Zoom, November 2020
Annie Edwards is a disabled dance artist from Brighton. She works with Hip Hop and contemporary dance, performing and creating work for a number of years. She has a particular focus on activism within her practise, and combines her love of movement and music with a drive for social justice. She has worked with companies such as ZooNation: A Kate Prince Company, Candoco Dance Company and Just Us Dance Theatre, and other artists including Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Botis Seva, Liam Francis, Tom Roden, Leila Macmillan and Samir Kennedy. Annie graduated from London Contemporary Dance School last year, and has since toured internationally as well as performed in the west end, whilst always developing her awareness and passion for disability access and inclusion.
IA: Can you introduce yourself, and describe what it is that you do?
AE: Yeah, I could do that. I’m Annie Edwards. I’m a Hip Hop and contemporary dance artist. And I’d like to put ‘activist’ in there as well, disability activist. I think that’s it. That’s my tag line.
IA: I’m interested in the idea of crews and companies as a form of alternate family, a kinship that you choose. Could you talk a bit about some of those kinships that you’ve found in the crews and companies that you’ve performed in and been with?
AE: Yeah definitely…so I started with ZooNation Youth when I was eleven, but I’d been dancing before then at my local dance school, but it was nothing like that kind of, I don’t know, intense family relationships that I had at ZooNation. I was in that youth company for seven years and there were…we were like best friends. We trained every weekend together, we did lots of performances. I had my first…boyfriend in that crew, my best friend now…was my best friend is in the company and they’ve stayed really long term. I think it was…it was actually, as you said, quite a family environment for me because it was all through my teenage years and it was very formative. Where I was actually at school and growing up…I didn’t have much of that, I felt quite socially isolated in my everyday life so, I could go at the weekends and be like, ‘Oh yeah, these are the people that I connect to and we share the same ideas and they accept me and blah, blah, blah.’ That was very important for me as a young person. That’s the only crew that I would assign myself with, until I became part of the adult company, ZooNation immediately afterwards, I had a bit of a gap in between where I went to university. Actually, that was another very close family…another formative stage where I connected with lots of dancers and I could really be myself.
IA: Can you talk a little bit about lineage, in terms of choreographic lineage and Hip Hop lineage. Who have you learnt from? Who are you learning with? Who are you sharing with?
AE: Yeah it was really interesting when I first started doing Hip Hop, the teachers I was having and the people I was around…because I was from Brighton and I wasn’t really aware of the London scene…I didn’t know what ZooNation was, I didn’t know that I was working with really quite prestigious people and the teachers I was having were really active, and quite, not famous, but you know…very important to the scene. I had experts in Hip Hop and I was learning…popping and locking and krump and Hip Hop grooves and stuff from people that were really, really expert in it and I’d not actually accessed that before. I was learning from Carrie-Anne, the late and wonderful Teneisha Bonner, Tali, Kenrick…who are the other people that I remember? There was just so many I can’t name them all but…I was very spoilt for teacher choice as a young person. That really inspired me and definitely, all of us as a group were so desperate to be like our teachers. I think as I grew up and started discovering my own stuff, I really think that the people around me, my peer group, then became my inspiration…as you develop and start to get interested in your own things, it’s the people next to you who you’re exploring with, that becomes your inspiration and that’s the stage I’m at now. Wanting to work with…rather than looking for someone or a company or a pop star I wanna dance behind. I wanna work with the cool people I’ve met along the way and who are doing lots of different things next to me.
IA: In terms of your networks and those people in your orbit, who are the three people who nourish, support and feed you?
AE: [laughs] Well I think…definitely first of all I have to say my brother, because we started dancing together from very young. He was in ZooNation with me, but he’s a bit older so he left. But definitely…we fell in love with dance together and music together. We used to like…dance on the street together, make up routines, do competitions as a duo, so he’s always been my connection to dance. We went on different paths as well now, I started doing more contemporary and he was doing big West End shows. So we aren’t together as much, but I still really enjoy watching him and sharing…sharing our thoughts, what we like, what music we’re dancing to, and just cheering each other on. That’s definitely my number one. [pause] Hmm. Secondly, I might say…well I have met lots of people on my university - I went to The Place - and we’ve stayed really close. I actually live with two of my friends from university and one of my friends, Alejandra is a dancer…within the same year. We got really close, went through a lot, and I think we’re…now we’re also in lockdown together, we’re experiencing our relationship to dance with lockdown together as well. She’s a beautiful dancer balletically as well so that really inspires me and I think she really appreciates all my Hip Hop elements, so we like sharing that skill set and she’s just a really wonderful friend. We’re sort of cheering each other on. And thirdly…this is hard. [laughs] [pause] Well I think recently…so I just did a job with ZooNation called ‘Message in a Bottle’ and I met lots of new people there, and I met a friend called Emma, who I think you’ve also interviewed and they’re really inspiring to me at the moment because I think we really connected…on an activist level during that experience and as friends. We really, really get on, and I think we supported each other in that job and that was one of the things that I got out of that job, as well as you know, performing dance and having a great time. It was a great new friendship and also they’re sick at breaking and that’s great to watch as well. [laughs] That inspires me too.
IA: Thank you. Let’s talk a bit about your relationship with ZooNation. You’ve had over a decade worth of experience with them, been in multiple performance projects…we’ll get to the various different ones in your journey. First can you talk a little bit about ‘Message in a Bottle’?
