Thursday, 5 November 2009

An urban dance degree was the right move for UEL

by Rachel Williams
published in The Guardian, Tuesday 27 October 2009

East London's urban dance degree is booming in popularity, despite the criticisms of purists

Justin Gordon started dancing at the age of seven, entertaining family members with his reggae and soul moves at an endless succession of birthdays, weddings and christenings in Tottenham, north London.

"My family used to have a lot of parties," he remembers. "You either sang, or you danced."

Jessica O'Shea feels like she's been dancing all her life ("Your body just moves and you like the way it moves so you always do it"), but growing up in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, there was nowhere to learn the sort of street styles that intrigued her, until she and her friends secured funding for their own practice space.

At around the same time, a nine-year-old Annabelle Satchwell was donning embarrassing outfits to enter disco dancing competitions in Luton; in Presteigne, among the lonely hills of the Welsh Marches, Betty Adesanya was being taught ballet, modern and jazz; and in her bedroom in Hackney, east London, Christine Seraphin and her cousins were making up routines to show to their parents.

More than a decade later, put off traditional dance degrees, with their heavy focus on ballet and contemporary, by what they saw as their stuffiness and limited scope, the five were among 12 students who signed up for the first year of the UK's only urban dance undergraduate course, then newly launched at the University of East London.

Here, they are taught not just hip-hop styles like krumping, popping and locking, but also the fundamentals of African dance, capoeira and kathak, a classical Indian discipline.

Purists have turned their noses up at the course, but, now in its third year, its popularity is booming.

UEL claims it is the fastest-growing dance degree in the country: its intake has risen six-fold since it began, and this year more than 300 applicants battled it out for 75 places. During clearing, staff were inundated with calls asking if there were any spaces. A note on the whiteboard above them, as if they needed it, reminded them that there definitely were not.

Senior lecturer Kate Sicchio, a Philadelphian who has been in the UK for five years, explains: "Students are really interested in getting more than one dance style and that it's different from normal contemporary training: hip-hop one day, kathak another. They really appreciate that."

Some within the sector are supportive, but there is inevitable scepticism.

"It's a bit surprising to other HE institutions," Sicchio says. "There are quite a few who find it shocking. They say 'you teach street dance in university, how does that work?' And you say, 'well there's a history and contextual study just as much as in traditional techniques'. And you can actually talk to these artists, because they're still alive and producing work."

The course was born as UEL looked to expand its performing arts institute with a dance degree, and decided that rather than compete in a market saturated with big names, it should offer something a bit different. It took inspiration from its local area. "Rather than setting up a contemporary dance degree, they actually looked to the community and built a degree bottom-up," says Sicchio.

The decision was also based on the philosophy that popular art forms should be more swiftly adopted.

"Academia is always quite slow to wake up to innovation," says Mark O'Thomas, the director of UEL's institute for performing arts development. "It didn't even recognise jazz until relatively late. We felt urban and global dance, the dance that young people are interested in, had no validity at all [in the mainstream]."

Sicchio believes other institutions are less in tune with their students and their target audience. "A lot of them are upset when a lot of their students' knowledge comes from TV programmes that are really popular, but we find that as a way in. If you're really interested in this one style of dance, let's trace it, let's find the history, and how can we blend it with other things to make it even more new and fresh."

In their new studios at Trinity Buoy Wharf, where the perpetually mud-brown waters of the River Lea meet the Essex-bound Thames, Sicchio's students are equally enthusiastic.

Many have BTec national diplomas in dance or performing arts, others have A-levels and some are self-taught. All must audition for a place and take a written test to ensure they will be able to cope with the academic side of the course.

The group of eight third-years show off their skills with a display of freestyling, whooping and clapping each other as they take it in turns to dance solo in front of the group to a soundtrack that runs from Beggin' by Madcon to New Kids On The Block's You Got It (The Right Stuff).

Resting on the studio's sprung floor afterwards, they agree unanimously that their different backgrounds, socially, geographically and in terms of favourite dance styles, make the experience of learning all the richer.

"Because everyone's so different dance-wise, everyone's more open to everyone's ideas and opinions, whereas in traditional ballet everyone's a bit snobbish, I think," says Monique Alleyne, 21.

Seraphin adds: "Contemporary and ballet were something you'd do in a dance school, street was something you'd do in classes. To be able to be on a degree where you're actually studying it, it's quite amazing, actually."

Preet Kaur raves about the variety of styles on offer. "African is about using your whole body: your chest, your back, your legs, your head, everything."

Adesanya, who transferred to UEL after one year of a more traditional dance degree, says the way the students learn from each other is crucial. "I felt like other courses or classes I went to were quite restricting. I wanted to fuse contemporary with other styles.

"Here, it's completely different, it lets you express yourself as an artist more. You're learning so many different styles, you can really develop your own style and flavour and way of dancing. And they respect that as well, which is nice. I think in five years' time everyone will want to come here."

Sicchio says the course is still finding its feet, but believes it could set a precedent for the future as employers demand more diversity from dancers.
"Some people think you must train in one technique and have your core built up. But I think it's about the individual student and not making this cookie-cutter dancer that so many institutions are interested in," she says. "It's really about finding individuals and making them shine."


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