Here is the Bristol Community Dance Centre on the Jacobs Wells Road.
This is building is special for me. Here I learned how to stand up straight, and I learned where my feet were. Or rather, I learned how to learn those physical things, or I learned that they could be learned. My teacher was a dancer, Helen Roberts.
Earlier on, many years previously, in another town, in a different life, I had been to a performance by London Contemporary Dance Theatre. There I saw, for the first time, movement as language. The way I described it to myself was: “First they teach you a language, then they talk to you in it.” That, for me, was Contemporary Dance. Once I’d seen it, I wanted to do it.
Life events unfolded and I was in another town, another life. And still, the idea of Contemporary Dance remained. Searching through printed events listings, in fuzzy type on thin paper, I found a Contemporary Dance class, for beginners. It was in Bristol, half an hour’s train journey from Bath, where I was living. So I turned up to this building, with shoulders hunched from stress and aching from desk work, and body strong from running and swimming, but uncoordinated. Without ceremony or introduction, the class started. This was the early 1980s.
I kept on with the beginners’ class, for years. It didn’t get any easier, but I felt that I was learning something. Recently I found a word for what I was learning: kinaesthesia, awareness of where my hands and feet are.
Helen Roberts was up at the front, calmly demonstrating the movements. Sometimes there was recorded music, once or twice a drummer. Sometimes she simply counted or sung a rhythmic click-type song. I copied the movements as best I could, and tried to follow her directions. Arms up, arms wide. “Arms wide” she repeated, with a bit of a glance my way. I was concentrating. My arms are wide. “My arms are wide” I said to myself, “just like Helen’s!”.
“Look at your shadow” suggested Helen, gently. There weren’t any mirrors. I looked at my shadow and I saw me. Rather than ‘soaring bird’, I was ‘drooping tree’. I lifted up my arms. It felt far too high, far too difficult. And that was the beginning. Holding your arms out wide is hard, it takes practice, it takes proprioception, which (I now know) is the sense of where your limbs are in space. It can be learnt, improved, refined, made easier, made more intuitive. I’m still learning.
I learned what it feels like to stand up straight, to line up my spine, to tauten my legs. I learned to “uncurl” from a deep fold into this upright standing position. It’s a pleasant feeling. We did it again and again in this beginners’ class. I did it again and again also outside the class, and it helped me: movement as medicine.
Life moved on again, another town, a different life, moving from place to place.
Now it’s 35 years later. I’m getting older and need to stretch stiffening muscles, aching joints. I have a sequence of exercises given to me by an NHS physio after an injury. In the sequence was that very same uncurling exercise: medicine as dance. With the remembered movement came Helen Roberts’ voice, instructing me, encouraging me.
I incorporate several more of Helen Roberts’ movements into my routine now. I reach upwards, the energy “flowing along the arm and out of the fingertips” as she described all those years ago. Although I don’t know quite what that means, I find it makes a difference to think of it that way: a static movement made dynamic.
I hold my arms out wide, and catch a glimpse of my shadow. I check that my arms are really out there, in the widest possible preparation for an embrace. Even if I don’t do it perfectly, I know now how to learn. I know there is something there to learn, even in this simple movement. And I do it again, and again, with more knowledge, more awareness. It is strangely satisfying.
Helen Roberts – if you are reading this, thank you!
Here are some photos of the dance centre now, and work in progress on the drawing. It seems that the dance centre is closed. It looked closed when I saw it.
Here’s a map:
Here is a 2012 video of Helen dancing and describing her work: