Feature: Dancing Voices - celebrating six decades

Friday 20 July 2012

'Dancing Voices' Queen Elizabeth Hall, 11 July 2012. Photo: Belinda Lawley

On Wednesday in Big Dance week (7 – 15 July), hundreds of dancers and singers, most aged 60 plus, performed to a full house of 900 people in the Queen Elizabeth Hall – Claire Woodward reports.

One of many Big Dance 2012 dance projects this summer, Dancing Voices was produced jointly by East London Dance and Southbank Centre. An inspiring commission directed and choreographed by Natasha Gilmore with vocal support from Voicelab, a fabulous live forty strong choir, who sang arrangement of songs past – such as Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy and present – including Florence and the Machine’s Dog Days are Over.

Re-establishing dance as a popular recreational activity is one of the aims of Big Dance and this celebration of personal and social history – with nine interlinking dance narrations – was a big success, judging from the packed post performance social dance, with a lively dance floor and long queue for tea and biscuits! Capital Age Festival, a two week endeavour championing artistic pursuits of older Londoners was the perfect partner for Big Dance to duet with and had introduced many recruits to the project. Carefully ushered, assisted and occasionally wheeled into the QEH, together we waited patiently for the anticipated performance themed on seven intervening decades since London last hosted the Olympic Games in 1948.

In-between each dance section, archive radio newsreels relayed significant historical events such as the birth of the National Health Service and the death of John F Kennedy and charting the development of advertising and consumerism. This busy montage was also a handy device to ensure less ambulant dancers had enough time to exit and enter the stage. After hearing about the launch of Nintendo games consoles and Madonna’s catchy bubble gum pop, a version of The Special’s Ghost Town began with members of Counterpoint Dance Company horizontally lined across the stage bopping their heads in time to the infectious ska beat. Two dancers pencil roll stiffly upstage like cadavers, casually the others step over them only later growling and shouting at the audience with crimson red lighting reflecting on their contorted faces. Defying the stereotype of being too frail and old to care, they react angrily to tales of social unrest – and reflecting the London riots of the summer of 1981, the year the song was a hit.

Amongst the 160 dancers and fourteen dance groups who made up Dancing Voices, Leap of Faith meets regularly in Stratford, organised by East London Dance. It provides classes aimed at the 55 plus age group and offers termly concessions for as little as £10 (normal rate £40). Doria Ramsaran 82, explained that she first joined the group wanting to get fit following a heart triple bypass operation three years ago. Since then she has learnt lots of different dance styles and particularly enjoys” street dance”, at which she gyrates her torso in homage to the earlier performance ( Sweet Dreams Remix). A clear crowd pleaser costumed head to toe in gold, the mixed gender group humorously replicate rapper MC Hammer’s signature baggy trouser move, shaking their legs on the spot. Smiling she adds her granddaughter thinks she’s,” very cool” for taking up dance at her age. As well as performing she’s enjoyed visiting nursing homes and sheltered accommodation across London encouraging residents, or “old folk” as she calls them, to get active and challenging the notion that age equates fragility. In the post-performance tea dance Doria is happily jiving with friends; being part of Leap of Faith obviously holds the key to a physically active retirement, but to a social one active one as well.

Set against the choir’s heartfelt rendition of Bob Marley’s One Love the finale was an uplifting and mesmerising celebration. At a slow, lilting pace the full cast file and then begin zig zagging their way into the stalls finishing their journey standing in the aisles amongst the audience. While travelling along they repeat simple gestures in unison: their hands tenderly cup their chins, heads gently side flex to the right as if sleeping, finally they reach for the heavens, shaking their arms energetically above showing there is still plenty of life in these wise bodies. Ethnicity, gender and age camouflaged, by their white clothes, this serene flow of bodies continued on their shared journey, a metaphor for life itself. This moving finale brought many to their feet clapping and cheering. For me it was an emotional ending as I recalled my own grandfather who swung his hips with a similar careless vigour as a male dancer who passed close to me. This tender and affectionate choreography on such a large scale was a beautiful celebration of being alive, active and healthy.

Time slips through our fingers unyielding and defiant in its journey. One of Big Dance’s greatest achievements, apart from the logistics of organising such a large scale event, is giving the time,arranging the platform and having the inclination to champion the elder body that twists, pops and laughs defiantly at the stereotype of being too old. The times they are a changing…


Photos: Belinda Lawley

Claire Woodward took part in English National Ballet’s course for writers earlier this year and is a contributor to the Dance is the Word blog.

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