Movement has the capacity to take us to the home of the soul, the world within for which, we have no name. Anna Halprin, a legendary dancer, innovator, choreographer who died last week at 100.
The carpet would be rolled back in my Auntie Win and Uncle Len’s living room in Mitcham, Chubby Checker was on the turntable – my dad and I, often known to my friends as George Henry, would be twisting and twisting again. It was a family do. It was the closest I got to wildness at 13. Well, if you don’t count the discos at Butlin’s.
George Henry was a bit of a showman. I’m so grateful. He passed it on to me. He gifted me his dancing spirit. Sometimes it was a bit much. On the Costa Brava – Arenys de Mar, actually – when I was a bit older, 17, I recall our upstairs neighbours doling out the sangria as if it were lemonade. Well, it was partially lemonade but not enough for my mum. My poor mother who didn’t drink inadvertently got drunk and was laid out on the bed. Meanwhile, dad decided to come to the disco with me. No, dad, sorry, that really was cramping my style. Not to mention transgressing the daughter/father boundaries. Yes, that word.
Pan’s People on Top of The Pops. Fuck Latin and German, I just wanted to be a go-go dancer. This was the 60s, and I was the proud owner of white PVC boots – I worked in a shoe shop in Ilkley at the weekends – they looked hideous but I thought I was a Bond girl. Oh and white lipstick as well, my family were horrified.
Our place of deification at the time was the Cow and Calf disco. Up on the moors, you went downstairs – it was like a cave with ultraviolet lights and endless Tamla. It was heaven when you could get in. When I could get in. My friends all looked older, I barely looked my age. The security guys often wouldn’t let me in. It was a subject of constant humiliation. To top it all, my parents banned me from going, it was an uphill struggle but of course, all of that didn’t stop me from trying.
Once inside this den of iniquity, the Supremes would start up and the transporting would begin. To another universe. Unspoken and free. Marvin, Ike, Tina – they were alluring dancing partners. Little did I know what was actually going on. We hung out with those young men with sports cars, already at work and therefore in the money. Who wanted schoolboys when you could frug with semi-grown ups?
Much later, post-son, in my 40s, I started 5 Rhythms dancing – New Yorker Gabrielle Roth created this urban shamanism, this limb prayer, this way of connecting, no really connecting, not drunken connecting – because my friend, Carol Lee was one of her first students in the UK. My son often came with me and played amongst us while we danced our bones and blood. These were special times in a church hall in Shepherd’s Bush where our friend Miguel would turn up with his didge and offer its healing growl to our hungry bodies, we would sing the rhythms, we would stop and do spontaneous tarot writings. These were not traditional classes and that’s why they were so inspiring. When we danced with partners, we’d stop and tune into each other, there was a closeness, a tenderness and I loved it.
In my mid-50s, the dance camp arrived. The Field of Love. Ten days on a field first in Norfolk, then in Suffolk and finally in Dorset. With live musicians. We danced ‘til we dropped. We dropped as we danced. It was a crazy love fest where we would bundle together, see into each other without social masks, dance like dervishes, cook over open fires, and roar with laughter in the hot tub made from an old orange juice container with a Heath Robinson fire to heat it. There was even a caravan sauna.
I was single and I went to those camps for nine years. Just as I was disappearing from view in some ways in society, I re-appeared on the Field of Love. It was a space where age did not matter. Where I felt totally met in the dance. And emotionally. I was able to be vulnerable and there were people to hug me. We were a community – in a loose way, we still are – and we looked after each other. A men’s and a women’s group came out of it, both still exist.
Profound friendships were made. And we’d dance in the morning when we got up when we were chopping vegetables when we were tired and should have gone to bed. We were raw with each other and open to love. Our hearts were on fire.
I got the chance to practice – performing poems, presenting the cabaret, leading runway flamboyance across the green green grass, instigating a hat parade, taking the group on a late-night labyrinth meditative walk, creating a pleasure bazaar based on one I’d experienced at a Tantra Festival in Catalonia. There was no end to our creations.
The camps emboldened me and I made a couple of dance films – well I say I made, my son is a film-maker, he did the practicals – Dance Willesden Junction (https://vimeo.com/34487064) and Dance Harlesden (https://vimeo.com/66771510s) as part of my Harlesden book project. Oh I so loved those dancing days. I felt as though I had my very own nomadic dancing tribe. We danced to Al Green in a piss-stench tunnel, we rolled on the paving slabs in the heart of Harlesden. People stared and smiled and were sometimes entranced. Others rubbished us. We laughed at ourselves. I didn’t want those days to end.
So much of what happened on the Field of Love has seeded what I’m doing now. Both in poetry – I just finished a year’s Willesden Junction Poets’ project with nine poets and BeWILDering, a book of our poems about the station, which was funded by the Brent2020 Culture Fund. And now with Dance Me To Death, an Arts Council England-funded performance, film and exhibition with ten Over 60s non-professional dancers, of which I am one!!! This is the perfect Advantages of Age Project.
