Thursday, 8 December 2016

Theatre Thoughts: What is Dance?

I've just read a really interesting article that a friend posted on Facebook, and it's made me think about a recent experience of my own.

What is Dance?

Obviously I love theatre, and I love dance, and I attend performances whenever I can afford to or find the time to. I recently went with a friend to watch a very well received and reviewed performance by a major company at an important theatre in London. We left at the interval.

The contemporary performance was set to well known Classical music, featuring a full orchestra and choir and solo singers, who were all exceptional. The dancers were highly trained, moved beautiful and in synchronicity. The staging and lighting were gorgeous. But each disparate element was just that - a disparate element. We felt as though the dancers could be dancing to anything - they weren't in time with the music (deliberately, but irritatingly), the story of the music was barely reflected in the dance, and the lighting didn't complement the performers or the performance.

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Maybe, as the original article suggests, the performance had been extensively researched, workshopped and developed so that each individual on stage knew exactly their story and their purpose. But that didn't come across at all. I feel they would have benefited from some dance dramaturgy in the later stages of rehearsals - the 'outside eye' to come in and see if the movement could more closely reflect the stories they were trying to tell. 

Both my friend and I are trained in theatre, we know performance and we know contemporary dance. However much we appreciated the production, we were not enjoying it. 

I know, I know; theatre, in all of its myriad forms, doesn't necessarily just exist for "enjoyment" - it can be challenging, uncomfortable, confrontational. For example, a contemporary dance triple bill that I saw last year, opened with a visceral piece that drew on domestic violence, which made for highly disconcerting, yet riveting viewing. When attending a performance feels like a dry, dusty lecture, something is wrong.

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When you have to read an essay of explanation before a show, does it remove the enjoyment from the performance itself? Does it turn it into an intellectual exercise?

I think that this is why dance, and contemporary dance in particular, is seen as inaccessible. Because, very often, it can be. It can seem to be for those "in the know"; those who like to sit and scratch their chins and "hmmm" at each extension or plie. Or maybe it's for those who don't mind when the dancers don't seem to dance to the music that is playing, because dance transcends pure music, and makes its own?

That former sentence could have come straight out of one of the reviews I read before attending.

I don't know. My friend and I weren't the only ones who scuttled out at the interval. The bar nearby did great espresso martinis.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Strictly Serious

I adore Strictly Come Dancing. Accuse it of being twee or dated; hate on the presenters or the contestants; question the place of a novelty show in the current climate; do as you will - I will still adore it.

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You see, everyone has a favourite song, everyone loves singing along to the radio, or dancing stupidly in the kitchen while you're waiting for the kettle to boil (I know it's not just me!). Not everyone has a favourite scientific theory, or would queue for hours for tickets to a lecture by an academic mathematician. So why are subjects like music given less credence in the curriculum and the world of academia than so-called STEM subjects. Especially in this country where the arts and culture form such a huge part of the income for UKPlc, and have been proven to have an impact above and beyond their initial investment.
I could argue for the impact of the arts on lives, and yes, I understand that scientific advancements and engineering developments have had huge impacts on the human species. But music speaks to us on a level other than science; art puts onto canvas or into sculpture what mathematics cannot express; we lose ourselves in a good work of fiction rather than an engineers manual when we want to wind down.
The arts are a very human way of expressing what it is that makes us human, as I argued in my degree artefact. They bring us together, and this is needed more than ever as forces across the world seem intent on tearing us apart.

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In an oft-misquoted quote, when Winston Churchill was asked to cut funding for the arts in order to support the war effort, he was supposed to have said "Then what on earth are we fighting for?" While I am given to understand that he never actually said that (as with so many wonderful witticisms attributed to the man), I still think it bears repeating. Art is created in a free and open society, because it is a free and open expression. I remember being told, during my music A-Level, when we were studying Shostakovich, that during the years he spent being patronised by the Soviet government, he had to compose his music according to strict communist doctrine; that each note had to appear an equal number of times, that every musical note had to add up to the same value over the entire piece. How exhausting and restrictive must that have been for him?
Art flourishes when society is free to flourish.

The Remembrance Day edition of this years competition brought me to tears; the pro-dance, which depicted through a group number the story of Basil and Madge who met during World War Two; and the celebrity guest performer, Andre Rieu and his Orchestra, who performed a beautiful rendition of Hallelujah by one of the many losses of 2016, Leonard Cohen, as two of the pro-dancers swept around them. It reminded me that we, humans, are capable of such beauty and empathy and creativity; and yet we all too often turn to discord and disagreement instead of discussion.

One of the 2016 Strictly contestants, Ed Balls, former Shadow Chancellor, appeared on another of my favourite television shows, The Last Leg, the day after the American Elections. He was asked, by the host, whether today was really a day for dancing. And he gave a wonderful response:

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Imagine if we could come together over policy or politics in the way that we do over things like Strictly, or Bake Off. I mean, I know that the outcome of a talent competition, however entertaining it may be, does not have an effect on whether people have enough money to pay their bills that month, or whether the potholes in the road get fixed, or if the country renews nuclear weapons, or how we deal with numerous crises across the world. But if we can unite over the small, unimportant-seeming things, then I think it proves that we have the ability and the capacity to unite over the bigger things.

