How Do We Gather Experiences?

This blog was written by Emma Jayne Park, facilitator for the Scottish CROWD residency with artists Alex McCabe and Stefanie Schwimmbeck. Writing is inspired by conversations that came up as part of the lab but has been written subjectively, from their own perspective as a community dance artist and facilitator. The hope is for any blog content to further the conversations that were started during the residency instead of pretending to share any concrete outcomes. In hindsight Emma may not agree with what they have written – this is fine too!

How do you develop a community practice without being in/ with a community?

What can be shared between practitioners that helps a practice grow, without over theorising it?

How do we stay in the body and share what we know?

The following snapshots were gathered in conversation with community dance practitioners in the attempt to grow a bank of experiences which could be referenced as a way to share tools in the specific context they were used, or reflections on the circumstances that generated them.

In conversation, there became a strong desire to recognise that shifting tools from one context to another without being clear about how these contexts differ can lead to a lack of depth in the work being undertaken, and that all of our skills – although transferrable – need to be malleable because each community we work with is unique and that the circumstances we are working in could shift on a weekly, daily or hourly basis.

It also became clear that the overtherorisation of our work can be frustrating, and that the industry many of us are now working in demands use of language that can feel removed from the work, reducing the communities we work with to case studies instead of people.

Our felt and collective resistance to this, led to series of questions about who we are using this language for – is it to justify our work? And if so, what does this act of justification do to our practice? Do we feel removed from the work because of this second language we must speak?
Why can the industry, stakeholders and employers not just trust the process?

The desire to remain rooted in real life experience is strong.
The building of an experience bank was just one approach to meeting this desire.

However, the simplicity of the question was often met with a broad and theoretical answer.  Zooming in to specific moments, tools and experiences appeared to be less instinctive than talking conceptually and about broad, often ethical, themes.  Perhaps this is because the broad and theoretical is more exciting? Perhaps this is because talking broadly feels more valuable? Perhaps this is because this is how the industry has asked us to discuss our work for so long?

It somehow feels curious to imagine a catalogue of experiences and tools built from the tiny details and focused on the minutia. Yet, when we examine how various dance techniques are learned we spend hours focused on tiny details – the shape of a hand, the rotating of a hip, the groove in the body – so maybe this is a fundamental element to our practice that is being overlooked because of the demands placed on how our work is discussed.

Who is placing these demands? Are they something we imagine is helpful – a story that we tell ourselves will lead to more security or success? Or, is there something structural that undervalues the seemingly small? When many community dance practitioners have to live in a space of justifying or clarifying the work they do – to participants who thought they were coming to a formal dance class with steps and counts; to managers who want a visible outcome, measured with the same ‘quality’ lens a performance company is observed through; or, to people who don’t embrace the investment of public money in the arts – is this expansive language something we have been cultured into as a survival tactic? Or, is the impact of academia on our work leading us to talk in certain ways?

In many ways, none of these questions matter to the person who just wants to get on and have a depth of practice – the bigger question is how do we ensure that this depth of detail is given the value it deserves.

CROWD offers space for this (we hope) but where is the daily space to drill down and refine and re-refine each tool for each community in the same way a dancer with a rep company undertakes company class each day and then uses what was trained on stages each evening? What would it mean for our community dance practitioners to have this space each morning to warm up, connect and rediscover tools before working with and in communities each evening? If we believe that the quality of repertory work relies on this structure, then is it a reflection of our commitment to community dance that these spaces don’t exist, and that fees don’t cover this level of consistent practice and preparation?

I don’t believe so – I just think those who support and work in community dance don’t have time to think about this – but I do believe that there is space to think deeper about the infrastructure of community dance practice and for community dance artists, reflecting on other structures which have been invested in for years and demanding that our community practices deserve equal support.

Only then, perhaps, will there be space for everyone to consider the minutia of the tools that shape their work.

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