I am a female dancer; not a feminine dancer.

I am a female dancer; not a feminine dancer.

In response to reading Sophie’s recent blog post about Young Women and dance, Rachel thought she would share some of her thoughts about the gender roles she has experienced as a dancer and as an apprentice for Attik Dance.


In some dance classes I’ve taken and some performances I have done, I’ve been required to perform movement with feminine stylistic qualities. These include the stereotypical pushing out of breasts, flirtatious faces and cheesy grins. I am a woman and I typically don’t dance with a “flirtatious” style, because to me, that is not what it means to be a woman. At Attik Youth Dance Company, things are different. When I have danced with them I have never been asked to dance  “as a girl” but rather, as myself. When there have been guys at Attik Youth Dance Company, they have always been asked to dance as themselves too and this, to me, has meant that we have been able to dance together with equality.


I’m not saying that dancing as a girly girl or manly man is wrong – I’m sure a great wealth of musicals and shows wouldn’t be so great if those stylistic qualities were a miss (T-Birds without the testosterone anyone?) – but I don’t think these gender roles should be imposed on young people. We shouldn’t be teaching young boys that for them to be great dancers, they need to be able to lift girls over their heads and likewise for the girls, to be able to be lifted. When I’ve gone into primary schools with Attik and have done contact work as a part of Attik Youth Dance Company, I have always been taught how to lift and be lifted. It’s brilliant to see partners of all ages and genders learn how to share and displace each others weight which in turn teaches them how capable they are as a person who can do both no matter who they are.


By giving every member of the class an opportunity to take part in the same tasks, there is no segregation of responsibility and assumption of abilities. They are not given a gender role and so their identities and voices are not disregarded. In a world that is becoming ever clearer about the transgender, agender, bigender and many other gender identities that exist in this world, it is comforting to be in a company that allows me to dance as me and not the gender society assigns me.


Working with patterned movement in young dancers

Working with patterned movement in young dancers

Here at Attik Dance we are always working with new dancers, new explorations of creatively what a body can do, different experience levels and different levels of the experience of dance ‘technique’, or what we often now refer to as creatively limiting movement patterning.

We use this term, creatively limiting movement patterning, not as a disparaging phrase, but as a description of the outcome of the creative offer that comes from dancers who have spent a great deal of time learning a particular technique or way of moving their bodies, and have little to no experience or understanding of how they can use a creative process to move their bodies differently.

With these young people, what mostly happens is that we will give them a range of creative tasks (more on that in a later blog), from a range of very different ideas and sources, and the answer/response for each of these tasks is the same and looks an awful lot like the technique they have trained in. So this is where the description comes in.

There is a limitation on what creative offer these young people can bring to the ideas we are working on, limited because the way they have had their bodies trained is one that only lets them fire their neurons in a certain way, thereby limiting their movement to certain actions. And not only is the limitation on their movements, but this is also a limitation on their creative options. If your body is inflexible in that it is only able to give you one answer to any question, then your range of options is limited to one. We had an interesting experience of this last year, where we worked with a group of young dancers who had been heavily trained in Graham technique. When it came to creating new movement out of new creative ideas, the only physical ‘answer’ they could offer was movement that looked mostly like Graham technique.

So this isn’t to say that technique training in and of itself in dance is a bad thing. Not at all. But it is a bad thing if there isn’t the realization made through the training that the learning of technique, whilst keeping you safe and developing strength and body knowledge and skill across your dance, is ultimately there to give you options creatively, not limit them. A greater strength, flexibility, range of movement and understanding of what is possible with the body should support an increasingly wider range of creative answers to questions you are being given. Yet in the majority of our experiences, the opposite is the case.

So this is a major part of what we are interested in exploring across all our programmes of work, but particularly working with Attik Youth Dance Company, South Dance Company and Attik Youth Dartington. We are interested in developing young dancers for whom exploring creativity with the body is a natural part of what it is they do and for whom technique is a vehicle through which creativity is supported.


Training Youth Dancers

Training Youth Dancers

Within a session of Attik youth dance company I rarely teach sequences, and recently I have been trying to work with the question of how I can teach the principles of a technical dance training through a creative framework. I have clear goals of what I want them to be able to achieve and explore physically. The rationale is to create a way of training the dancers so that they can bring themselves to the performance of their work; the opposite of ‘now we are performing so look intense!’ idea. In the sessions, I give them clear verbal instructions and join in with the task physically, so that the young dancers can get a sense of how playful it is possible to be whilst adhering to a set of instructions. In using the ethos of play I find that the dancers can be present and bring their personalities into the space whilst achieving a great many skills.

An example of the type of task I offered last week was: to push through different surfaces of their feet and hands, and to playfully notice how this push had a repercussion through the rest of their bodies. I continued to add extra information to this task; so we went through the work of a foot exercise, an adage and shifting through space at various speeds and rhythms. The range of rhythms and movements was much more extensive than if we had gone through a series of formal, technical exercises.

In this clip they are working with some strict rules about maintaining a constant, monotone rhythmic quality in space, in this way I am really pushing their strength and stability. They are working in pairs, each person concentrating on doing the task with their bodies, but also watching the other person to make sure that they are doing the task. In this competition, the winner is the person who can stick to the task for the longest!