And, as far as I know, no wars have ever been started because of the 'favourite' losing in the dance-off.

Friday, 11 November 2016

A Dirty Word

This was originally posted on LibDem Voice on 10th November 2016.  This is the extended, personal version...

There has been an upswing in certain sections of the press of the condemnation of a particular demographic: the “liberal, metropolitan elite.” 

When did 'liberal' become a dirty word? Why is it being used as a word to mock, or incite loathing? It is defined by the OED as a willingness "to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different to one's own..." and as someone who is "open to new ideas". That all sounds great. Perfectly reasonable.

Why is this a bad thing?

It's concerning, then, that the word is being twisted to suit an agenda that runs on stoking fear and hatred. When it becomes disgraceful to show empathy with those who are suffering, just because those people are not from your country of origin, that is scary. When people who have gained positions of responsibility are told that it is because they are part of the 'system' (alright, sometimes that's correct!) rather than because of their own merits and work ethic, that's disturbing. And when a politics of scaremongering, scapegoating and 'other-ing' becomes acceptable, and electable, rather than a politics of understanding, rationality and inclusivity, then I worry for the future of the world.

Politics aside, I would say that most of my friends, acquaintances and family members would identify with the OED definition of the term 'liberal'; believing in equality, and willing to respect other people's views, opinions, lifestyle choices, religions, etc. 

So when, and why, did having a liberal outlook become something that others believe we ought to be ashamed of? When did a pluralistic, optimistic, inclusive agenda become something to be vilified, and an insular, nationalistic, blinkered view become the accepted norm? That people who hold liberal views are somehow not "normal", or have led privileged or sheltered lives, or don't understand how "ordinary" people live, and think, and work, and worry. 

It's wrong, it's deeply troubling, and something that needs to be countered at every turn.
I rent, can't afford to buy, feel as though I am being priced out of a city that I love, and work part-time in a service industry.

You see;
I am a working-class white girl from a small Northern city. I grew up on what could be termed a council estate (it was a lovely estate, don't get me wrong, but all of the houses were council-built, and my parents camped out overnight outside the housing offices to be first in line for one, as previously they had been living in a caravan on my grandparents drive).
I went to a normal primary school and a normal secondary school, and was on Free School Meals for the first three years due to my family and living situation which was, let's say, unstable for a time.
Due to the same circumstance I was eligible for full financial assistance when I went to college, and I always had a job at the same time. I was once unemployed for several months and it was the worst.
I love the monarchy and believe that democracy is the best workable form of government. I watch TV like Bake Off and Strictly, and enjoy chilling out in a pub with friends, drinking shandy or cider and gossiping about who got voted off this week.
Therefore I am, I guess, "Normal, Honest, Working-Class, Hard-Working, Decent and Ordinary."

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I live in London. I work freelance in the arts and cultural industry. I trained in Musical Theatre and worked as a Cabaret performer throughout my twenties. I have friends from outside of my own age-range, class, faith, ethnicity and experience.  I read The Guardian, The Independent and The Stage, and books about politics, dramaturgy, theatrical theory, history and dystopian fiction. I like to go to cocktail bars, or wine bars and discuss things like this over a glass of prosecco. I go to the theatre as often as I can, and visit museums and art galleries for fun rather than because I feel as though I *have* to, or *ought* to. 
I sponsor several charities and support community initiatives. I am a feminist, and believe in true equality regardless of gender identity, age, ethnicity or any other arbitrary assignation. I have a degree. I am a Liberal Democrat voter. I believe that Parliament, and our elected representatives, have the responsibility to act in the best interests of the country and not according to the whims of the country. I voted Remain because I think that, in an interconnected world, we should be aiming for closer bonds and not isolationism. I passionately believe that we should do more to help those suffering, both here and abroad. 
I am, by almost every media standard, a reviled "Liberal", part of the "Metropolitan Elite."

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I find labels a lazy way of attempting to define how another person fits into your own view of the world. I've written before about how I find some forms of specification limiting, and I believe that they can often become debilitating, both to the person being defined (i.e. offensive), and to the person defining (i.e. unwilling to consider viewpoints other than ones own) - and thus, we have come full circle.

Maybe, instead of either slapping a label on a person, or taking self-defined labels and attempt to turn them into ill-thought-out, poorly researched insults, we ought to practice a little more empathy and liberal thinking.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Junk Food

This is a blog about junk food. Nothing more. Just junk food. If you choose to read more into this, then that's your issue: I'm talking about junk food. Right?

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Junk food is bad for you, right? We all know it. However, sometimes you fancy a doughnut instead of an apple.

Despite the fact that you know that the apple is better for you, sometimes you just want a doughnut. Specifically a Krispy Kreme. Or a whole packet of biscuits. Or an ice-cream sundae balanced on top of candy floss in a cone. Whatever. 

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But, here's the thing: we all know that strawberries are far better for us than strawberry syrup. The strawberry syrup might seem fun and exciting, and is a luridly bright colour which is good for distracting us from the fact that we're basically just eating s**t, but in the long run, the actual strawberry will definitely do you more good.

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Sure, it's fun, once in a while, to throw caution to the wind and super-size your order. But if you live on a diet of junk food, then eventually you'll get sick, and lethargic, and you'll be unable to leave your house.

Admittedly, on the flip side, if you live purely on apples you're also going to get pretty blocked up, and people who extol the virtues of quinoa and pulses, getting all puritanical and preachy, are also pretty irritating.

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I know, I know: it's nice to dabble, once in a while, and push the boat out with a family-sized bar of Dairy Milk, but if you were making the sensible choice, for the long term, you'd choose the apple. It might seem a little dull, and it doesn't come with cartoon characters promoting it, but once the initial sugar rush from the chocolate has worn off, you'll be left depressed and deflated, with that bit of a niggling headache that comes from having made a Bad Choice. 

The apple, while seemingly boring and predictable, is actually full of essential nutrients, will keep you satisfied for much longer, can stabilise your blood sugars and, as part of a healthy diet, contribute to preventing all sorts of diseases. Plus, there's actually a lot of variety in apples - Pink Ladies, Granny Smiths, Braeburn, etc. Experts the world over agree that apples are better for you than ice-cream, and who would know that better than an expert who has spent their life researching the differences between apples and ice-cream? 

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It's fashionable at the moment to dismiss the experts and choose the extra-large pizza over the chicken salad, but, what I'm saying (and I'm only saying this) is that really, for the good of our health, our future, and both our long-term and immediate happiness, we should probably choose the chicken salad. 

Or the apple.

It's a Free World

We live in an incredibly interconnected world. The phrase "It's a Small World" has never been more appropriate.

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Walt Disney with original models for the 'Small World' ride at DisneyLand. Any excuse for a Disney-related image!

If I wanted to, I could have a girls-night in, with friends from America and Australia, over Skype. I could chat, face-to-face with my family in Canada while I was on the train on the way in to work, and information is shared at lightning speed from all points of the globe.

So, when victims of hate speech online are told "Just remove your account", it's not that simple. For better or for worse we now live in an online world, and removing an aspect of your internet life isn't easy for everyone.

I'm one of the last generation who remembers a life without the internet. We got dial-up when I was about fifteen, and I was permitted to use it for about half an hour in the evening, while Coronation Street was on, as it hogged the phone line and meant no one could interrupt my Grandma's viewing. Nowadays I can use the web whenever I wish; at home, on my phone, even at selected London tube stations, and social media is my primary medium: I utilise my channels for everything from keeping tabs on family, connecting with friends across the world, promoting businesses and companies (my job), finding work, etc... If I was to remove one of these channels, I would lose that network that I had built up, and creating a new profile from scratch would make me less visible to the people that I would actually *want* to target.

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Online trolls - giving these guys a bad name...

I have, admittedly, never been targeted by online 'trolls', but almost daily stories (both news and from friends) mean that I am aware of the levels, type and content of online abuse, and I have written quite a few times about various aspects of social media and Web 2.0. I was pleased to come across this from The Guardian, which is aiming to open the conversation around the web we want.

I do think it's about time that online activity is taken more seriously. As the world becomes more connected, the boundaries between what is 'real' and what is merely 'online' will become ever more blurred. It's all very well and good saying things like "We need to educate our kids about it", but "our kids" have grown up with this medium, they know it already, and they navigate it a lot better, and with greater ease, than many adults. While that brings it's own problems (teenagers and young adults tend to be less emotionally rational than adults and may take online trolling to heart more than a person in their thirties, for example), I find it telling that many of those convicted for online abuse tend to be of an older generation.

Online trolling from older internet users - who may have started their online lives during their teenage years, twenties, thirties or older - is pretty terrifying. These people wouldn't dare say out loud, in public, around friends, the things that they spew publicly, and it's quite scary that they feel the need to set up an online account to vent their venom anonymously. It's unnerving to think that the thoughts and feelings spouted every day online could be simmering away under the suit of the man opposite you on the tube, the woman at the coffee shop that you share a giggle with in the morning, the group of mums at the school gates.

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Even language used in our national newspapers is becoming more and more vitriolic: I heard an argument the other day that the language of print media is becoming more reflective of websites and media channels, in order to appeal to the online generation who are abandoning traditional newspapers in favour of a quick connection and a touch screen. However, seeing those words, terms and headlines whenever we enter a corner-shop or a supermarket reinforces the idea of the normalcy of that language and permits it.

There are many psychological studies on this phenomena: normalising behaviours makes them 'okay', and allows more and more extremes to manifest. We can see examples of this psychological societal reinforcement everywhere we look these days, from politics to pop-culture. Again, I've written many times about the way that media and culture can influence society, and I honestly think it's beyond time that both culture and law-enforcement take online abuse as seriously as they would if someone yelled those threats into a person's face. Because otherwise it will only be a matter of time before that behaviour manifests itself as 'normal' too.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Theatre Thoughts: Ballet Lessons

It's quite a while since I last danced properly*, a long time since I felt confident enough to call myself 'a dancer', longer still since the last time I attended a ballet class, and more time has passed than I care to admit since I graduated from college.

