Let’s face the music and dance

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How do you know when you’re witnessing something of historic value? It isn’t always easy to tell. Having had a vague association with leading African dancers and choreographers in the UK through the years, I can remember a time when it seemed like African people’s dance had the largest and most enduring audiences in many British cities. Does anyone still carry a torch for this sort of work?

About a year ago, I attended an event held in honour of a major talent from that scene. This practitioner was a force of nature in his heyday and his demise was a shock to many of us. The event was organised by someone who had worked with him as a company manager and it took place in a relatively central part of London, on a Friday, but it was sparsely attended by colleagues, friends and associates.

We reminisced about things that went well and things that were less successful. The event was an opportunity for those present to reflect about what has happened to African people’s dance in Britain. There was a senior performer present, who spoke of taking class with Ballets Negres – the pioneering Black Dance company that fused elements of ballet, contemporary, African and Caribbean techniques into new forms. This was educative to many of us, since Ballet Negres only existed from 1946 – 1953 – long before most of us were born.

Partially due to the whims of arts funding gatekeepers and to some extent due to changing trends, the expression of Black Dance practitioners has morphed into forms like Street Dance. It is only fair that each generation gets opportunities to set out its stall, but it does seem unfortunate that the dance vocabulary created by older practitioners is seldom seen on stages nowadays.

Is there a need for Dance scholars to find ways of documenting the range of work that was created back in the day? Is it fair that some exciting dance expression that was generated here in Britain could be lost forever?