Feature: Free to dance - the London Marathon!

Thursday 21 April 2011

“It took an exhausting 8 hours and 50 minutes and it was surely the most intense but rewarding experience of my life – the crowds and runners were just incredible, and the atmosphere every time I dodgily danced past crowds out in the sun was brilliant. I managed to beat my predicted time too – coming in 34,692nd! – and that’s with a mass FREE TO DANCE freemob in the Mall at the finish! “

Ben Hammond -Free To Dance It might take him nine or ten hours, but this weekend teacher Ben Hammond intends to be the first person to dance the full length of the London Marathon. There’s a very serious purpose alongside his enjoyment of dance – to raise awareness of the oppressive regime in Burma. “Five years ago I spent a year teaching in a refugee camp on the borders there, which sparked everything off. Dance is just the perfect symbol of freedom – and it’s something I absolutely love”.

We caught up with him between training sessions with a few questions…

Why are you taking part in the London Marathon this year? **Because I’m in training to break the world record for the longest ever dance in the world this October (131 hours, 5 days), and I thought it’d be a great milestone and target to train for, plus I might just get my face on TV to promote my campaign – Free to Dance!

You say you ‘can’t dance’, but what do you mean by that – do you really think you can’t? **I have loved dance ever since I was part of the inaugral Lovat Middle School morris dance collective back in 1988. I love the amazing feeling of freedom and flow it brings, but I’ve never had any formal training and most people tend to compare me to a dad dancing free at a wedding. Having said that – as I dance with all sorts of groups, classes and dance schools across the capital in the build-up to the world record, I’m learning more and more moves, so things are slowly improving! But as you can see from my latest film on the website- I’ve got a lot to learn!

Have you ever been to a dance class? **As part of my training I’ve put a call out to all dance groups, companies, classes and schools across London to invite me for a visit to learn their dance style. So far I’ve clocked up (in alphebetical order): breakdance, breton dance, clog dance, contact improvisation, contemporary dance, fitness pole dance, hip-hop dance, jazz, morris dance, street dance, sword dancing and tango, but there’s soooo much more to learn! Anyone interested in having me along and promoting their dance organisation at the same time can get in touch via the website.

Why Free to Dance -as oppose to Free to Sing, or Free to play Badminton, etc? **Because dance is just the perfect symbol of freedom. The world record is all about people in the UK using their freedom to support those with none over in Burma. Five years ago I spent a year teaching in a refugee camp on the border there, which sparked everything off. Dance just works perfectly – and it’s something I absolutely love. So with free to dance you get a great combination of fun, funk and freedom all at the same time! Because we’re not putting boundaries on who can be free to dance – everyone from professional dancers to sedentary sofa surfers have joined in with our public events so far – it also means that free to dance is also a little bit about people here in the UK just letting go and going for it. The outcome of our first ever FREEMOB silent disco last month was that dancing in public with a whole load of others is seriously liberating!

What training are you doing in the lead up to the marathon? **I’ve followed a traditional runner’s training plan, just replacing the running with dance. So once a week, usually on a weekend, I’ve been going onto the streets of London to do a long dance (between 4 to 7-and-a-half hours public dancing), and during the week I supplement this with two shorter dances done at a higher intensity, usually heading along the Thames or something. I was crazily nervous at first, but now I’m used to all the cameras and phones pointed in my direction. I think it’s the tutu that catches people’s eye…

What sort of dancing will you be doing on Marathon Day (17th April)? **I think I’ve invented a new dance style especially for the marathon: DALKING. That’s dance-walking for the uninitiated. The issue is I have to continually propel myself forward, so the moves, twists and turns I can do are a bit limited… dalking provides me with plenty of upper body creative possibilities whilst ensuring I keep moving towards that finish line. It’s tough though – I’ve only once made it to six hours without getting injured, and when a great song comes on my MP3 player there’s just no stopping the moves!

Are you hoping that some runners will join you for a quick boogy along the way? **Yes! I’ll be so slow (nine to ten hours) that most of the crowds will be long gone by the time I pass, so I’ll be trying to get those still around to have a little shuffle with me as I tango over tower bridge, can-can through canary wharf and mambo up the mall. We’re also inviting anyone and everyone to join me in The Mall opposite Buckingham Palace at the end of my marathon dance for our second FREEMOB silent disco. There’ll be a couple of hundred of us and to be part of it people can just bring along some great music and headphones and meet me by the Queen Victoria statue opposite Buckingham Palace at 6pm on Sunday for a real free to dance spectacle! Visit the website for all the details.

What music is going to help you get round London’s streets and is that going to influence your dance style(s)? **At the moment I’m totally tired of my marathon playlist. It’s been banging away in my ears over the past four months and I’m now seriously demotivated by it. So we’re asking everyone to donate a song to me – something that will help me dance free like no-one’s watching and get me to that finish line. Anyone can visit my justgiving site to donate a song – I need 200 in total for the nine or ten hours it’s going to take me! It seems to be working, too – today for example I’ve just had Twist It / Shake your tail feather donated and it’s had me totally toe-tapping all morning – can’t wait to dance to it on Sunday!

How are you going to keep the music going over the nine or ten hours you reckon its going to take you? **My tiny little MP3 player luckily has a 9-hour lifespan but I think I’m going to have to have two on hand in case my shuffles are extra-slow on the day!

Tell us a bit more about Free To Dance and LearnBurma… **As a teacher, after visiting Burma I thought a lot about how I could make a real difference to the country – one that is ruled by a military government and which has refused to hand over power to Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader of the country, for the past 20 years. I knew there were already well-established campaigning and humanitarian organisations here in the UK helping the country, but the issue for me was how hardly anyone (especially young people) knew anything about the situation there. So LearnBurma seeks to open people’s eyes to Burma – through trainings at school, through big awareness-raising campaigns like Free to Dance, and by connecting up schools and universities here with those in and around Burma – and inspire a new generation to make a difference to it.

What other charity dance events have you done so far/ got planned? **Last summer I began things by travelling from the top to bottom of the country dancing in front of famous places to test if the nation was free to dance, for my first *Chapter One* film. Since then I’ve been visiting schools and dance groups all over London getting people involved in Free to Dance. We then had our first ever public FREEMOB (think flashmobs, only mobile) in early March which saw 200 people from all walks of life dancing through the streets of London from the Southbank to St Paul’s and Trafalgar Square. Next up after the London Marathon is me dancing non-stop through the Glastonbury Festival, followed by lots more summer festival dancing.

Everything is building up to the world record though, for the longest ever dance in the world: 131 hours. It’s happening from 11 to 16 October at The Scoop at More London (London’s iconic amphitheatre opposite Tower Bridge), and everyone – from groups of friends, family or colleagues right through to professional dance groups – is invited to dance with me. Groups can choose their music and choose their dance and showcase their talents to the world!

Just visit the website to register (it’s free for the first hundred groups) – www.free2dance.com*.*

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