However, even though I'm much older, stiffer and curvier now than I was when I was training, and I certainly don't feel as though I *look* like a dancer, I still get asked on a regular basis: "You're a dancer, aren't you?" Some of this is, certainly, down to working in a dance shop where it is assumed (correctly in the case of the store I work in) that all of the staff are dancers. However I get it in other aspects of my life as well; working in an office, sat on a reception desk, etc. In innocuous, incongruous environments, someone may say to me "Oh, you have excellent posture; you must be a dancer."

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This, I believe, is the lasting legacy of my time dance training, and why I believe that every child should attend a dance class;**

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If there's one thing that dance (ballet in particular) does better than almost any other activity that a child can engage in, it is to teach you good posture. I remember an exercise from, I think, pre-primary class, which started with sitting down with fingertips resting on the floor beside you; my teacher told us to imagine that the ribbons in our hair were pulling up to the ceiling, while keeping our fingers lightly touching the floor. Try it and tell me that you can't feel your shoulders pulling down, your stomach being pulled in, your back straightening and your neck lengthening. And that wasn't even the exercise, this was just the position we started in!
The things we learn as children stick with us throughout our lives, and good posture is one the many things that ballet taught me.

Another aspect of dance training that has lingered is punctuality. While I was at college, if we weren't ready to start the class at the right time, we weren't allowed to take part. Simple as that. The shame of being made to sit out of the class was awful. Even in casual classes, before I trained full-time, various teachers would impose restrictions: if you were late, you had to warm-up yourself and join in when the class moved to the next exercise, or after the barre section. Obviously this didn't apply to children's classes where it's much more likely that late-running is the fault of the parent, or traffic, but as soon as we were old enough to negotiate our own way somewhere, it has been the opinion of most of my teachers that we were old enough to negotiate our way there on time. After all, auditions or performances aren't going to be held because of traffic, or a train fault, so, unfortunately, we have to learn.
As a result I am obsessed with being punctual. I would rather be an hour early than five minutes late, and if I think a certain train or bus will leave me with 'just' enough time to arrive at my destination, I will opt for the earlier choice.

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It's always said "Treat Others As You Would Wish To Be Treated", and I would imagine that nearly everyone on earth would agree that they would wish to be treated with respect. This is something we learn early on in ballet classes, with a révérence at the end of the lesson. I would argue that, alongside this, our presentation in class was drilled into us as being a sign of respect for your teacher: they are there to help you, and if they can't see your body under baggy clothes, loose hair, or multiple layers, you are not allowing them to do their job. Therefore, wearing the correct clothing and appearing neat and tidy is a sign of respectfulness and willingness to learn.
Being taught respect for yourself and others is one of life's great lessons. It can come from anywhere, but for me this came from ballet class.
* for the purposes of this blog, my booty-shaking at a recent wedding doesn't count
** or martial arts, or sports, or art class, or music lessons. Whatever takes your child's fancy!

I Wrote A Thing...

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece for Lib Dem Voice, which they titled "Changing the Political Culture to be more accepting of Women" - I had submitted it under the less explanatory "Women and Politics" but hey ho, I'm still happy that it got published!

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'Prime minister Theresa May has called for "dads to talk to girls about current affairs and politics" in a bid to encourage more women to enter Parliament...'

The side of me that is regularly riddled with anxiety was reluctant to read the comments section, and I did so while surrounded by chatty workmates, in case of a nervous breakdown. However, in the main it has transpired to be mainly commentary amongst the commenters, and the points raised that are specifically targeted at me or the article content I actually, in the main, agree with. And a couple of them were really nice, which is, I think, reflective of the Liberal Democrats as a political party - even when people were disagreeing with, or contradicting, something that I had written, they did so in a measured, considered way rather than just shouting that I was wrong or didn't know anything (which is what I was genuinely terrified of!)

I realise that I came off as a little 'ranty', but as regular readers of the blog will know, that's something that happens to me when I am passionate about a subject! I also understand that many of the points I raised are not gender specific, and, as it happens, I am not a massive advocate of things like 'women only shortlists' as I firmly believe that merit and suitability for a position should be the key consideration. 

However, what I also believe is that by changing a couple of aspects of the way politics is done in the country that the entire culture could be more respectful and respectable.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Theatre Thoughts: Get to the Pointe

There was an article in The Stage last week, warning about the dangers of young ballet dancers starting pointe work too early, and I'm glad that this issue is finally receiving coverage.

Pointe shoes have an almost mythical lure for dancers - in an image search online for 'ballet', 'dancer', 'ballerina' etc. pointe shoes are dominant.

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I understand it, I really do: I trained as a dancer myself, and when I was younger the thought of finally being able to hover effortlessly on the tips of my toes was what I dreamed of. I remember, aged about six or seven, stuffing wadded toilet paper and cotton wool into the toes of my mums old pointe shoes to fill up space and make them fit so that I could heave myself up by gripping onto the windowsill, chair back or bedhead, listening to the Swan Lake music on repeat, pretending I was a Prima Ballerina. (Please note, this is definitely not safe, and certainly not recommended or condoned in any way!)

