Interview: Dancehall introduced - by Cindy Claes

Wednesday 29 January 2014 by Carmel Smith

Cindy Claes (centre) in 'Is My Whining Winding You Up?' Photo: Camilla Greenwell

Choreographer, playwright, dancer, dance teacher, performer Cindy Claes is presenting an evening in tribute to Jamaican dancehall as part of the Wild Card series giving emerging artists the opportunity to present an evening of work of their choice in the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells. We asked her to tell us what’s so special about dancehall…

Dancehall is a rich, vibrant, always-evolving, creative, mesmerising dance culture, which originated in Jamaica. Dancers are continuously creating new dance moves. They baptise their steps with a name which often describes a life experience, an observation on society, or situations people go through. Creativity and individuality in Dancehall are key.

It is well-known in the UK, it just hasn’t made its big breakthrough in the theatres as yet. Hopefully, we are about to change that with Wild Card: Dancehall Takeover! Surprisingly, even though we have a huge Jamaican and Caribbean community living in London, it is in Europe, Russia, Japan, where dancehall attracts masses of fans and armies of dancehall students.

I am from Belgium and dancehall is not part of my heritage or my family roots. What I find special about it is the music, that beat that makes you travel into a world of happiness; the beauty and intricacy of the movement and the body posture of the dancers. The Dancehall scene never ceases to mesmerise me. It is a social dance form which aims to include everyone. Dancers and their creativity are respected. Bogle aka Mr Wacky (dancehall pioneer) said: “Everybody can dance, but ah nuh everybody ah dancer”.

You describe yourself as a ‘dance backpacker’. How did that happen?
There were not many opportunities for dancers or artists in general in Belgium. The arts weren’t well supported there, especially dance forms such as hip hop for example, which was looked down upon.

I started dancing during the ‘90s. We had no Youube culture back then – I had no other choice but to travel to gain experience, to train, to gather the knowledge I was looking for, and to find jobs as a dancer.

I was brought up in an environment where people/family members were mostly self employed, always ready to make unconventional choices. Mistakes were not feared but standing back up after failure was highly valued.

I started dance backpacking at the age of 17. Auditioning in Paris at first in the hope to get noticed, taking classes in Europe, at 18 I then took off for my first big trip, Africa (Niger), going on to the US and the Caribbean islands soon afterwards.

Traveling as a dancer breaks the ice instantaneously. I met people with similar interests pretty much as soon as I landed somewhere. As we say, dance needs words; it is a language in itself. The more I travelled, the more I knew dancers across the globe, the more couches there were to crash on. And dancers will always support other traveling dancers.

My two highlights were my dance trips to South Los Angeles (I received a Lisa Ullmann Travelling Scholarship Fund award in 2008 to do choreographic research on krumping in Los Angeles – the energy, quality of movement and culture is totally different from dancehall) and to Jamaica (to research dancehall). Quite a few of my friends discouraged me to travel to both these places. They warned about the “dangers” of traveling alone as a female dancer – my gender, innocent look, complexion, accent or chosen destination would cause me trouble. In my experience, this was exactly what initiated dialogue. When traveling, people were curious about where I was from, would take care of me, making sure I always got home safe. In krumping, dancehall, or hip hop, once you dance, you enter the cypher or join the jam, people will relate to you and respect you as a dancer, you are “one of them”. People said being a white female dancer would cause me trouble. What would my experience have been like if I was a young black male going by myself to the ghettoes of Los Angeles? Sad, but this question is food for thought…

I admit I do have a guardian angel looking after me. Or maybe I have positive karma. But so do you, if you believe so.

Dance backpacking involves taking risks, listening to our gut feelings, and most importantly – responding to the urge most artists have to grow and expand. It takes commitment and courage. It also takes daily doses of daydreaming, envisioning those trips in order to make it a reality.

I want to continue pushing international boundaries to continue to build bridges between cultures and the arts.

But you didn’t have to travel to discover dancehall…
No I actually fell in love with dancehall while living in Belgium. I always dreamt of going to Jamaica, to experience the culture and research its roots, but it was 12 years later that I finally boarded a flight to Jamaica.

In Belgium, dancehall was part of hip hop dancers’ life. It was an “imported culture” however. There is no Jamaican community living in Belgium, and so what I experienced from dancehall at first was just the enthusiasm of a dance community towards something that we essentially didn’t know much about! The research and understanding came later, once I moved to London, became fluent in English and had access to the knowledge. My first researching trips to the island were supported by ADAD and the Bonnie Bird UK New Choreography Fund.

You came to London in 2005 – what made you want to make your home here?
I didn’t have many opportunities in Belgium as a dance artist. I came to London because I wanted to “make it”. I was young, impulsive, and hungry for creative challenges – with two suitcases full of dreams. The journey wasn’t easy, but difficult doesn’t mean impossible.

I wasn’t fluent in English when I came, and I quickly realized I was just one dancer amongst thousands of others. Fast forward to 2014, I am now an ADAD Trailblazer 2013 -14, supported by Arts Council England, curating a Dancehall Theatre night at Sadler’s Wells! My advice to all young artists is to keep focused on your dream, because it will unfold, as long as you do not give up.

