Hothouse Reflections by Clare Parker

As the Hothouse Show have just received a warm welcome for their final performance at Sidmouth 2013, it is a natural time for me to reflect on the past 12 months dancing with young people at Halsway Manor since Paul James appointed me as Halsway Manor’s Youth Dance Associate. I met Will Lang a year ago at Sidmouth Folk Festival and we soon started hatching plans to integrate young dancers into the Hothouse project which Will has lead with musicians for the past few years at Halsway Manor. The idea was to bring together talented young dancers and musicians, who had limited or no prior experience of folk, to work with top dance artists and musicians and create a new show based on our folk traditions, for touring. The following January we had funding support from both Arts Council England and Futures for Somerset; and established partnerships with Take Art and Somerset Youth Dance Company, Bridgwater College and a number of schools in Bridgwater.

For a week in early Spring 2013, 23 talented young musicians and dancers got together at Halsway Manor to work with leading dance artists and musicians. Bringing fresh talents and skills to the mix, they explored traditional folk song, music and dance, alongside other styles like street dance and rock music. They created a new and exciting fusion, formed the Hothouse Show; presenting a new piece of original music and dance for touring to the Hothouse festival, and Priddy and Sidmouth Folk festivals in summer of 2013.

It was wonderful to see how the young dancers felt so at home at Halsway and embraced a totally new style of music and dance. As one young dancer said “I have gained experience of these different styles of dance. It has made me realise there are other good things out there”.

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Photo: Hothouse dancers/musicians after their first performance at Halsway Manor Hothouse Festival April 2013

In the past year we have also worked with over 150 children in Taunton schools on our Spring Up! programme which aims to inspire a love of folk and social dance through regular country dance sessions in schools. Following sessions in their school, many of the children came up to celebrate May Day at Halsway Manor, and some teachers and their pupils were so inspired that they worked on their own dances to perform at local fetes. One teacher said, “The children learnt different dances – street, folk, country. They were great! It is a great opportunity for specialist dance – thank you!”. 

So what do we have in store for next year? We are taking Spring Up! to Minehead schools and hope to develop a schools flashmob shanty performance for the Minehead Harbour Festival of July 2014. Hothouse will continue to grow and merge traditional and new styles of music and dance. We will form new partnerships and work with young dancers in Bridgwater and Taunton to create our own youth dance company. And we have some exciting plans for a folk dance project for disabled children as we continue in our mission to bring the joys of folk dance to as many young people as possible.

Spring Up! Halsway Manor’s local schools’ folk dance programme

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Spring Up! is a programme of folk dance workshops delivered in local schools with the aim of giving children an opportunity to learn traditional dances, gain new skills like spatial awareness and sense of rhythm, work as a team and come up with their own creative I am setting up for my session in the school hall (newly swept to clear away the lunchtime peas from the floor) when the doors fly open and a swarm of eager young children spill into the room. You can always feel that moment of sheer joy that comes when children leave the confines of the classroom for a large empty space that invites them to move and burn off some energy! Of course, they are also keen to find out who I am and what we are going to be doing too… but, none of that – we get moving straight away!dance ideas. In summer 2013 Halsway’s Youth Dance Associate, Clare Parker, worked in Taunton primary schools taking country, folk and a little bit of street dance to over 150 children. Here she blogs about one of the sessions…

Halsway May Day Hires-1069We start with an exercise that involves using all the space available: the corners of the room, cutting through the middle, down on the floor, up in the air, making longwise, circle and square formations, working with a partner to gallop or form a right hand star. It  might look like utter chaos to anyone passing but there is a very real and serious purpose to the task  as it tunes in our awareness of the space and of each other. It is structured by the phrases of the music as we change direction or actions on musical cues; it is very inclusive and nobody need feel insecure, worried or exposed because any movement choices are OK and all importantly, it burns off some of the excess energy to bring the children to a place where they can focus.

Halsway May Day Hires-1009The exercise lasts for about 10 minutes and gives me a chance to observe the children and set up expectations for the session by reminding them to keep in their own personal space, be aware of people around them, listen to the music, listen to the instructions, using the whole of their body and their energy. It may also look nothing like folk dance but it contains the core elements and skills needed and helps children tune in to their spatial awareness, sense of rhythm, and to the sheer joy of movement. This is what the children tell me when they sit, all puffed out and very focused as a group, and I ask them what skills they have just been using.

 

Halsway May Day Hires-1080I call out “longwise formation!” and we are there in a matter of seconds, ready to start learning the Cumberland Reel. I want everyone engaged so it isn’t just the top couple but every pair (the children keep correcting my use of the word ‘couple’ which they decidedly disapprove of!) in the set that gets to do right hand and left hand star.  Then it’s the moment they love best – the chance for the top couple to gallop like crazy down the set, spurred on all the way by everyone clapping. Now, this needs a bit of work. We need to keep the energy and exuberance, but refine the movement so that it looks slightly less like a cross between Hussain Bolt and a rugby hacker! It needs quite a bit of work too to remind them to keep listening to the music and make sure they arrive back in time to cast down. Then it’s another favourite moment at the bottom making the arch and pegging it to get back to the top – to start all over again!

Once we have mastered it and each group is ready to perform for the others, I have the luxury of being able to watch the children dancing because 3 of the children take on the role of callers. They bellow instructions enthusiastically and perfectly in time with the music. They come up with their own names for movements : ‘cast’ becomes ‘banana split’, and mysteriously a “stingray!” is featured!

What is clear when watching the children dance is that they are really enjoying themselves and enjoying dancing with each other.  They perform with clarity, focus and a massive sense of energy that is infectious. Their faces show a sense of achievement and as we feedback to each other at the end of the session I am thrilled when one boy asks: ‘Can we carry on? Can we do it again?’