But, it is dangerous, make no mistake about that. It is painful and arduous, and takes muscle strength way beyond what most people can achieve in an hours lesson once each week. I've seen this from both sides. I worked for years in different dance shops; I drew on learning from my first ever Saturday job fitting children's school shoes for a high-street chain, knowledge from my own experience as a dancer, I went on courses and training workshops, and devoured articles about foot anatomy, exercises, nutrition - anything that helped me be better at my job.

The dance shop in the small town I grew up in only stocked one brand of pointe shoes, as they specialised in fancy-dress and costumes. They didn't fit the shoes - you simply went in and asked for a pair of pointe shoes in a size five, or whatever, and they gave them to you. You could try them on if you wanted to, but they didn't even ask if you were a dancer, let alone whether you were ready for pointe work. It can take anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour to fit a first pair of pointe shoes, and it is a process that thoroughly deserves the time taken.

My first Saturday job was in a high-street shoe shop that had a children's section. On the children's floor, you began as an 'ungraded' fitter, unable to fit shoes yourself but just observing the supervisor. After a couple of weeks I took a test on foot development in children and became a 'C-Fitter' which allowed me to measure feet and fit plimsolls. This went on, going up to an 'A*', with tests and assessments throughout the process. Yes it was often frustrating, especially as this was 'just' a weekend job and I was studying for AS-Levels at the time. However it stood me in amazing stead when another dance shop opened in town, this one run by an ex-professional dancer; I blagged myself a job there instead, and she began teaching me to fit pointe shoes.

Image stolen from the Facebook page of a friend of mine!

For years afterwards I worked off-and-on in dance shops. I have seen all sorts of feet, and all standards of dancers. I have fit complete beginners and dancers with international ballet companies, and once had to explain to a Principal from a Russian company, through her translator, why the shoes she was requesting were not faulty, but that they were not right for her feet. I have had letters and emails from parents and teachers commending me, and have even received cash tips once or twice!

Correctly fitted pointe shoes are absolutely essential. Badly fitted shoes can cause all sorts of damage, from the obvious broken toes and twisted ankles, to things like back-ache and migraines, as the feet are literally the root of your body and if they are out of alignment, everything else goes wrong from the bottom up.

But, going back to the statement at the start of this blog - starting pointe work too early doesn't have all that much to do with age. It's a factor, of course, but it's not everything. Too early can mean before a dancer has developed the correct technique, the essential control and the bone structure and musculature necessary to support their whole body weight on the tips of their toes. The youngest I've fit was an eight-year old girl who had special dispensation from a leading ballet company; the oldest was an eighty-five year old woman who had been taking adult classes.

I can't remember how many dancers I've fit for their first pair of pointe shoes. Hundreds probably. And I don't remember how many of them I looked at and thought "You are not ready for pointe work." Reasons ranged from inability to find the full platform of the shoe, indicating, perhaps, that their muscles and technique are not yet developed enough, to students not knowing the positions or movement associated with simple instructions such as 'First Position' or 'Plié'. 

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But whose responsibility is it to tell this to a student?

The Teacher: in a class with maybe twelve students, ten are ready to begin pointe work. What about the other two who are not ready and may now leave the class or the school, leading to a loss of income to the teacher. One customer recounted the story of a teacher who, after the girl had bought pointe shoes, was told she was not ready and made to sit out of the pointe-work section of the class. This, to me, is so wrong. The girl in question wasn't ready, in fact - she had very weak feet. But, cutting her out of half an hour of an hours lesson will not prepare her at all - in my opinion she should have been allowed to take part in the pointe sections wearing soft-blocks or flat shoes, and the teacher should have shown her exercises in order to strengthen her feet and ankles. I spent half an hour showing her some simple exercises for this purpose, and several months later the family returned to tell me that she was now joining in with the pointe class.
This is an extreme example - I'm certain that many teachers would take the nurturing route, but not being allowed pointe shoes when the rest of your friends are is still a galling prospect, and one that many teachers don't want to risk. It's somehow accepted that, at a certain grade or age, girls get pointe shoes, despite maybe not being fully prepared for the work.

The Parent: oh I've seen it all, from stereotypical 'Dance Moms' to those who don't even really know what it is that their child gets up to on a Saturday afternoon. All sorts have their good and bad points - those who take an active interest often ask insightful and relevant questions, but may also try and offer advice based on internet reading or what another parents daughter has had. Disinterested parents usually just let you get on with it, but won't know pertinent information given the situation. But, most parents, wherever they fall, will ask a variant on the question of whether their child is ready for pointe work, especially once it has been explained how badly fitting shoes can cause widespread damage.
But, as with the teacher, parents don't want to disappoint their children, who are usually over-excited at the thought of getting pointe shoes, and will usually decide that the teacher, or the fitter, knows best.