A clip of this game is here

Unlocking creative potential in young dancers is a puzzling process because young people are incredibly creative, lateral thinkers and yet young people constantly look for role models to style themselves on. Inside a session I am constantly trying to demonstrate and give enough information for the dancers to visually understand a task but not do so much that they try to become copies of me. I constantly encourage their individuality in the space. Mostly the young dancers really love to do their style and what makes them feel good. By modelling themselves, not only on what I do as a dancer, but also on my behaviour of verbally encouraging individuality, the young dancers change their value system within dance to put bravery, playfulness and innovation at the top of the priority list.

The differences in their approach to the ideas can be seen here

And improvisation?

And improvisation?

Improvisation with Youth Dance Companies

In the Youth Dance arena where contemporary dance is the main style, there are few words that strike as much fear as Improvisation. The mere mention of it can turn confident and skilled dancers into trembling, doubting, emotional wrecks. The fear is palpable. Talking of improv can create tension in a room that you could cut with a knife.

There are many reasons for this fear. In our experience the two primary ones are 1. They have never done it before, and they have built it up to be difficult and embarrassing 2. They have done it before and their experience has been difficult and embarrassing.

This doesn’t have to be the case, but in our experience around 95% of our youth companies express these fears before working with us. After working with us, there is no fear, and that is because we take them through tiered and structured exercises, creating an understanding of how improvisation and the intellectual practice and rigour of creating movement in the moment supports everything else they do in their dance life.

Because ultimately this has to be a primary focus of improv, to support dancers in being able to create movement in the moment in whatever dance form they are working with. Breakdance and Street dance styles utilize improvisation all the time. Traditional close embrace tango and the myriad styles of latin dance all improvise.

So how do we reduce this fear to nothing while supporting our dancers to fully express themselves in the most astonishing ways?

We make our tasks simple and ‘winnable’, and we make sure that the space we hold is one of nurturing exploration where everything is possible and expected.

At Attik, the learning process of starting with the simplest of ideas and very slowly building complexity is the bedrock of everything we do. And this is so important to improvisation because the reality is that when you are starting to learn how to do it, the more you have to think the less you will actually do. This simplicity then leads to ‘winability’, the reality of feeling that you are doing an exercise where you will succeed. Positivity in an experience generates a willingness to try it again.

And ultimately how we create the space for this underpins it all. Everything is possible, and indeed we have an expectation that everyone dancing with us is extraordinary and it is our job to create the conditions within which they can express that. Check it out here

Safe, simple and winnable. And what happens as a result of this is young people moving like they have never experienced, creating incredible movement and exploring ideas with their bodies they had never thought possible.

Young Women and Dance

Young Women and Dance

It has been the first all female year of Attik youth dance company, and there have been some subtle changes. At the start of the year I was worried about the fact that we had no boys in the company. We would miss them!  And I thought that it would change the space. It has but I can see how it is creating opportunities for the young women to find themselves in a gender neutral space. The big difference is the noise level- it is quiet. Purposeful and alive quiet. They want to get on with it; moving and creating!

Secondly, there has been a radical change in the space in their range of movements. We work a lot with guided improvisation, informed by gaga methodology and ideas I have developed from working with local choreographers, Ben Dunks and Adam Benjamin. The way that the girls have begun to ‘eat’ the space and fully shift their centres through space has changed. It is almost as though the lack of the male presence in the space has given them the possibility to work with their bodies in a gender neutral way. They are beginning to take charge of their style and moves in a subtle yet strong way.

This leads me on to think about role models. Where are the role models for my young female dancers in Attik Youth Dance Company? Recently my youth dancers and I have been having discussions about which songs they want to dance to and how they want to be seen by others. I have noticed over the past few years that they have performed at a few platforms and at each of these we have encountered over-sexualised dance moves performed by children as young as 11 years old. Recently our youngest member- ten years old- voiced that she felt that this was not ok for her. I started to search for female role models for their age group, there aren’t many that respect their right to have a childhood. One I really respect is Tavi Genison, in her ted talk she speaks about the need for strong characters who are female in pop culture for young women to relate to. What a brave, articulate young woman she is!

This need for strong female role models is needed within the dance sector too, since 2013 there have been some big conversations in the UK dance scene about the need for female choreographers. (Google search the female choreographer debate) I particularly like Luke Jennings’ open letter to Akram Khan in The Guardian where he ends with “it is time for the lions to have their say”.  I think that it is time for female choreographers to come to the fore but this will only happen on a significant scale if we cultivate that talent in their youth. From my experience with our young female dancers, that when given time and encouragement, they have a lot to say and to make. As with the gender divide on many issues in society, it isn’t about men and women receiving the same but rather recognising gender differences and supporting both equally.

I was thinking about how we work at Attik Dance and the way in which we have supported many young females over the past few years. All of our apprentices have been female, although it wasn’t planned that way. We have developed a particular way of supporting our apprentices through their work with us with our strands of work: LEAP, ELEVATE, EVOLVE and RADIATE. We inspire them to be brave and lead activities with their peers, train them to professionally command the attention of a room full of people and to compassionately share their ideas while working with younger dancers.

The beauty is that with this kind of support these brilliant young women surprise themselves and us by their talent and skill. They are more confident in themselves and their power to make decisions about their creativity in the space. This becomes a sort of bench mark for how they can make choices about their lives. We look forward to continuing to develop the way that we support the young female dancers and choreographers of the future.

Watch our short video about our apprenticeship programme here

Event Categories