Dancing: Autobiography

SAMUEL BECKETT has it right: ‘Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.’ I should have listened to him when I was young, because I did it the other way round… All through my childhood, adolescence and early twenties, I was a bookish individual. There were hints of the dancer within, unleashed at parties and expressed in the awkward exhibitionism of the punk era. But mostly, I kept it well hid. And I paid the price. By my late twenties, in 1985, I had suffered a series of debilitating illnesses – partly because I burnt the candle, not only at both ends, but in the middle too; but mainly because I lived almost entirely inside my head. And my body, not surprisingly, got sick.

On the slow road to recovery, I started practising Hatha Yoga. (I am still a fan.) After a while, I wanted something more expressive and expansive. I found a contemporary dance class at Brixton Recreation Centre, South London, taught by a young and brilliant dancer called Andrew Hammerson, who quickly became a mentor and a friend. His work, based on the principles of the Alexander Technique, encouraged a sense of release and flow, balance and musicality, which has formed the basis of my entire dancing life since. They say your first teacher can set you up for life. Andy, as my first dance teacher – lyrical, clean-lined, long-limbed, imaginative – certainly did that for me.

In 1986, already nearly thirty (don’t let anyone ever tell you are ‘too old’ to dance), I won a place on the post-graduate programme at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance in London, and spent an intense year training in ballet, contemporary, choreography and Laban technique. The Laban principles of WEIGHT, TIME, SPACE and FLOW  are ones I return to, again and again, in my own teaching and performing.

In 1986, I  began, too, a ten year apprenticeship in T’ai Chi, under the eagle eye of Yang Style master Andreas Demetriou (who trained with Gerda Geddes at The Place, London). This beautiful, quiet, meditative internal movement form, saved my back and my sanity, at a time when I was dancing so much I was ready to swing right off my axis into outer space. T’ai Chi grounded me. It still does.

After my training, I spent two years in communist Hungary, in 1988/89, working as Movement Coach for two national theatre companies, one in Kaposvár, South West Hungary, and one in the industrial North East, Miskolc. Since I spoke no Hungarian at the time, I certainly learned a lot about communicating through body language! It was fascinating working with Hungarian actors, whose physical style is much more robust and fiery than English performers. They wore me out – but in a good way.

Drama School teaching in England followed on. From 1989 to 1992, I worked as Movement Tutor and choreographer at the London Academy of Performing Arts (now defunct) and the Oxford School of Drama (now a leading conservatoire.) I particularly loved the Oxford students: they had a fantastic physicality, and an enormous sense of fun.

In 1996, I took further training, this time focussed on a therapeutic approach to movement – Diploma in the Fundamentals of Dance Movement Therapy at Roehampton Institute, London. This is where I really learned to improvise freely with the body, and to ‘read’ its messages, in a more subtle, internal way.

The training proved useful, both in work and life, as I spent ten years caring for my husband, who was terminally ill with cancer, from 1994 – 2004. This took its toll, physically, mentally, emotionally. I recognised, more deeply than ever, the need to integrate Mind and Body, to work with somatic meaning. To be patient. To wait. To trust. A long-term study  of  the Alexander Technique, with wonderful Leeds teacher Grant Ragsdale (http://www.ragsdale.co.uk) which I began in 2002 – and return to, again and again – helped me through the trauma, and gave me invaluable techniques, which I use on a daily basis: in my teaching, in my life.

From 2000 – 2003, I volunteered at Bradford Cancer Support Centre, teaching quiet, meditative sessions, both in movement and creative writing, for people who were often very sick. I also ran independent classes in T’ai Chi in Leeds, 1997 -2003, and then again from 2005 – 2012.

Two artistic hubs have provided a generous space for my movement work over recent years. Firstly, Seven Arts Centre, Leeds, where I taught creative dance and movement from 2010 – 2011, under the title of ‘Still Moving’, to a large bunch of people over 50 years old. (And they certainly were still moving. They ran rings round me.) And, chiefly, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, which has been my main teaching ‘home’, 2009 to date. 

The Playhouse is a hive of artistic activity, off stage and on. There is a rich programme of arts and community outreach, for all age groups. I teach creative writing and dance/quiet movement sessions on the Heydays programme for older people – including ‘Poetry in Motion’, which integrates words and movement through improvisation. I also work with story-telling in movement and words, on the in-house Dementia Projects; and teach performance skills – to help build vocal and physical confidence – on the outreach programme for Refugees and Asylum Seekers.

It is a continued delight to dance – both for myself, and with others. Always, the body is unfolding its secrets, if we just tune in and listen. Martha Graham in her autobiography ‘Blood Memory’, says it better than I ever could.

‘Outside my studio door in my garden, is a tree that has always been a symbol of facing life, and in many ways it is a dancer. It began as a sapling when I first moved here and although a wire gate was in its way, it persisted and grew to the light, and now thirty years later it is a tree with a very thick trunk, with the wire embedded within. Like a dancer it went to the light and carried the scars of its journey inside. You traverse, you work, you make it right. You embody within yourself that curiosity, use that avidity for life….The body is a sacred garment…and should be treated with honour…’

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