The bodies unwrap themselves from the tide that traps them and dance and play freely. Everyone knows how real and tender this is and that’s why no one moves. It’s on the edge. Electric. The men tread carefully as the newspaper cracks. I can hear my pen scratching the paper. I can feel the warmth of a man’s leg next to me. I didn’t realise we were touching until that moment.
Storm. Showers. Sunshine. Bright, bright blue skies and a silver sea. An arm, a harbour, the tide, bell. The Leas, a road of remembrance, marine parades and costal paths for promenades, strung with places people used to come to dance, The Grand, the old Leas club and still the Burstin.
We have been here once before and this time we came and made a show. A piece of dance, with some men who we know well and nine amazing girls we met here. As well as working with them, we have been talking with people in this place. With parents and grandparents, with friends, families, peers, nearby neighbours, theatregoers, unrelated observers, holidaymakers and occasional passers by.
We have talked with people who have lived in Folkestone for all of their lives, with some who have recently returned and those who have just arrived. We have watched as folk go about their days, circling shops and stalls on Sandgate Road, striding down the Old High Street, strolling out towards the lighthouse or with their dogs along The Stade on to the sands.
And we asked: What does Men & Girls Dance mean to you?
Treading a careful line said someone in The Talking Place one afternoon, as they described how something very beautiful, joyful, and importantly freeing happens for them when they dance. One of a group of rock’n’roll dancers - staying at the Grand Burstin Hotel - who had passed by the window and come in to talk with us about why they dance.
They told us about specific spins and steps, a love of music and a way to dress, specific to their dance form. That there were certain assumptions and expectations as to who should or could invite whom to dance because of age and because of gender. A woman who began dancing in her fifties explained that dancing together was about learning to listen, being aware of touch, a careful communication of power and permission.
Dance is like a relationship, trust deepens, you are forming trust
Where and with whom power lies arose in several conversations across our weeks in Folkestone. The physical power of a particular physicality, technique or training, the power of the media to influence thinking, the power of adults to protect and to inspire, of children to question and of all of us to effect change. Men and women, adults and children, boys and girls…
That’s a good picture that, it’s really good isn’t it?
When I was at school, we were separate. Like that… you never went in the girls playground.
The centre spread of the Men & Girls Dance newspaper is a photograph of the men and girls stood talking and laughing outside an old school playground. There are two gateways and carved in the stone above one is the word boys and above the other girls. Several of the people we chatted with over coffee in The Talking Place noted and remembered this change during their lifetime. When boys and girls were allowed into the same playground, to mix, to play together.
Some of the women we spoke with remembered weekends before that time, at school and afterwards in dancehalls, seated, waiting for a man to ask for your hand and lead you to the floor. One mother told us of the importance of her male teachers when she was at boarding school. Her father had died when she was six and so, she said, the male teachers at her school would hold her hand, put her on their shoulders and dance with her at the school dance.
When I think about losing my dad and what those teachers did for me…that attention… it’s dancing like that, that gives you the confidence to go out into the world.
Brought out to be celebrated. Shared on blackboards, in notebooks, in chatter over tea and cake, these remarkable stories filled The Talking Place in Folkestone. A community of thoughts and words and images, prompting other recollections of first dances and favourite dances, in hotels and at nightclubs, funny dances at parties, in front rooms, kitchens and gardens. Many moments of physical contact, of dances featuring important figures from people’s lives and with this remembering also came conversation about lost dances.
That picture, it makes me think of my grandpappy
he used to pick me up and spin me around
and I miss him
Playing in the garden
Swinging the girls around
And when their friends are there
You can’t when it’s somebody else’s children
When did I stop dancing?
I used to dance to show the feelings that are just impossible
to put into words
The Old Leas Club had the best dance floor
It opened up the space I thought is lost and they were flying
and I wished I was eight again
And this came
Of my dad taking me to the park and pushing me on the swing
I think as a woman you forget to be held like that
Like those girls in the show were
We lose this as adults. We lose the sense that life is a dance
I don’t dance like that anymore
Where can we still dance together?
