In 1960s England some people had an attitude of “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish”. Can you imagine being a migrant, perceived as the ‘other’, the job-stealer, the threat? For some asylum seekers in Ireland today, that kind of xenophobia is a reality.
Direct provision became official state policy in March 2000. By February 2019 there were 6,355 people living in the centres and 30% of them were children. But let’s not reduce all this to statistics; every person has their own unique tale to tell. Even if you don’t know the full story, one way of cultivating empathy is to imagine things from another person’s perspective by stepping into their shoes. To take it a step further (pun intended), some of us also love to kick off those shoes…. and dance!
A warm welcome
Catherine Young set up The Welcoming Project four years ago to integrate migrants, locals and asylum seekers with the intention of creating “a counter-narrative to what we’re seeing in International media. A message of welcoming, inclusiveness and hospitality”. I jumped at the chance (literally) to be involved at Dance Limerick when the opportunity arose to learn sequences from Ireland, Palestine and Africa.
Brought together by a passion for music and movement, an international collective formed in January. Céilí Afro Dabke was a truly international affair. Gazal, originally from Iran, enjoyed spending time with people from different countries as it can be difficult for her to meet people. Like the rest of us, she absolutely loves dancing. Mike from the Democratic Republic of the Congo only speaks French with his family, so while he found conversations difficult within our group at times, he benefited by learning English pronunciation. One of his comments summed up the project nicely; “It always feels good sharing smiles with others”.
Caitríona from Ireland likes languages. She joined to have fun, and there was plenty of it. Shilpa (who is from India) came along when her husband Vikram offered to babysit their daughter. As a stay-at-home mother she was glad of a “change in life to sharpen body and mind”. The room was full of beaming faces after every practice. Some people commented on how refreshing it was to have the opportunity to forge connections in a way that had absolutely nothing to do with alcohol.
Groups travelled to Limerick from various direct provision centres. My journey to the venue took 80 minutes on average. Eilis completed a round trip of 6 hours for every class (read more about the company at http://www.catherineyoungdance.com/). Brian lives in Dublin and he was also on-site for the duration to guide and uplift us with his firey drumming. The commitment of teachers, musicians, asylum-seekers, families, lone parents, workers and students alike made the experience special. We were dedicated and determined!
African dance is physically demanding and we worked hard. Plenty of mistakes were made; we stepped on each other’s feet, clashed elbows, confused left with right, laughed, stumbled, sweated buckets and sang our hearts out. Over the five weeks I definitely built up more stamina, muscle memory and confidence; all accompanied by giggles galore! Agata from Poland mentioned that she felt much fitter than before; I am sure it was the same for many.
Intense and exhilarating, dance has a myriad of physical and mental benefits. Artistically, movement and music are very satisfying; I love that there is zero waste of materials, no storage required, no accumulation of stuff when we use our bodies as living sculpture. Dance is the ultimate ephemeral art form. Every breath, each strike of a hand on drumskin, every single movement matters; is pure feeling.
As part of the What Next dance festival we performed live on February 8th and shone with the full moon that night. For our finale the drummers were joined by Irish trad musicians to create a magical hybrid of sound. After we performed, the whole audience was invited to try out some folk steps from Palestine, expertly led by Salma. Next, Catherine brought everyone through an African sequence. Then we had a céilí. Grinning is contagious!
One chant that we sang during a segment of the choreography included the phrase “le chéile”. Pronounced le kale-eh, it is Irish for ‘together’, and I am so glad that we gathered together.
Dance is energy, pure and spiralling. It gives us wings to fly above politics and problems. In rhythm, spirits soar in solidarity. With happy dancing feet, our hearts pound in unison. I am grateful to everyone involved. And the beat goes on…
Kathryn Crowley is a writer and arts practitioner based in Limerick, Ireland.
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