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Travels with my dance

Posted on May 24, 2011

This week: Village hall heroes

Last year I was dancing in the Highlands of Scotland and in the north of England. As I mentioned in my previous blog, if you are in a rural area, you don’t get the option of choosing what kind of dancing you do – it’s a case of doing whatever is available, so a major feature of my week was looking for places to dance.

That seems like a simple operation. You log onto the internet, search for “dance in Timbuktu” or wherever and up comes the result. But if you’ve ever tried to search for dancing on the internet, you’ll know it’s not quite that easy.

There are dozens of sites out there – listing Argentine tango, salsa, ballroom, modern jive (MJ) – all with different overlapping or conflicting lists. A search on one doesn’t guarantee you’ll find what you are looking for, so you have to search them all, which is a tedious and time-consuming business. Can some budding internet entrepreneur centralise all this information in a central database? That would be my first wish.

My second wish is that the people teaching in village halls put their information on the internet. If you are teaching in a remote area, 99 per cent of your students are going to come to you from personal contacts and recommendations – but if you are to get visitors from outside, how are they going to find you?

Well, we do find you – eventually. By asking at the village post office, enquiring with the people you are working with and the hotel you staying at, checking the noticeboard in the corner shop, we do find you – but it’s a hassle and often takes a couple of days, by which time we might be moving on.

web_passportsThe next problem is turning up at the village hall. There is a chance, and I say this cautiously, that a dancer such as me, who dances every day may be more experienced than the locals – or even, better than the teacher. This can be either a source of embarrassment or an opportunity; it depends on your attitude and that of the teacher.

It can be an idea to phone the teacher and outline your experience and ability before you go. Most teachers in remote areas are very keen to meet experienced dancers: it’s rare for them to encounter anyone close to their own ability and they will generally really enjoy the opportunity to dance with you and learn from your experience.

But if you are a travelling dancer, be tactful: nothing is more humiliating than a stranger turning up at a class and telling everyone that the local teacher is doing it all wrong. Lack of resources and dance schools in the countryside can mean that rural dance teachers lack other experienced dancers to practise with, no one to challenge them and no one to correct their technique – new moves are often learned from DVDs or YouTube. They have to work out everything for themselves and transfer that knowledge to their students: what they are doing is heroic and inspirational.

I met one couple teaching West Coast swing in Northumberland who had never danced it with anyone else but themselves. They were pretty good, but because of lack of experience had no idea that WCS “swings” (a common fault with MJ and salsa dancers) and their dancing was flat with little or no compression/tension. Another teacher who taught MJ and salsa – and who was the only partner dance teacher in a 100-mile radius – was desperate to learn the basics of Argentine tango.

I’ve also encountered “lost souls” who need to be put in touch with whatever dancing there is in the area. An enquiry at a local school in the far north west revealed that one male member of staff was a former ballet dancer and I had found that 20 miles away another school teacher had something like 15 years’ ballet training. Once they knew of each other they were prepared to drive for two hours to learn salsa. Then there was the Argentine tanguera, who simply did not believe there could possibly be a milonga in the Highlands.

There are dancers everywhere, in the most unlikely places, longing to find dance contacts and opportunities – too often they give up and are lost to the dance community. If we are travelling or on vacation, it’s our duty as dancers, to put them in touch with each other. So, let’s hear it for those individuals who are trying, against all the difficulties, to take dance to the towns and villages far away from the big centres.

Nicola Rayner was editor of Dance Today from 2010 to 2015. She has written for a number of publications including The Guardian, The Independent and Time Out Buenos Aires, where she cut her teeth as a dance journalist working on the tango section. Now acting editor of Discover Britain magazine, she continues to dance everything from ballroom to breakdance, with varying degrees of success.

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