The Dancer: it's a hard one, really, especially as the average age for a dancer to start pointe work is between twelve and fifteen, so they're so used to being told 'what is best' for them. But, the dancer knows their own body and will know if something feels wrong. Pointe shoes hurt, they really do, but I have seen girls crying or staggering, even just standing holding onto a barre. This is not right at all. I used to say that discomfort was normal, pain was not. If, when trying on shoes, the dancer is not enjoying the process or the feeling, then they're not ready and they have the right to say something.
But how many fourteen year old girls would admit to it, when the rest of their class, their friends, are all buying their own shoes? Who would want to feel as though they were inferior (they're not!) or being left behind? So many girls stop dancing altogether after a couple of months of pointe classes, dismayed at the difficulty, and that is such a shame. Surely waiting a while and becoming more prepared, both physically and psychologically, would be better all round.

The Fitter: on the one hand, if a fitter sees that a dancer is not ready for pointe work, surely they ought to refuse to sell the shoes? After all, you are selling something that could potentially injure the purchaser. But it's tricky: on the commercial side, dance shops are a business and denying the customer the shoes will result in losing a sale. The customer may be offended and not come back in future so you have lost potential sales as well. On the well-being side, refusing a fit may mean that the customer simply goes to another shop where the fitting standards might not be so high, and the student may end up with an even more unsuitable pair. And on the relationship side, saying no in the shop undermines the authority of the teacher who has told them that they are ready - and believe me, you do not want to piss off a ballet teacher.
I would always err on the side of caution and fit the shoes as best as I could. Maybe five times in total I've been unable to (but this was usually because of exceptionally wide or narrow feet), and advised the customer to try elsewhere. But where I've felt that the student was unprepared for pointe work, I would advise them to speak with their teacher for strengthening exercises, and, if I wasn't particularly busy, I'd show them a couple of basic ones myself.

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One of the better solutions I came across was a teacher who ran pointe classes separately to the main syllabus lessons. She would select students who were ready, regardless of age or grade, and they would take a class on a different day, as well as their regular lessons. I know this is not perfect - the extra costs to parents, the time commitments to students, the need for the teacher to perhaps hire a studio for another night, etc. But it meant that there wasn't the pressure for a whole class to go onto pointe straight after their Grade Five exams, and that students could take the class when they and the teacher felt that they were prepared.

Gosh, this has been a bit of a rant hasn't it? But it's something I love, and have been involved with for so long, so it's only natural that I have a lot of opinions about it! I may write again about this, as it's made me remember why I was so passionate about fitting pointe shoes in the first place.

Keep Dancing! But dance safely!

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Theatre Thoughts: Engaging with the EU

Earlier this year Arts Council England released a set of figures, showing how local authorities invest and engage with the arts across England. This was done using the NI11 Indicator and was monitored over a three year period.

The research notes that the places with the lowest levels of engagement weren't necessarily 'cold spots' for culture, indeed, many of the places with low engagement are places that are rich in heritage. However, the boroughs with low engagement rates were also places that were more likely to have lower levels of educational achievement and social mobility. The research also noted higher levels of engagement in London when compared to the rest of the country, which was partly attributed to the city being "super-served" by culture and the arts at large.

Something that intrigued me enough to research it were how the places with low, or lower than expected levels of arts investment and engagement, voted in the EU Referendum. After reading the wonderful article by Frank Cottrell Boyce in The Guardian, and several other articles arguing for the importance of the arts in post-Brexit Britain, I did a bit of swift Googling, and the results were largely unsurprising.

Highest Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Remain - Lilac
Highest Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Leave - NONE
Lowest Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Remain - Light Green
Lowest Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Leave - Dark Green
Higher than Predicted Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Remain - Orange
Higher than Predicted Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Leave - Yellow
Lower than Predicted Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Remain - Dark Blue
Lower than Predicted Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Leave - Light Blue

The local government boroughs with the highest levels of engagement were Kensington and Chelsea, City of London, Richmond Upon Thames, Camden, Wandsworth and Islington, all in London, and Chiltern in Buckinghamshire, Waverley and Mole Valley in Surrey, and Oxford in Oxfordshire.
Of these places, all voted Remain. None voted to Leave the European Union.

Local government boroughs with higher than expected levels of engagement were Lambeth, Lewisham, Hackney and Greenwich in London, Southend in Essex, Wirral in Cheshire, and Liverpool in Merseyside.
Of these, only Southend in Essex voted to Leave.

Boroughs with the lowest levels of engagement were Newham and Barking and Dagenham in London, Slough in Berkshire, Sandwell in West Midlands, Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, Easington in Humberside, Bolsover in Derbyshire, Doncaster in South Yorkshire, St Helens in Merseyside, and Leicester in Leicestershire.
Of these boroughs, Newham in London, and Leicester both voted to Remain. The other eight boroughs voted Leave. 

Finally, boroughs with lower than expected levels of engagement were North East Lincolnshire and North Lincolnshire in Yorkshire, Thurrock in Essex, Telford and Wrekin in Shropshire, Swindon in Wiltshire, and West Berkshire and Bracknell Forest in Berkshire.
Of these, only West Berkshire voted to Remain.

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Is this a legitimate correlation or merely coincidental? Can we genuinely say that there is a relationship between taking part in cultural activities and wanting to remain as part of the European Union (which, not incidentally, is one of the biggest funding sources for arts and culture)?

