Looking Back to go Forwards by Beverley Glean MBE, Artistic Director & CEO IRIE! dance theatre

June 30, 2022

As the creative industries slowly, return to some kind of normal and education and training in the performing arts, also start to take shape against the background of a global pandemic, that has held communities, hostage for over two years. The challenges continue, while the world attempts to transition to a new mode of life, with the UK’s education systems facing unprecedented challenges in meeting students’ academic and creative needs. For years prior to the pandemic, many in the UK have faced an unequal education system whereby large numbers of students were at risk of being left behind. This inequality, particularly across racial and class lines, has only been exacerbated by COVID-19. IRIE! dance theatre, like a number of black led, creative organisations have too, felt the impact. However, in light of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, what it stands for, in terms of re-dressing the cultural balance and the attempts here in the UK, particularly through the drive to decolonising curriculums, has not gone unnoticed by us.

Addressing issues of inequality has been our mission and we continue to strive to this end. Therefore, it is always wise, like the Sankofa Bird to go back in order to usefully move forward. In other words, ‘you can’t know where you are going unless you know where you came from’. So, lets ponder on what IRIE! dance theatre believes delivering Dance of the African Diaspora (DAD) in Higher Education should look like.

IRIE! has a track record of delivering African and Caribbean Dance forms within Higher Education (HE) beginning with the Diploma in African and Caribbean Dance, validated by Birkbeck, University of London (1998-2001). Following extensive research in the UK, the USA, the Caribbean and West Africa, as part of the ‘Dance and Diversity’ research project funded by Nesta and Arts Council England, IRIE! then went on to deliver a Foundation Degree with City and Islington College and London Metropolitan University (2008-2018). The current stage of the journey has been the development and delivery of the UK’s first BA (Hons) Diverse Dance Styles, validated by the University of Roehampton (2018-to date)

Over twenty years of research and delivery have taught us that we are more similar than different and while there are key and complex changes to be addressed, we know that meaningful communication increases understanding. Therefore, it was critical that equal emphasis was placed on traditional African dances, Caribbean folk, Hip Hop, and their contemporary forms. This was a unique departure for HE where the majority of courses placed the emphasis on ballet and western contemporary forms. The BA team consists of artists and lecturers, experts in each form who work together to collectively prepare students for entrance to an increasingly demanding industry where the influence of DAD is becoming more visible as society becomes more culturally aware and creatives search for new choreographic languages to educate, engage and entertain.

Photo credits: @beth_macinnes

The challenges for delivering African and Caribbean forms in HE, remains one of expectation. The forms are not only technically demanding, but they also explore the cultural, social, and historical links to the dances in order for the nuances of each form to be grasped. Students are often unprepared for the level of technical and academic understanding that the course demands.

Work is always accompanied by live drumming, a factor that increases knowledge of the associated religious, ritual, and social dances, as they learn polyrhythmic patterns, rhythmic sensibility, different types of call and response and embrace the harmony of integrated movement, rhythm, and song. Students often express their enjoyment at dancing to live drumming, with many requesting separate drumming classes to further expand their practice. Funding restrictions will always try to move away from live music in a dance class, favouring recorded sounds. However, this remains an essential element of the course.

The course strives to present the forms as authentically as possible. We may sometimes reference some of the traditional and folk forms ‘as practiced in the UK’ as the forms may have adopted certain social and/or cultural expressions due to new environments. Therefore, we draw upon the human resources of experts in the field, like myself, Beverley Glean (MBE), Dr H Patten (MBE), and Nii Kwartey Owoo, alongside a team of musicians led by Master drummers, Ras Happa and Charles James to deliver DAD on the course. From the position of Artistic Director and CEO of IRIE! I have engaged with a lifetime of work in Caribbean dance establishing a unique language for IRIE! dance theatre, creating a legacy for Caribbean dance in Britain. Dr H Patten has a wealth of experience as a former principal artist with Adzido Pan African Dance Ensemble; with an international reputation, his PhD entitled The Spirituality of Reggae Dancehall Dance Vocabulary: A Spiritual, Corporeal Practice in Jamaican Dance, puts him at the forefront of research, signalling him as an invaluable resource for the course and DAD globally. Originally from Accra, Ghana, Nii Kwartey Owoo, draws on his Ga heritage, including spiritual beliefs, storytelling, and symbolism, creating original choreography that blends tradition with current global dance styles.

The mission of the course is to provide a valuable and authentic training ground for future artists, so that going forwards African and Caribbean forms find greater significance within HE. The driving forces behind the work has been to address the problematic legacies of Western ideals and DAD, striving for critical and inclusive engagement, where more young people from diverse cultural and social backgrounds are encouraged to consider dance training in diverse dance styles, ultimately enriching the field and creating diverse audiences for dance.

Glean, B. Lehan, R. (2010) More Similarities than Differences, London: IRIE! dance theatre.