The ballroom floor of the Grand Burstin Hotel, a bank holiday weekend, children, adults, grandparents, families dressed up in their best outfits, sparkly scarves, flowery frocks, pink fluffy socks and white balloons.
A man sat alone surrounded by people on their holidays. He is not on holiday. But he is watching and it all makes him smile and he laughs out loud. Conspicuous. And Car Wash comes on and they are flinging themselves about. Two ladies throw their silver locks back, pull their skirts up, twirl and lead each other about beneath the disco lights.
His foot is tapping, he wants to get up and join in, but he is a man alone. Conspicuous. Watching children and adults, families dance. Usually the first person on the dance floor and always the last to leave he stays in his chair and watches the floor fill and then empty, as the lights fade to the closing song.
Men & Girls Dance exists to celebrate the rights of adults and children to be together, to play together, to dance together. Whilst we heard many stories in Folkestone of the joys of dance, of being in the world with others making human connection, we also heard very real concerns about the loss of safe spaces to be together, the pressures felt to be less personable in order to adhere to policy and protocols, the imbalance of power between adults and children and the anxieties many men carry with them on a daily basis as fathers, as teachers or as friends of people with children.
I work in an all girls school
and it’s a tough gig as a man.
You have really reclaimed something,
it is incredibly beautiful
What we witnessed in Folkestone was incredibly beautiful. We were moved by the desire and generosity of people to share their experiences, to talk openly and frankly about their ideals and how, those are sometimes conflicted by their fears. We noticed the nods and the squirms, the applause and the stillness, when people stayed in the auditorium at the end of the shows, waiting, witnessing not wanting to leave. We noticed when someone would come again and then again to The Talking Place to share and to craft the conversation some more. We noticed the weight of trying to put thoughts and feelings into words and the weight of putting those into public spaces. We noticed what it is to be a person who will place a tough question alongside a celebratory comment and how doing so is such a considered act of care.
The girls, their families, the community catalysts, the Quarterhouse, Café Collective and Creative Foundation teams and the people of Folkestone showed what people can do when they come together. What can be made in a matter of weeks and the kinds of questioning, dreaming, hoping that can come out of such spaces of trust.
It is like a blue print for an alternate attitude to intergenerational interactions. So necessary, extremely positive, quite moving
In this our last visit to Folkestone - a few weeks on from the shows - we gathered again with some of the people we met along the way, to hear more of their thoughts and feelings about what Men & Girls Dance meant in this place. The conversation covered a different awareness of how pervasive negative narratives can be in society, assumptions about power and gender politics, styles of dancing and approaches to teaching. We heard about fathers and grandfathers who won’t allow themselves to be in the same room or house alone with other people’s daughters for fear of neighbourly misgivings. And of male professionals whose work fundamentally involves touch - sports teachers and physios - days being laced with fear.
We heard considerations of what people will and won’t say in public, about what is rational relationship and what people know they think in their heads and then feel in their hearts. We wrangled with contradictions and asked what it is that brings them into being. Questions came about when did it all change and a thought that these girls would grow to be part of a generation who will make more positive change. We heard about how long you need to know someone before you would let them take care of your child and whether it does or should make a difference if they are a man or a woman. What it takes to feel safe. There were wonderings about what it is that’s special that dance does and how and where - as we move beside one another in the places we live - we can still come together.
Talking together we tried to find some words for feeling something and not knowing why. And as we talked about exposure and vulnerability, the intimacy of being seen and being met, we were touched by one parent’s wish, in these – what should seem simple - words.
It was seeing that trust
I want to share that with others
I want my child to trust people
I want my child to trust her self
Opening quote: Rachel Betts, Audience Member at Men & Girls Dance, Folkestone
All other quotes: The Talking Place participants, Men & Girls Dance, Folkestone