Training - Study, Experiences and Results
by Judith Palmer
When I started dancing nearly 22 years ago, there were more than 10 African peoples dance companies in existence in the UK…
…Delado in Liverpool, Kantamantu in Manchester, Ajah in Derby, Odienne in Sheffield, Kalubash Nottingham, Lanzel Wolverhampton, Sankofa Watu Wazuri Dance de l’Afrique and Kokuma in Birmingham, Yaa Asantewa, Adzido and IRIE! Dance theatre, London and Ekome, Bristol - and those were just the ones I knew about.
Of all those companies only one remains today and that is IRIE!
My reason for pursuing dance in my late teens was to fulfil a hunger for knowledge of my ‘roots’ as expressed to me through Rastafari doctrine. The Rastafarian faith portends the birthplace of humanity as being in Africa, once regarded as a land of Gods. In Egyptian history it is written that man communicated with the gods
through telepathy, clairvoyance, music and dance.
In the words of author Dennis Forsythe “Folklore proper must therefore be seen as the ancient sublime and profound wisdom of the gods which have become the
actual inheritance of the group…There is great wisdom to…grounding ourselves firmly on the wisdom of our ancients, particularly for the scattered and
dismembered tribes that have lost their way (in the Diaspora).” ‘Rastafari - healing of the nations’ 1999.
I was amongst the radical people of the early eighties that advocated Black pride against a back drop of racial discrimination in Nottingham.
Our artists were caught up in an anomaly, we wanted to learn about our heritage and the only way to do that was to join a dance company with no scope for development other than to perform.
When I started with Adzido in 1986 it was an inspiration. The company had just secured a 2nd year of government funding to run a YOP (Youth Opportunities
Programme) aka ‘The Scheme’ which enabled the company to transform the George Orwell School building into a training centre for African dance and music
By 1988, ‘The Scheme’ had run out of funds and had to be suspended. However, Adzido was granted revenue funding by the Arts Council in the same year, which provided a new focus for the company with reference to touring and performance work as opposed to training.
In my opinion, Adzido at this early point of its existence constituted the Diaspora’s equivalent of a classical ballet company.
My 10 years spent with Adzido was a huge learning curve. I battled commercialism, communism and racial prejudice! In reality, why I think I survived (i.e. lived to tell the tale) because of my passion for knowledge and cultural awareness.
After two weeks of shameless bawling.…I still couldn’t believe I had left what I considered to be home for me and my children after 10 exhausting, soul destroying, but educational years and went off to the University of Surrey to ‘find my fortune’.
I felt like it was my first day at school (except that there were more black kids at school), I was not allowed to study at BA level as I had just been employed as an associate lecturer on the BA programme, so I was offered a place on the MA programme with a major in Anthropology (which swallowed up the Dancers Resettlement insurance I had accumulated at Adzido).
Well if anthropology meant that I could study my dance forms in detail then I’ll take that, I thought.
There were two books in the library that related to my chosen studies. One called 'African Dance' by Prof. Opoku, may he rest in peace (who I am proud to say lectured me at the Black Dance Development Trust summer school in 1987 along with other greats artists - Nii Yartey, C.K. Ladzekpo, Peter Badejo, Jackie Guy, Sheila Barnett, Barry Moncrieffe, Nomsa Caluza and Joe Legwabe); and Edward Thorpe’s 'Black Dance'! I fondly recall the verbal wrestling matches that I had with my lecturers as to why APD wasn’t just another style of dancing represented at their university. It was difficult to argue my case as documentation was not available.
To add more detail to that historical situation, I see some APD forms as not just styles of dancing, they are a way of life, a whole different culture. It is how our ancestors communicated with their gods, how they gave thanks for food, water, life and even death; how they waged war, won battles and relayed history.…another part of me that I wanted to learn about.
By the time I had received my postgraduate diploma (just short of an MA), I realised that the University of Surrey ‘neva ready fi me’.
As an organisation it had a lot of growing to do to cover this area of dance. Ironically, IRIE! is conducting research into the place of African & Caribbean dance in mainstream education, and the results are not dissimilar to when I was at university 9 years ago.
“The problem in education is not only that standards of achievements have been too low; they have also been too narrow. An education system, which focuses only on one mode of intelligence or on a limited range of cultural experiences, is underestimating the larger part of children’s natural capacities and resources.
If education is to develop human resources, we must first recognise how rich and various these resources really are…a balanced education must provide opportunities…to explore and develop the different aspects of…intelligence, through a balanced curriculum and challenging processes of teaching and learning.”Quote taken from Professor Ken Robinson (NACCCE), quoted in ‘Taking Stock & Making it Happen’ Glean & Lehan, 2005.
Now I’m at the dawning of my fourth decade, I’ve been with IRIE! For 5 years, my experience when I first arrived would have put anyone off for life. The funding for the accredited courses for which I was employed as co-ordinator had run out and the programme had to be suspended (not unlike Adzido’s YOP) so I was really there to wind everything down and pursue alternative finances but to no avail.
Support for the arts in this country is quite fickle. Today you’re flavour of the month (embracing their political issues), tomorrow your old news…
…and although the powers that be have tried to relegate IRIE! Dance theatre to their dusty shelves as old news our story lives on. The company continues as a reflection of Britain’s multicultural society with a diversity of backgrounds that need to be reflected in the education system if the government wants to achieve a knowledgeable and productive workforce.
IRIE!’s catalogue of achievements:
- 21 years in existence
- Commissioned research into Archiving for APD
- Initiated Europe’s first accredited training programmes in APD
- Conducted research into APD and mainstream HE
- Secured funding for Moonshot, a dedicated space for the practice, resource and preservation of APD in the UK
Reaching for the moon
Moonshot is a £3 million refurbishment programme to regenerate a disused community centre. The centre was originally set up and run by the Black community in Deptford, and there is a huge commitment to retaining its legacy; in respect of this, the Black community’s culture and diversity forms the foundation of the new Moonshot. London Borough of Lewisham awarded the project a grant of £2.4 million, with the remainder of the funds raised by the other consortium members who include: IRIE!, Surestart and Deptford Green Secondary School.
IRIE!’s remit and space within the building allows us to work with a range of partners to make Moonshot a focal point for the practice of APD. Current partnerships are:
- IRIE! & ADAD working towards the development of an Archive programme covering the practice of APD in the UK.
- IRIE! & Birkbeck College, University of London, working towards the development of a Foundation degree in African & Caribbean dance studies.
- IRIE! & City and Islington College, working towards the development of Professional experience platforms for dance students.
- IRIE! & London Borough of Lewisham towards the development of APD within Education & Community Outreach.
Aside from the large open plan office space with adjacent library and archive with viewing and listening booths; the building will host 2 large dance studios, 2 state of the art ICT suites, 1 Seminar room, 2 teaching/meeting rooms, 1 small Café, Nursery and crèche facilities, 1 drama studio and 2 music/teaching rooms.
IRIE! intends to be collaborative in its approach to work and to create opportunities for other dance companies and individuals to create work, develop projects and to deposit physical archive material at Moonshot.