The UK truly has made me the artist that I am today. I know that funds are being cut, but I hope that London and the UK will realise that they are an example for Europe, perhaps even for the world, on how they have supported the arts.

It is in London that I was taught that artists are valuable, that art is important. The UK showed me that as artists we contribute to society and that we deserve to be supported because we bring peace, healing and education to the community. This mindset is a way of living, and it changed my life.

London opened up the doors of “professional development” for me. I had access to coaching sessions, choreographic labs, workshops for artists to improve their craft, courses that taught me how to manage myself as an artist and how to apply for funding. All of this is worth gold.

I have a huge respect for my UK mentors. There is true a culture of mentorship here. From a very young age, people and citizens are being taught that we are responsible for the well-being of others. So many artists, choreographers, producers, organisations, invested time in advising listening to and empowering me.

I’m celebrating nine years here this year- London is definitely home now, a home where I feel happy.

Tell us about your Wild Card programme…
Wild Card has been an incredible journey of growth. It gave me the opportunity to curate and make a reality of what I dreamt of for so long.

I wanted to present three different generations of dancehall in the UK, creating a platform to celebrate what our mentors did for us, and what the future of dancehall is holding. I it’s been around for a very long time. If I have the opportunity today to curate a Dancehall Theatre night in a prestigious venue, it is because those who came before me paved the way.

There was a time where hip hop theatre and dancehall theatre weren’t appreciated or acknowledged, let alone welcomed in venues. It is because dance artists strived to knock down walls that we now have a place on stage in renowned venues. It is because those that came before me worked hard to explore and develop the art of using street dance forms in theatre, that we, the upcoming generation, are able to make our dreams a reality.

Having artists like Paradigmz and H Patten presenting work at Wild Card: Dancehall Takeover was a must. I am also very excited that Hakeem Onibudo is compering both nights.

I want this event to celebrate dancehall, dancehall theatre, but also the achievements of our mentors. I hope I will make them proud and that through this event, I’lll create bigger and better opportunities for the next dancehall generations to come as well.

And this is the UK debut for Jamaican company Shady Squad?
As an ADAD Trailblazer 2013-14, I am currently setting up a dance exchange program between the UK and Jamaica. When the opportunity of Wild Card came up, Sadler’s Wells was very keen to have a conversation about bringing over an international act. This is for me the first mile stone for future exchanges to come.

I saw a video of Shady Squad years before I first went to Jamaica. They were training in a back yard, busting out their best moves and I was totally mesmerised by their quality of movement. I then met Conray and Matthew (Shady Squad) during my trips to Jamaica. They won many competitions, such as the World Reggae Dance Championships for example, and I truly appreciated their work. There was something very theatrical in what they did, and they recently made a short dancehall dance movie: Peanut Shell, which blew my mind away!

I am an observer. Especially when working with artists from abroad, I observe who artists are as human beings, as people who make a stand to inspire those around them. Shady Squad were hard working and humble. They had incredible stage presence. There was something in their spirit and in their approach to life that created positive wavelengths.

Their skill set and their work perfectly fitted what Wild Card was about: telling stories through dancehall. I also knew that their positivity and way of working were going to be a great asset when setting up an education and professional development programme in London. I am very excited to be working with them!

You do a lot of teaching – where and when?
I am currently producing the DTxTP in London: “Dancehall Theatre Exchange & Training Program”. This one week intensive is aimed at professional dancers and advanced students hungry for challenge, brings together five high calibre teachers, from Jamaica (Shady Squad) and the UK (myself, Funmi Adewole and H Patten). The course provides the participants with high quality dance training, including lectures and choreographic labs.

I also teach two weekly Dancehall classes in London (Studio68 and Maryland Studioz). People come and do class for a variety of reasons: to have fun, to gain in confidence, to work out or, to become professional dancers. Nevertheless, it is important for me to educate and to the share the culture. When we go to see an exhibition and we don’t know anything about painting, it will be difficult for us to appreciate what we see hanging on the walls. It is the same for dance, dancehall theatre, krumping theatre, etc. If we want audiences to understand our art forms, appreciate our work, see our shows with a different eye, we, as choreographers, must also pass on our knowledge.

These weekly sessions are to me, are more than a dance class. Of course, we sweat (mirrors always steam up!), and we work out, and we learn about technique and about culture. But I also wanted to create a class where spirit would take over. Dancehall empowered me as a woman, as an artist, as a human being. I wanted to teach a class that would mirror what Dancehall is, a social dance form, that gives away the message that everyone stands out and that every person is special.

One of my classes is called Big Up Wednesdayz, it is that time of the week where students take time out to “big up” themselves, their achievements, their curves and the way they groove. Mistakes are allowed and valued in class as much as getting the steps nailed. Students truly smile when walking out of the door because something special happens within their dancing souls.

Both nights of Dancehall Takeover (13 & 14 February) are already sold out

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