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Stamping Ground spawns Aussie Billy Elliots
by Clare Sneddon (mother of new dance enthusiasts, Sophie and David)
Reflections on the 5th annual event - 1-16th January, 2001
A man swims butterfly down the middle of the Bellinger River cutting a swathe down its centre his body arcing and bending, rhythmic in the morning sun. The Lodge Café is serving up coffee while customers gaze out the windows where scenes of cattle grazing are framed.
But the children of Bellingen are experiencing something different. Those participating in Peter Stock's, Stamping Ground Dance Festival (January 1-16, 2001) are up at the Showground Hall in the Street Moves workshop. Bellingen offers a myriad of distractions, but these children are all focussed on Blacker Conteh, their tutor. Concentrating intently they make synchronized patterns with their bodies, like robotic flowers opening and closing while Blacker sets the rhythm and scene. His godlike body an icon of the convergence between traditional African and popular western street culture.
Some of the children have been cajoled , dragged and bribed to get them to the class. Some come willingly. All of them, once here, are entranced . Now they are in Blacker's world where their bodies take over from their conscious minds and they move in his world.
"Check it out now - the funk soul brothers" entreats Fatboy Slim from the small speakers. They move to the funk beat - some beautifully, others less so. All are captivated by the aura of Blacker.
The Street Moves class is just one of many. Amongst a broad tuition program of 25 different action arts workshops the festival includes a range of introductory courses for children and adults such as such as bootmen tap, funky jazz, Aboriginal and traditional African dance. For those not ready to say the "D" word (much less do it), there is also an acrobatic class for circus enthusiasts, a music making class, as well as workshops for didgeridoo and other aboriginal exchange programs (including an introduction to some of the male rituals of our indigenous culture).
But the classes have a common thread. They are all tutored by exceptional male teachers who have the ability to communicate their passion for their art to children. This is a rare gift. There is no need for imposed discipline. To the weary parent it seems like magic is wrought here.
Peter Stock is the festival's founder and sole patron (apart from a $500 contribution from the Bellingen Community Arts Society for which he was most grateful). He is proud of the event's impressive track record and well-founded reputation. It has the distinction of being Australia's oldest dance festival and is unique in that it offers programs linking high-level dancemen with advanced & junior dancers and new enthusiasts. Stock began dancing in his mid-teens when he took jazz classes at the recommendation of his singing teacher. Then at 18 he began ballet studies leading to a diverse dance career based in Australia and 17 overseas countries.
His love of performance is not limited to dance. For many years he produced trade shows, cabaret, theatre restaurant and lavish revue in Melbourne, London, Japan and throughout near Asia and Europe. This was in addition to directing productions of West Side Story and Carmen at ages 19 and 22 respectively. As an aside he also mentions having been in the Victorian State Opera chorus for several years and understudying John Farnham for 12 months in a JCW stage musical. Clearly, the man brings a wealth of talent and experience to this festival not to mention incredible dedication and passion.
Stock says he works all year to pay the advance costs of the festival (he runs the Rivers Dance Studio in Bellingen and boasts about the 47 boys currently enrolled). This year he is only down a couple of thousand dollars. His willingness to make this extraordinary financial commitment is less than surprising when you learn, after probing into his early dance years, that Stock put himself through every dancing and singing class that he ever took. He held down a full time job while attending ballet school "full time". ABC TV choreographer, Jack Manuel (an important mentor for Stock) advised he wouldn't be re-employed if he didn't improve his dance technique. Stock does whatever it takes to make his projects happen.
If you ask him about the purpose of Stamping Ground he will tell you it is what each participant makes of it. However his main aim in founding the festival was to create awareness of male dance and provide positive role models for young boys and men who wanted to give it a go. He also wanted to erode the cultural censorships that people in our society impose on boys & men who dance or pursue other creative interests.
Stock believes fervently in the benefits of arts education. He believes that boys can develop strength of character from participating in music and dance classes. It gives them a truly creative way of interpreting the world and makes them stand up for what's important to them. "I always advise my male students that the only reason they should ever give up dance is if they get sick of it. If bullying peers question the value of dance they should tell those peers "its my business and I'm doing it".
For its founder, another valuable feature of the festival is that children have the opportunity to be taught by young male teachers an increasingly rare thing in our society. Conversely the tutors also have the opportunity to forge friendships with children. This phenomenon was evident in the festival's classes and especially at the final performance.
Stock's analysis is that children respond positively to younger teachers because they pose less of an authority figure. Maybe. Or maybe it's just that the children delight in the novelty of the situation. Whatever the reason, the chemistry was obvious.
But despite the fact that Stamping Ground is aimed at showcasing male dance and ideas about it, it is not exclusive. Girls and women are welcome to participate and do so in large numbers. Stock says "better boys = better men = a better world" and believes more girl dancers and mums need to encourage boys to participate in the arts experience. The research evidence is in about the value of arts training and enrichment. It's high time our education systems seriously embraced arts practice in daily curricula. He also notes that girls also suffer from inhibitions about dancing. He believes that if girls have not taken dance lessons by the age of 10 they may already be too self-conscious to participate. Many of their peers have been taking classes for several years and have reached a level of proficiency that non dancers can find intimidating.
