Darwin, 29 September 1997
So much of the most significant, interesting and empowering work in dance goes unacknowledged and undocumented. It is with genuine appreciation that, on behalf of the arts and the broader community in Australia, I am launching Dancers and Communities, a book which fills a neglected gap in our dance documentation—that of community dance. The book is edited by Jacqui Simmonds and Helen Poynor who also both made sizeable contributions. Through three years and umpteen drafts of this new publication, Jacqui and Helen have tirelessly interviewed, consulted, drafted and edited, and I for one am extremely grateful.
Community Dance, involving highly skilled and committed artists, and often highly innovative projects, is marginalised by the high profile end of the profession and by the arts media. The work is often misunderstood and undervalued. The purpose of the book, as Jacqui and Helen point out in their introduction, is to give community dance artists the visibility and credibility they deserve, and to celebrate the wealth of their contribution.
What is community dance and what is its context? In her preface, Shirley McKechnie, in talking of contributions, mentions 'the special places made memorable by the experiences associated with them' that the writers evoke (p.vii), and about which and in which they make their work. Helen and Jacqui speak of community dance 'as an accessible and empowering creative tool for individuals to express their identity, feelings, histories and aspiration' (p.2). Above all, community dance is about participation—by the community, in their community, for their community and with their community. It is about inclusiveness in which people's lives are integrated into their dance and not separate from it—a form of dance which allows people to tell their stories, about their place in the world regardless of age, gender, interest and abilities; and it is about a sense of community; of shared joys and sorrows.
This book tells us about some of the ways community dance evolves. I couldn't put it down. Like a good novel, its characters are fascinating, the stories captivating, and the twists and turns keep one interested, for it's as Shirley McKechnie says in the preface, 'a many faceted story of places, people and artists working together in partnerships concerned with discovery and celebration' (p.vii). It is certainly varied, moving from personal recollection to scholarly essays, practical descriptions to philosophical musings, evocations of magical moments to handling logistics—a valuable source of information, inspiration and collective experiential wisdom. Apart from the artistic and aesthetic considerations of making community work, there is a wide range of practical, technical and personnel skills necessary to fulfil the additional social and community roles such work requires. And yet there is no formula for being a successful community artist; every project requires a different approach. Flexibility, sensitivity, spontaneity, enthusiasm, honour, commitment, patience, exhaustion, resilience and pride permeate these pages, as do stories of ordinary people creating magic moments for themselves and others, through the facilitation of this person called a community dancer.
Several of the people who contributed to this book are with us today: Sally Chance, Phillip Piggin, Sarah Calver, Ranu James, Dorethea Randall, Genevieve Shaw and probably others we haven't caught up with. Grab them for a coffee—they have great stories to tell. Community dancers are people with generosity, with insatiable curiosity about the lives, places, and stories of the places and communities in which they live and work. Community dance is constantly evolving—it crosses age barriers and cultures and at its best can provide insights into the worlds we inhabit but often do not explore.
There is much to be learnt from the Aboriginal people in terms of a sense of community. In David McMicken's interview in the book, he talks of his work with the Lajamanu people—how relationships are the foundation of everything they do; and the crucial importance of 'the interconnectedness of people, how they relate, and the obligations that go with that' (p.104). Dorethea Randall, in her story, talks of the passing on of cultural heritage from her grandmother and from dancer David Gulpilil. From watching and learning, Dorethea learnt 'it is important that you become whatever you are doing and dancing about' (p.61).
As we all know, in dance the site is the body—it is an intimate place which can hold secrets and can reveal what words can hide. Christine Owen, in her description of an Art and Working Life Project with public servants, says that 'the body is one of the most important sites for challenging social and political identities' (p.140). For all of these reasons dance is a powerful tool. Combined with involvement of place and community, dance can have extraordinary impact. Quoting Shirley McKechnie again:
None of the high arts has the capacity to reach into every corner of individual lives, down every last bush track and across the breadth of this huge country as do these arts of communities, and the huge diversity of people and places which they represent.' (p.vii).
Or, as David McMicken, Territory-based dance artist says:
[But] culture has a right to bubble along on its own course. We don't even know what the culture of this country is. It's not a thing. It's like all these things side by side that rub and vibrate and cause sparks everywhere and it can be so exciting to allow that to happen, to use that. It is about politics, it is about gender, it is about social identity' (p.110).
I hope by now I have whetted your appetite to buy and delve into this book, to draw on its experiences and enter its world.
Many people have made this publication possible, most importantly the contributors, and their editors and fellow contributors Jacqui Simmonds and Helen Poynor. Then there is the fabulous support received from Helen O'Moore and Ausdance NSW, and the University of Western Sydney-Nepean. Thank you also to the Community Cultural Development Fund of the Australia Council and CADRE who are responsible for the book's design and layout.
To finish I would like to share a story about the myth-making sorcery of community dance. In her project, Waderbirds—Odyssey of the Wetlands, Beth Shelton made a movement phrase which became an emblematic motif of the project—hundreds of people performing it in different ways. Later it came back to her.
In this small example, that process went its own sweet way at local community level. And to my delight, its own sweet way led back to me a year later when I was taught the sequence by someone who had learnt it as an ancient movement ritual!' (p.25).
I have much pleasure in launching Dancers and Communities and I urge you to buy this beautifully produced and essential item for your bookshelf or library. Thank you again to Jacqui, Helen and all involved.
Dancers and Communities is available from Ausdance National.