… stepping out then stepping in from a different direction. Whatever age, shape or ability, dance has empathy and kinaesthetic compassion at the centre of it, that to my experience ends up as something that has more acceptance, more embodiment and more beautiful dancing bodies… a fizz in the air.
The discourse that surfaces in participatory dance I realise is an expanding field that could change perspectives in other fields too. How we relate to one another, allowing space to remind ourselves of the bodies we inhabit, vistas of the future, prizing out the creativity in others, in the everyday, in challenging a disciplinary society as to who holds the artistic licence, the power and changing landscape of performers and performing. I won’t be looking back. I’ve learned that sometimes the very subtle, intangible things are the most treasured.
- Ross, J. (2007) Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance. Berkeley: University of California Press
- Worth, L. and Poyner, H. (2004) Anna Halprin. Oxon: Routledge
- Whitehead, M. (2010) Physical Literacy, Oxford: Routledge
- Dewey, J. (1902) The Child and the Curriculum, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, Phoenix Books. Dewey, J. (1934) Art as Experience. (Reprint) New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2005. Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education. Reprint, New York: Touchstone, 1997
- Pearl, K. (2015) The Dance Gods: A New York Memoir. First ed: Victoria: Friensenpress
- Halprin, L. (1969) The RSVP Cycles: Creative Processes in the Human Environment. New York: George Braziller Inc.