Stock is convinced that dancing is innate in us all, as an outlet and a form of expression. After all, we all make our dance in private. Stamping Ground is an opportunity for adults and children to find that expression socially, regardless of their level (or lack) of skills. The fact that TV producers from the ABC and SBS who were filming documentaries about the event also participated in workshops is illustrative of Stock's ability to seduce new enthusiasts to the excitement and high energy of collaborative dance. Everyone seemed so absorbed in the business of dancing the teachers so involved - that one could hardly help but be drawn into the experience.
Stock speaks of the emergence from the 5 year old festival of considerable cultural shift in local attitudes to male dance, and of an emerging Stamping Ground movement style based on the largely unexplored possibilities of male energy and dance. Of all the festival's outcomes, one suspects that this is the one that most excites him. Certainly, the concert piece created in the "Action Moves for Boys" workshop was quite unusual. The workshop catered for boys aged 6-12, its mercurial tutor, Travers Ross, is 16 and has been training for 13 years. The piece featured in the concert extravaganza "Burning up the Tallowood" showcased an item from each of the workshops offered at the festival.
"Action Moves" comprised a combination of stances and acrobatic movements that the workshop's participants developed together under Travers' guidance. Although the piece borrowed from stereotypical images seen on film clips and ads, the result was not hackneyed but rather a vibrant expression of young male energy. Even the air guitar made an appearance but overall the piece retained enough original material to be spontaneous. It was a representation in dance of some of the things that are boys business.
It was a remarkable piece made more so by the fact that several of the participants had refused to attend the dance workshops and were not even aware that they were dancing. Travers and the Action Moves boys are the main subject of an ABC Australian Story about Stamping Ground to be screened later in 2001.
Similarly , the piece performed by the festival's skilled dancemen to Madonna's "Don't Tell Me" hinted at the Stamping Ground style referred to by Stock. It displayed a range of dance styles from acrobatic strength to soft fluid movement. The piece progressed through each man's virtuoso performance. The audience was captivated by their individual contributions as well as the way the dancers meshed in unison sequences. Above all it was a celebration of male dancers which challenged the audience's preconceptions about dance - and had them cheering.
In spite of and perhaps because of the participant's wide range of ages, skills and ability, the performance was highly entertaining and especially uplifting for parents.
Stock's strategies aimed at getting people to dance appear to be effective. The hallmark of this sprawling festival as it occupies community spaces and outdoor locations for site-works and ceremonies, is spontaneity, and this is one of the secrets of its success. Such flexibility would be difficult to achieve in Sydney where the high costs of rent, and administration make pre-bookings and deposits necessary. Stock acknowledges that the positioning of the festival on the outstanding Mid North Holiday Coast, an area renowned for it's stunning waterways and natural features, contributes to its success. As well as the festival's tuition structure in being able to choose from a smorgasbord of classes without making a commitment to one class for any length of time.
To keep the event fresh and cutting-edge Stock assembles a tutoring faculty of about 20 men each year including about 10 specialists who've not previously attended. Aside from a comprehensive range of dance-based workshops the tuition program includes a diverse sprinkling of other action arts such as stuntwork, aerial wire-work, sword, commedia mask, street-theatre, yoga, and experiential workshops for mature such as body-mind centering, kinesiology, feldenkrais and dance therapy. Stock also points out the tutors understand the festival is a modest budget event and that this consequently attracts tutors who are genuinely interested in what he's trying to achieve through Stamping Ground. These men understand that they are not just aiming to turn out better dancers at the end of the intensive fortnight. A major victory of the event is that each year the tutors and performance directors establish new creative alliances with each other and return to their home base inspired to advocate male dance by initiating new training ideas, classes and projects.
In the context of the current high incidence of young male suicide Stock's work becomes more important. Watching the young and mature participants flourish in these classes many of whom had never danced or performed before, it is obvious that self esteem is being built here.
Its a great pity the NSW Ministry for the Arts (Regional Arts) reject modest funding assistance for the event on the basis of "insufficient professional development".
While professional development appears to be an intrinsic part of the festival's work ( just ask the visiting danceworkers such as studio teachers, choreographers, and the many professional level and advanced dancers who attend) the building of confidence and genuine relationships between young boys seems a far more important criteria for funding assistance in a society seeking new ways to instil a sense of worth in its youth. The value of passion in one's endeavours is surely integral to this lesson and something all the participant's take away from Stamping Ground. The performance recital with concert pianist, David (Shine) Helfgott and 50+ men & boys had the audience cheering and weeping, and was another highlight of Stamping Ground 2001, underlining the power of passionate commitment.
Stamping Ground has been growing every year since its inception in 1997 with 383 participants this year. Stock attributes much of the event's success to its reputation as a place of innovation and fun, to "word of mouth" - and the more recent efficiencies of marketing on the WWW. He predicts the net will bring a steady increase in participants over the next few years. Certainly, by any standards the festival would be judged a success. For example, participants came from as far afield as Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, Cairns, Perth and Arnhem Land. Not only did the participants learn more about dance, they learnt about themselves and how they related to their peers and their teachers. These are lessons that can be applied to many aspects of their lives. To dance socially is to interact on an intimate and joyful level. This joy is celebrated each January in Bellingen at the invitation of Peter Stock and his admirable team of impressive men teachers.
Clare Sneddon - January 2001
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