Zosia of JoonDance contacted me to let me know that this year, the summer school would contain an adult group which she hoped I could be part of, because she was bringing over a dancer with whom she had collaborated on a recent project in Cairo. Working with an Egyptian dancer/choreographer in contemporary dance, rather than belly dance, was an irresistible idea! But personally, it would be a physical and psychological challenge. How would my body, particularly my knees and feet, stand up to a few hours daily of dance workshops? Would I let down the choreographer and the rest of the group, unable to manage the choreography, the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons? Reassured that there would be a wide age range and emphasis on inclusivity, I booked and decided to stop worrying so much and just be excited.
Whatever my personal challenges, I was also interested in those of the other participants, knowing that many adults like the idea of dancing and, possibly, performing, but feel so daunted by it that they don't make it happen. It can be a real struggle to find or make the time and arrange your life to suit, that you have to really want to do it. As I had started to revise and think anew about the challenges of teaching/leading dance and exercise with adults as part of my continuing professional development, I felt that all of this could offer some valuable insights.
I've become aware of how much discipline, for want of a better word, my ballet and contemporary classes instilled in me. There was an emphasis on having a 'professional' attitude, which included keeping dates for rehearsal and being on time, no outdoor shoes in the dance space, changing and putting dance shoes on instead of sitting around when you arrive, starting your own warm-up, not interrupting or talking over the teacher, but listening attentively, participating, trying and asking questions, as if you are wondering about something, then chances are someone else is too and the answer could help everyone. It can still be difficult to concentrate on working while you feel somewhat ridiculous, but I find the class 'discipline' gets me into a sort of calm, focused zone.
A big difference, and a challenge for a teacher/choreographer, is that adults learn and do things differently to children. Children are constantly told what to do (or not do!) and generally do as they are told so that they can continue to participate and belong to the group. Most adults get out of the habit of following orders and seem to pass information through a subconscious 'this doesn't apply to me' filter. This can be very frustrating for a teacher, as simple instructions like 'just stand and watch while I do it, then we'll break this sequence down', result in half the class with their backs to you, moving as you move and missing most of what you're doing, and possibly a couple of those will also be asking the dancer next to them how to do the move, so they're also missing what you are saying.
Participants are generally caught up in their own baggage and battles, so that the challenges faced by the choreographer/director don't occur to them, but they can be just as great, if not more so. Aly Khamees found that right from the start and I really felt for him. I don't think he was expecting quite the level of challenge he would face, especially working with older adults. Quite apart from the need to adapt choreography for those of us who can't throw ourselves around a stage any more, and allow for people nipping off to the toilet as needed, the participants' lack of experience in a dance discipline and various ingrained habits can become an issue.
He would be working in English, which was neither his first (Arabic) nor second language (French). Since I speak French, I could translate for him as necessary, but he did really well and I found him easy to understand. However, it can really throw some people who don't typically encounter other accents and languages. You need to speak less and listen more, and this extends to an understanding that you also need to allow the person who is working in another language enough time and silence to be able to get their thoughts in order and get a sentence out.
Some of the adults were there because their children were in the other workshops, so had already mounted a military-style campaign to get their children and themselves organised and out of the house, before even getting to the theatre, and the adult workshop could be subject to interruptions based on the childrens' needs (though this didn't happen often). Getting to the workshops on time is a major undertaking all by itself if you're coming more than 10 miles, which is often the case. You can start out in plenty of time, but get held up by traffic in the form of lorries, farm vehicles or queues at roadworks, or any number of unexpected circumstances (flocks of sheep, stray cows, flash floods, you name it, rural west Wales has it!)
As we would be working as a 'company' over the week, culminating in a performance, the first thing was to get to know each other, and that included physically, so we could effectively watch out for one another. A group hug, giving/receiving massage or various trust exercises where you basically fall backwards and allow yourself to be caught are easy for those used to dance and drama classes, but hard for someone who is coming to this new and is averse to being touched.
We also introduced ourselves, our dance backgrounds and what we were looking for from the week. For me it was for personal exploration and re-education; finding movement mechanisms, questioning, adjusting and adapting old movement patterns, pushing back against degenerating joints and the effects of age. I was also keen to think about the differences between the contemporary techniques in the use of weight and externalising movement, as opposed to the typical Middle Eastern feeling of weight and energy in the pelvis and passing movements through the body.
The next challenge was the concept: putting ourselves in the place of someone homeless, rootless, a refugee who has left behind their country and culture, someone who has nothing. How do they feel, what it is like for them, how do they make us feel? And then creating a seven-move phrase to express some of that.
My contemporary phrase was fine, but was ditched in favour of me doing some very slow, sustained, ballet-style moves. Cue rapid revision of temps lié and some barre exercises, because I hadn't done ballet for years.
And then, singing along to something (like I do), I found to my amazement it was thought I'd be all right singing and my next challenge was to create a song in several languages, using some phrases generated by the group, to sing in a soul/blues style at some point in the performance. I realised that I no longer sing, except for snatches of songs I dance to, I don't have music radio on in the house or car, I no longer know any songs and singing solo acapella? Seriously? I'm not a singer, much less a songwriter! Everyone was tremendously supportive (probably grateful it wasn't them!) but I couldn't imagine how I could do it.
Of course, I could have said a firm and outright NO! But then, how do you know what you can do, if you don't try to do what you think you can't, while there's a supportive group around you? And I wasn't the only one with a challenge. Quite apart from those getting past touch-aversion, lack of confidence and feeling their comparative lack of dance training and experience; as part of the performance, another of the dancers was to tell a personal story of what amounted to child abuse, which was completely shocking and heart-wrenching. It was a good thing we had rehearsals to get used to what was going to be thrown out there - it must have been challenging for the audience!
During the week, I found myself looking back at myself across the years and not recognising either the woman I was then, nor the one I'd become now, as if neither were me. What happened to that girl who always wore jewellery, perfume and make up, who sang and danced and acted? Could I be her again? Did I want to be?
So, given more text (in English, plus a line of Portugese which I don't speak at all) than I could actually use when keeping it as short as possible, I managed to create a song to include those two languages plus French, Italian, German, Russian and Welsh. And I found a sort of chord-progression, improvised-sounding backing track in G minor to sing along to. At the dress rehearsal, the sound of my voice through the mic made me cringe a bit. I didn't sing it as well as I'd wanted to in performance, but I think it conveyed our concept.
When the world looks away, o mundo olha para longi,
You’re still there, I see you, t’es encore la, je te vois, je te vois, je te vois.
When your feet hurt, i tuoi piedi ti fanno male,
And the river runs home, solo il fiume scorre a casa.
I think I understand, ich glaube ich verstehe,
But what do I know? A shto ya znaiou?
Living with that touch of hope, un poco, poco, poco di speranza
For kindness to fill this emptiness, la gentilesse va remplir ce vide.
And I’m sorry, maen flin da fi,
I’ve just my heart to give you, dim ond fy nghalon i,
You’ve got to reach beyond yourself , reach out, donne moi tes mains
I see you.My ballet section seemed to go on forever (I can't remember what the music was or how long it went on for, but I would have cut the hell out of it!) and I didn't dance well, but perhaps my teetering balances, the strain (and pain) of some of it also spoke of hardship and yearning, grace and love in a harsh environment, attempting to connect in an alien culture, the bound movement and repetition evoking a feeling of being trapped by circumstances beyond your control.
The show at the Torch turned out all right on the night. In the end, I think we were all a bit blown away by what we achieved. I loved working with Aly Khamees and the other awesome women in the adult dance group, sorry, the Joon Golden Thugs or whatever our company name ended up as, the children were great, and the dance works by Zosia Jo, Kim Noble and Aly Khamees were amazing!
Overall, I enjoyed myself, but sometimes I wonder why. It was a series of challenges which took me well outside my comfort zone and gave me flashbacks, so perhaps it reached into my soul and awoke the masochistic dance student who once found such comfort in dance classes. Whatever, it sparked some creative thoughts and given me enough to think about until summer school next year!