by Damien Barber, dancer, singer, and musician.
If you have never watched one of our productions and you don’t know what to expect, you can be sure to witness the following; a clog dancer dancing the same steps as a hip hop dancer, a hip hop dancer performing traditional rapper sword, a morris dancer integrating hip hop moves into their routines, and you may even see some contemporary dance thrown in there too! We continue to up-skill our dancers and embrace modern dance styles as a way of breathing new life into traditional English folk dance and engaging new audiences. Through high quality performances and education projects we aim to bridge the gap between old and new and push the boundaries of folk dance into new and exciting territory.
Education remains a huge part of our work and we believe that by appealing to a younger generation, through our original and unique blend of styles, we will prove that traditional dance has a lot to offer as a dance form. Many of the dancers we work with from professional dance backgrounds have come into the company unaware that the folk scene even exists. We want to raise the profile of England’s dance heritage not only because of it cultural importance but because it can be enjoyed not just by the few, but by the many!
We’ve been developing our folk and hip hop dance shows since 2005 and in our original theatre show The Lock In (previously known as Time Gentlemen Please) we see traditional dance colliding with hip hop before finding common ground. In our most recent project The Sleepover (working title) we shed all stereotypes, presenting the different styles on an equal platform. This continues through our education work and by doing this, children can learn about traditional dance unaware of stereotypes, rating each style on its own merit.
Surprisingly, through Breaking Tradition’s research and development work we have found many similarities between styles. Clog and morris steps display many similar foot placements and patterns to that of ‘top rocking’ in break dance. Rapper sword carries the same team spirit to that of a hip hop crew, relying on your teammates and supporting each other to achieve your potential.
The similarities don’t end there. Traditional dance and hip hop were once both ‘dances of the people’, and whether originating from the street, the mine, the club or a mill these dance forms were born not with performance in mind but with escapism, solidarity and social necessity. So why is it other forms of ‘social’ dance, such as salsa, lindy hop and swing dance have more mainstream, higher profiles than traditional folk? It is the ‘uncool’ stigma that we have set out to abolish through our work.
Many of you will know the difficulties involved in raising awareness of traditional dance, whether trying to recruit new members, putting on shows or arranging dance displays at festivals. There are also the financial and logistical constraints of rehearsing and performing with large groups to consider. Even when time is volunteered the expenses for travel and rehearsal space soon add up. Breaking Tradition is fortunate in that we have received funding for many of our shows but with a cast of up to 20 professional musicians, dancers and engineers we have a potential clash of needing to create work that is artistically inspiring, respectful of the tradition and financially viable.
One of the biggest hurdles for us is marketing. How does one go about promoting large scale shows that are based around a dance form that is not truly accepted by mainstream society or media?
From our feedback over the last 3 years 90% of our audiences have indicated that they would return to see one of our shows within 12 months, with 50% of them previously knowing very little about folk dance. As far as we can tell, there is a demand for traditional folk dance shows, it’s just that mainstream audiences don’t necessarily know it yet. Unfortunately, though, the words ‘Folk Dance’ still hold negative connotations for many people and so selling our shows to new audiences is a real problem.
A few years ago, when we were developing Time Gentlemen Please into The Lock In I met with Bill Kenright’s commercial director, Steve Potts, to get some advice on how we could better market our work to mainstream audiences. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Bill Kenright owns one of the most successful West End theatre production companies in the UK (Blood Brothers, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Scrooge – The Musical and many more) and if anyone was going to give us an insight into promoting our work to the masses it would be them.
Steve was extremely insightful in helping me solidify some of my marketing ideas for the show. He also suggested that we consider losing the word ‘folk’ from our publicity. This isn’t such a radical idea though, with many festivals and at least one notable folk magazine choosing to omit the ‘F’ word from their name or publicity in a bid to reach a larger audience. However, traditional English dance is so intrinsic to our identity that it seems a disservice to hide the very essence of what we do from our promotion, even if it gains us larger audiences.
This is all beginning to sound rather gloomy! There is, of course, a vibrant and active traditional English folk dance scene in the UK and we are very fortunate to have a strong grass roots following at our shows. Not only as audience members but also as part of the dance displays that we arrange to coincide with the venues we visit. Over the last 4 years we’ve seen over 2000 dancers and 150 groups displaying before, after and sometimes during our shows (At Billingham International Folk Dance Festival 2013 we had a troupe of American Cloggers, a traditional Mexican ensemble and some Ukrainian dancers performing as part of our show!).
And it’s not just folk dance groups, we’ve also had hip hop crews and students from contemporary dance schools joining us, helping create a real festival atmosphere. If any groups are interested in taking part in future shows, please get in touch!
Find out about the Demon Barbers' upcoming shows: