Text: Natalia Fiszka, Pictures: Kasia Kiliszek
I was one of the lucky kids who got a chance to try many different things in order to figure out what I really liked. Dance was one of the disciplines that left a permanent footprint on my soul. I never excelled at it and I certainly lacked self-discipline to become any good, however, it was the way music had been let to my world.
I remember the day, a few months into my dance class, when I came to realisation that some people have rhythm within them and others try, successfully or not, to learn it. I was standing by the bar facing mirror wall in one of the rehearsal rooms at the local theatre but instead of warming up for the class, I was staring at the girl a few heads away from me. I can still picture her graceful transition from warm up exercises into interpretation of sounds, when she started tuning in to the subtle jazz our teacher’s husband was improvising on the piano in the background. The fluency of her movement… Look, I remember it was Billy Taylor’s song “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”. It appeared on Nina Simone’s “Silk and Soul” album from 1967. I love that music but the way that girl moved to the song, it was stunning. I wasn’t able to interpret sounds the way she did. In retrospect, I think, back then, I felt a little bit like the main character from Zadie Smith’s “Swing Time”, who was in a permanent state of jealousy mixed with admiration for her natural born dancer friend - Tracey. The girl from dance class was my Tracey.
A few months ago I had the pleasure of meeting Laura H Street - a dance artist and early years educator, who had just finished her nursery teacher training at the time we spoke. Laura utilises dance as a form of playful education not only in her day jobs but also in her own projects, like aboutNOWish collective, where she collaborates with performers and musicians to make interactive dance and music for children and young people with disabilities. Laura is a driven contemporary dance lover, who’s first dance encounters were very different than mine. Even though we met in the early afternoon just before her photo shoot for Women’s Circle, Laura seemed to be very relaxed and focused. She had the kind of focus a person fully aware of their body and mission can have in such situation. “Hello Tracey” I thought to myself and this time I smiled back.
It wasn’t decided upon her birth that she’ll build her life and career around dance, which is probably why Laura started dance classes relatively late. Being a teenager in a difficult school, where talent or uniqueness were not perceived as an asset, left Laura without much choice in regards to her hobby. She was good at sports but there was no passion in it for her. She could run but she didn’t want to outrun anybody. She liked using her hands for creating things, which drew her towards sculpture. But she didn’t like studying arts. One cannot perfect a discipline without learning about it. It gives you perspective and the necessary background to become great. She’s loved music but carrying an instrument on daily basis would very likely put her in an inconvenient situation when confronted by her peers at school. Dance doesn’t involve any instruments or tools that could reveal her doings. In dance body is your instrument. She gave it a shot and it felt liberating just like a fly feels free when it finally finds its way out of a glass jar, where it was stumbling around and hitting invisible walls in front of her. The community of fellow dancers almost instantly gave her a sense of belonging. They were her tribe. And dance? Dance gave her a way of expressing herself that she hadn’t known before. Without the unnecessary complexity of words that very often are unfit for what we really want to say. She fell for it and after some years of training, and a drop of encouragement from one of her teachers, Laura did her A Levels in dance. The path she chose was exciting, almost unreal and contradictory to everything she’d learnt about the grown-up decision making. Before, she thought dancing wasn’t a real job, yet now she made up her mind and was going down that route. She loved contemporary dance and got her degree in it. Learning about dancers and choreographers, the way they were pushing boundaries, stretching conventions and bending the rules has inspired her not only on stage but also at work.
Laura has a strong urge to share the beauty that dance brought to her life and show others that they can be dancers too. Being an experienced early years educator, Laura understands the constraints our regular language puts on young children and people with disabilities. She believes that sometimes it’s more natural to make a physical gesture or movement instead of trying to put ephemeral feelings into words, which either are too square, too long or too mild to describe any of what just crossed one’s body and mind. She uses a lot of improvisation in her work with children and leaves space for kids to feel unrestrained. It’s supposed to be didactic and fun at the same time, she underlines. One of the most successful shows that she directed so far is Under Foot, which is an interactive performance by three dancers accompanied by a live musician, where participants explore the ways different floor textures influence movement. Laura got her inspiration for the show from her own experience of dancing on different types of floors over years. Her feet have always been very sensitive to texture beneath them and she fancied discovering how other people react to such nuances. Each texture creates different feeling under children’s little feet, which leads them to produce a movement, this movement is being translated by the performers into dance, hence, it’s important that Laura’s dancers are strong enough to deal with any sort of hints they might get from children, and children truly are unexhausted wells of genius and the unpredictable. It’s a beautiful exchange. They learn from performers how to express themselves, and the crew learn from children how to be genuinely present. The way children’s minds work is incredible, Laura says. Under Foot went on tour and performed in a few special schools and arts venues, where they involved children with autism or profound disability. The show was originally designed for children under five who can walk, however, Street has been thinking about taking the idea a step further and customising it for participants with disabilities that strongly affect their perception of music and dance. She’d like to explore how children feel dance if they can’t move, how do they move if they can’t see, how do they feel the rhythm if they can’t hear.
Before choosing dance career, Laura was desperate to go to drama school because she loved acting. She didn’t realise at the time though, that she was dyslexic. She wasn’t able to read the lines she got from her teacher, words would swim, so she’d always chosen the parts with very little talking. However, she loved being on stage. Considering her dyslexia, dance school made more sense. Here she could create characters, atmosphere, a whole performance without a word being uttered. When she got tested for dyslexia, she realised that she simply needed different tools and ways of looking at things. It was challenging and exciting to do her teacher training, which obviously involved a good deal of writing and she eventually perfected the skill. For a very long time Laura thought using written language was intimidating, however, while writing her dissertation, she understood how powerful an instrument words can be. After finishing her education, Street came to understand teachers and the character of their work much better. She’d like to use her skills more to inspire them and show them that they’re artists themselves and the work they do is an extremely creative work. As Laura says, she learnt “teachers language” so they can communicate better now. She has a role within an arts organisation, where she leads on a project that works with primary schools in order to facilitate teachers so that they can, for example, teach English through dance. Her part is to show teachers that they can successfully apply the arts in their teaching of STEM subjects and help them connect with their creativity.
When I asked Laura why she’s so keen on working with children, as I can imagine it’s extremely challenging (and exhausting), she fired back without blinking that children are honest, true beings, who actually live in contrast to us, adults, who sort of perform all the time, taking off and putting on new masks depending on the circumstances. Laura says that a great deal of our communication with children is still very patronising, for we forget how extremely emotionally intelligent beings children are and how much we could learn from them. They are so true because they are beyond rules that are suffocating us in adult life. They don’t have to be polite, if a show bores them, they leave. With that in mind we can risk to claim that people who can catch children’s attention and engage them, do something truly brilliant, Laura believes. For me, as a mother, knowing that there are people who work with children and are so passionate about it really is heartwarming.