Really this is my dream come true. To create a dance piece with choreographers Rhys Dennis and Waddah Sinada from FUBUNATION. I met them in 2020 at the Brent Artist Network – set up by Brent2020, it was such a good idea and meant that artists and performers in the borough got to meet each other. Rhys and Waddah were doing a presentation. I chatted to Rhys afterwards. I had it already in my mind that it would be great to do an intergenerational project.
I got even more excited when I saw the dance that they do. They explore black masculinity through dance and challenge stereotypes around what that is. Their pieces are all about trust and gentleness. They take risks with intimacy and touch. They are two young black men who are not afraid of diving into unknown male territory.
They perform contemporary dance but there are many crossovers with 5 Rhythms. This willingness to explore and take risks relationally in the dance. is what I’m passionate about. Next, I had to persuade them to do this project with me. I met Rhys for a cup of tea in Harlesden, he actually seemed keen. I felt into the potential richness. I felt my body smile.
And then the long Arts Council application slog started. It was relentless. Seventy-three pages of budgets, marketing, management and explanations. I nearly gave up the will to live during this time. It seemed endless. And I was scared that I would fail. Finally, it went off.
When the answer came a few weeks later in December, I didn’t open it for a few weeks. Not wise. I hadn’t got the money. I guess around this time, Rhys and Waddah thought that we wouldn’t get it. I had to gather myself, get through my fear of failing and respond to the ACE feedback. I was in N Wales for this winter lockdown and I just had to hunker down and get on with it. I did.
Two weeks before the Dance Me To Death start date, I found out that I’d been offered the grant. It took me weeks to actually believe it. Now we just had to create the performance, a short film and an exhibition. There was just one hitch. A condition of the offer was that Kensal Green Cemetery – the chosen location because it is gloriously one of the Victorian Magnificent Seven in London – agreed to be the location for the performance.
This was a stressful period. I was looking for a hall for rehearsals, putting a call out for non-professional dancers while I didn’t know if we had the cemetery to dance in. A lovely Operations Manager at Kensal Green Cemetery, Peter Humphries – he’s Australian, very laid back and has been so supportive of the project – pushed it along for us. And it happened.
Now six weeks later, we’re about to start our fourth workshop and the performance is starting to come together. There have been all sorts of uncomfortable zones to pass through – like counting, like actual choreography. Many of the dancers come from a 5 Rhythms’ background, which is great for me because we get to dance together in a way that I understand.
At the first workshop, Waddah and Rhys taught us ‘flocking’, a term in contemporary dance which means one person starts a movement and the others follow, and when you’re in a group, the change of the person leading becomes almost imperceptible. The group is moving as one. It was terrifying – you have to step out and lead – but thrilling.
This was a way of building content. In fact, Waddah and Rhys gave us exercises so that we created the movements, and then they chose which ones to use in the performance and started breaking them down with breath and counting. This was scary as well. I went home the first week feeling intimidated by the idea of this choreography.
However, by end of the second workshop, I loved it. It was stretching us. And I could feel us moving together as a collective and that was very satisfying. We felt like a dance company. I must say my admiration for all the other dancers is immense, everyone without fail has been giving the workshops their all. It’s moving to witness and be part of.
And the musicians, Fran Loze on haunting cello and Mark Fisher on tight percussion and guitar hold us in the dance and the beat. The performance has started to feel like a wake already. Funnily enough, Fran and Mark are musicians that I met on the Field of Love and I relish that continuum.
In the mornings, I facilitate emotional work around death and dying. We are making layers of trust between us. The first week, I asked everyone – Rhys and Waddah are included – to bring objects to put on the altar (this is a sacred place created every week) that honoured their dead. I brought a photo of Jayne, a close friend who decided to take her own life because she couldn’t stand to be here any longer. I talk about her kindness and how important she had been to me. And the way she’d made a gentle place for herself in the woods as a way to go.
Neither Rhys nor Waddah has had anyone close to them die yet but Rhys brought in one of his grandma’s bracelets and talked about finding his place among his ancestors. I was touched that he was already thinking about the ancestors.
In the second week, I invited them to get in pairs and create an International Grief Ritual for people who had died worldwide from Covid. I don’t think they expected that but they had some great ideas. I think we’ll come back to those rituals. One was a festival like Live Aid, another was a ritual, that was repeated all over the world.
The morning’s work feeds into the dance. Dance Me To Death. One of the dancers, Anthony, mentioned early on that when he’s dancing for three hours at 5 Rhythms classes, he can imagine dying in that space. In that bliss and peace.
Yes, Anthony, yes.
Anna Halprin – whose quote I use at the top – died at 100 last week. She was a dancer and choreographer until the very end of her life. She believed in the healing power of dance and indeed used cathartic movement as part of her healing voyage with cancer in the 1970s.
This is all tangling up and finding its way into our performance. I can’t wait.
Dance Me to Death is happening on June 26th at 3pm in Kensal Green Cemetery. You can buy tickets here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/…/dance-me-to-death.
The price includes a glass of wine or sparkling water afterwards.
There is an after-party, an exhibition, a Q & A plus vegan tagines are available to pre-order. There will also be a short film that will be screened later in the year.
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