So many articles argue for the good of engagement with arts and culture; that they help us expand our horizons, see things from other people's points of view, witness events from outside of our own experience, gain empathy with situations we wouldn't engage with otherwise, and so on and so forth.

If, as greater and wiser minds then mine have argued, the arts have this power, then surely this is a huge argument both for greater cultural investment? To invest more and more often. To support the arts and that culture that helps people, especially in the lower engaged areas, to see life from another point of view, a point of view that may seem alien or uninteresting at first but will help grow empathy and understanding instead of mistrust and suspicion.

Culture is, in many places, seen as a 'dirty' word; as something synonymous with privilege and wealth. It is not seen as the singing group in the library, or the little festival in the local park, or watching a band play at a nearby nightclub. But culture includes these things along with the sterile art galleries and overpriced theatre tickets.

The arts, it is argued, help us understand who we are, where we have come from and where we are going to. Without this timeline of understanding, how can people fathom the effect of their actions? Without knowledge of the great events of the past, more easily accessible through theatre or artwork than textbooks and timelines, how can society empathise with the events of the day?

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I fear that arts funding is going to take a hit in the years to come, and that means that the situation will only be exacerbated as fewer and fewer people have access to culture, and still fewer people will want to engage. It's a vicious cycle and we risk it becoming a spiral.

I don't know what's to be done about it, except to continue arguing for investment in the arts, in culture, in outreach and in engagement. In those little things, like letting kids play with paints at playtime, that foster a love of art; or singing during school assembly to help nurture an aspiring performer. 

It's little things that affect the big things. As we have seen with the arts and with the referendum.

Everyone's A Politician

This is another blog I've been sitting on for a while, hoping to get my thoughts straight. I don't think I have, but when do I ever?!

In the past couple of months, I've heard lots of complaints about the amount of political talk on social media, and saw so many statuses post-referendum which hoped that people would "stop being amateur politicians".

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Nowadays, there is a sense that "everyone's a politician." But everyone should be a politician. Politics doesn't just belong in the echoing chambers of Westminster, shuttered away behind imposing architecture and incomprehensible jargon; politics belongs in the pub, on the street, over the coffee-maker at work - because these are things that politics *affects* so it should be discussed and debated by the people that political decisions affect. That is; everyone.

I've written many times about my admiration for ancient philosophers, and their views on politics. There was a school of thought amongst them that believed that political service should be compulsory - a little like national service or jury duty, and the city state of Venice selected their rulers by ballot. I feel that, if this were the case in modern politics, then everyone would, by necessity, be much more politically aware and engaged, just in case their name was ever called to serve in Parliament.

In the past, I felt that politics was something dry and dusty. I'm ashamed to say that, after voting once when I was eighteen, I didn't vote again until the referendum. This is a shocking dereliction of a democratic right that women didn't have until relatively recently, and a right that so many across the world still don't have. I think I neglected it because I didn't feel as though I had a voice, that my vote wouldn't matter in the grand scheme of things, and that all of the political parties were pretty much of a muchness - a little like choosing between PG Tips and Yorkshire Tea; they're close enough to be indistinguishable, and although some people have very strong views one way or another, you're still just going to end up with a cup of tea.

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I also viewed those who actively joined political parties with a bit of mistrust and suspicion - in the same way that I looked at people who genuinely enjoy long-distance running, or making their own compost; fine, but not for me. However, as I recently wrote, I have joined a political party, and have become more involved in local and national causes.

Maybe this is my age talking, or maybe it's to do with the realisation that I, and many others have had, that we can, and do, affect politics every day. Politicians, you see, are very much like normal people in a lot of ways. Many of them even are normal people, however, they are not omniscient; as with anyone, they can only speak from their own experience and, unfortunately, many of their experiences are not consistent with the majority of those that they claim to represent. So, when they make a decision which seems out of touch with the rest of the country, it's probably because they don't realise they their lives have been so far removed from what many people experience.

So, instead of complaining about it after the fact, surely we should be encouraging conversation and debate? After all, how can politicians be expected to change things if we don't talk about what needs changing?

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Respectful debate should be encouraged and nurtured; recognising that others have points of view that you may not agree with. This is fine and dandy - I don't like Tabasco sauce but I don't prevent my other half from adding it to pretty much every meal he eats. Conversation can often become impassioned, and that's fine too - being passionate about things is important, but dismissing or stonewalling opinion just because it doesn't chime with the way you see things is infantile and disrespectful. I adore playing Devil's Advocate with myself, forcing myself to see things from other points of view. I'd like to think it makes more a more empathic person.

However, on the flip side of this, I've also written before about how I wish for a sea-change in politics itself; one which looks down on the disgusting displays of pantomime derision that takes place on a weekly basis in the Commons. Our politicians are the ones who lead the country, so how can they possibly expect reasoned and reasonable debate if they can't live up to that themselves? Our politicians need to stop behaving like a drunken audience at a late-night comedy dive bar, and then, perhaps, our politics will stop resembling the above.

So, to summarise; I'm glad that people are thinking and talking more politically. It's a good change, and will force our politicians to recognise that the majority are not uneducated sheep, or morons who just want to watch braindead television; that, irrespective of background, we need to be engaged with and actively listened to, rather than being accepting of the lip-service service we have had thus far.

We have opinions, and we're no longer afraid to voice them!

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Theatre Thoughts: Bacc Creativity

It was with some trepidation that I watched the announcement of Karen Bradley as Secretary of State for Culture and Media: her background is in tax and financial consultancy, and I wondered whether she would look at the arts simply in economic terms (culture is worth around £84billion to the UK economy each year).

She came into the role at a time of unprecedented political turmoil, and something that unfortunately slipped under the radar was the EBacc protest outside the Houses of Parliament on the 4th July, and Parliament's subsequent debate on the inclusion of the proposed exclusion of arts and creative subjects from the new curriculum.

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The EBacc debate is rumbling on, and greater voices and minds than mine are continuing to argue for the importance of access to the arts and creative subjects. 

Karen Bradley is overseeing the launch of a new creative initiative announced in March; the Cultural Citizens, intended to provide access for children to the arts and cultural institutions. This, in many respects, is wonderful;
By providing access to the arts outside of schools and education automatically makes it something that is fun, something to be enjoyed rather than studied, and I believe that arts schemes aimed at children mean that they develop a love of the arts and culture which will stay with them throughout their lives.
The Cultural Citizens programme is initially being piloted in areas that, while rich in heritage, have traditionally lower levels of engagement with the arts, including Blackpool and Barking, and in areas that are diverse: the Warwick Report found that audiences for cultural activities are highly unrepresentative of communities as a whole. Hopefully this will go some way to redressing this imbalance.

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However, I still have a few misgivings. Mainly that if the arts are removed from the curriculum and become something that is seen as a hobby, does it make careers in the arts seem less lucrative, or less possible? There has already been a massive drop in the uptake of arts subjects at GCSE level and beyond. I fear that we could be heading for an arts drought as less and less students pursue cultural careers.

I would argue that the arts are to be enjoyed and studied. In tandem. The new requirements for those studying Drama, that they don't actually have to go and see a live performance, baffle me. I understand that it is supposed to make the subject more accessible and less expensive, but surely there are ways around this? Subsidised theatre trips, or building links with local theatres or theatre groups, inviting touring groups to perform at the school. Just a couple of ideas thrown off the top of my head there.

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The arts and culture can't simply be measured in monetary terms. Why else would there be hundreds of art, drama and music therapy institutions? The act of being involved with creativity improves well-being, which has a knock on effect to local health budgets. Cities and towns with high levels of arts engagement have lower levels of crime and anti-social behaviour. Children engaged with culture have higher self-esteem and have traditionally performed better in other, non-arts subjects.

I get that they're seen as soft-subjects, and when I was taking my GCSE's, students who performed less well academically were encouraged to take Drama as a subject. But at least they had that option. Under the new proposals, they won't even have that. And will the Cultural Citizens programme be compulsory or optional? Otherwise we risk preaching to the converted as so much of the arts is already wont to do.

It's a good idea, and I hope it works, but then I also hope that access to the arts in schools is preserved and promoted. The arts in this country are to be celebrated and protected; it's something we do so well! We need to ensure we're actively advancing the arts, and not make cultural engagement something that's optional or hard to find.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Theatre Thoughts: Cultural Capital

I read an article this morning, claiming that, in the wake of the events of June, Britain's soft power has been dramatically reduced across the world.

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Britain's cultural capital is immense. It's something that a lot of people don't often seem to realise, thinking of "culture" as maybe things like opera and art galleries, things that don't necessarily have widespread appeal. But culture also includes things like our popstars, TV shows and movie industries; the latter of which, we are already being warned, may suffer in the years to come. 

There are lobbying groups set up to campaign for increased funding for the arts and culture, and there are groups set up to oppose this (which personally baffles me, but each to their own), but one thing that can't be denied is that this tiny country has disproportionately influenced world culture. Our exports travel across the world, and our homegrown cultural institutions (art galleries, festivals, concert halls, theatres, etc) attract millions of visitors each year.

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The European Capital of Culture programme, and the newer UK City of Culture, have proven that engagement with the arts can improve a local community in ways that can't always be measured in direct monetary terms; access to the countries world-leading arts and cultural programmes can improve mental and physical health, lead to increased engagement with the community and therefore help with cohesion, pride, self-esteem and outlook. 

Think about a festival, or a concert, or a gig that you've been to, and think about that euphoria you felt at the time; or remember a play, musical, film or piece of art that you saw that made you forget where you were and just sink into the moment; a song that takes you back to a time and place; that time your kids had their face painted at a local kids party in the park and ran around pretending to be tigers; the moment you found yourself caught up in a flashmob; the joy of watching your children singing in a school show... What would life be like without these experiences?

In these turbulent times, we need the arts more than ever. Arts and Culture help us see outside of ourselves, to experience things that we wouldn't otherwise. The arts help us see what it is to be human, in all of our vibrant, diverse beauty. We simply can't afford to lose any more of what makes us ourselves and what makes us strong; unique in the world.

Soft power has more power than we realise. And we will only realise it when we have none.