AE: Yeah, ‘Message in a Bottle’ was really interesting for me because it was my…my first job back in ZooNation after three years of training. I’d felt like…going in with a bit of a new perspective as an independent artist, not as the ten year-old that was dancing back then. It was like, ‘OK, new year, new me’ vibe. I felt really…I remember being in the audition and feeling really proud of myself. Funnily enough because the dance styles ended up being a fusion between contemporary and Hip Hop…I’d been training in contemporary dance and I felt like it was such a perfect mesh of my two identities in dance. I felt so excited by it, especially the audition…doing lots of things and I felt really…I don’t know…able, in lots of ways. That was really reassuring to me actually and built my confidence a lot. It was nice being part of it, having had that history with the company. It was nice being in a space where there was some comfortability, especially when there’s a massive group of new people…like I knew people, I was familiar with the way that the shows were made and how it worked, so that helped me in reducing anxiety and starting the job. And…it was cool to be in that professional sphere again, having re-developed myself…I mean you can always improve, but I felt like quite a whole artist at that point, it was cool to be there with the history, but also in a new way.
IA: What for you was the toughest part of that process?
IA: Like, are you a fast picker-upperer or something else?
AE: I am a fast picker-upperer. I think, one of the difficult things was coming from…again, I was doing contemporary dance so there was lots of abstract thinking, lots of wide-open ideas and then I was going back into more commercial ideas, where it was less…it is a bit more, I wouldn’t say strict, but obviously sometimes you work with people and you have an idea and you are there to facilitate the idea. Sometimes it’s a collaborative thing where you get to say a lot all the time and you produce a lot so, it was different to go into a space where lots of stuff was already choreographed so I didn’t have to use my creative input in that sense. It was a bit more commercial, I’d say. And also it was tough…cause it was quite physically challenging as well, it was…quite a…not messy, but an up and down process of me…navigating when to…how to…what’s the word? Put my access needs first and combine with pushing myself whilst knowing my limits and being able to be vocal about that. That sometimes presented itself as quite a conundrum in my head. But, I managed it sometimes and I didn’t at other times. It was a learning curve in that way as well.
IA: Can you talk a little bit about your role in the youth company, those productions and your role within them as well?
AE: Yeah…there's such a backlog of time in the youth company, it’s funny. My role in the youth company…cause I was in it for a long time and lots of people came and went. I’m not really sure what my role was there.
IA: Was it because you were there for so long were you a mother hen? If newcomers came in, could they come to you and say ‘What’s this person like?’ Youth companies keep people for a year or two, but you sustained your relationship with them and that’s really interesting.
AE: I think you definitely developed an inflated sense of self as a young person, cause I did feel…cause I was there for a long time and it was a bit…yeah, I felt super comfortable and…a tiny bit famous I must say. [laughs] Being in that company for a long time…but it was…it felt like a very constant, steady way of being, even though we did lots of different projects and new people came in…and then towards the end when we were a bit older…we got paid for some of the performances we did, that was quite a transition and that was cool. I don’t know if I was a mother hen, but I was definitely very woven into…the ways of being with people there, I don’t know if I was the most welcoming person with the new people, cause I was very attached to my friends and a bit obsessed with them…sometimes I was a bit like ‘Oh, just let me do my thing.’ [laughs]
IA: You mentioned in your opening about disability activism, how is Hip Hop an ableist structure?
AE: Hmm. Very good. [laughs] It’s interesting. I think a lot of the ways that I am experiencing ableism in Hip Hop has been quite retrospectively. I’ve looked back and I’ve seen and I’ve thought about ways that I was treated or the environments that I was in, that I now think were not appropriate or I didn’t have the knowledge or facility to understand that that was not fair. There’s two quite obvious ways that come to mind initially. One is…there’s quite a lot of invisibility representation-wise. You don’t see many disabled people in Hip Hop…which gives the illusion that we can’t do it, that they can’t do it or that there’s something about a disabled body that means you can’t access Hip Hop, which simply isn’t true. That’s the idea that it presents, so then you’re excluded further because…you don’t think you can do it. But then, on the other side of that, when there is representation or visibility, it’s often quite tokenist, in a sort of inspiration porn way, where you use people with different bodies to make you feel better about yourself because you pity them…an over saturating of somebody’s Hip Hop dance experience with this great overcoming…or a patronising representation of themselves where it’s like ‘Oh, we didn’t think you could do it, but well done for doing it, even if you’re not good, well done just for being here.’ Which really doesn’t nurture anyone’s potential as a dancer, it’s frustrating to see. I feel like I have been subject to that sometimes, and even being interviewed with you now, I feel like I do interviews and I talk on things, but I actually don’t get that many jobs other than ZooNation. I’ve not been that present in the Hip Hop scene and maybe there’s a certain element of me not involving myself, but I think there’s people like to celebrate and highlight people that they know, but not necessarily do the thinking or the support around actually including someone into Hip Hop. I think those are two quite ableist structures that are happening now.
IA: In terms of putting yourself out there…the A.I.M popping battle, you put your hat in the ring for that. Could you talk about your relationship to battling?
AE: Yeah, definitely. I think…that’s why I don’t always feel completely comfortable saying I’m a Hip Hop artist because I’ve mostly done Hip Hop theatre and very storytelling-based Hip Hop, which is a whole other genre…even though I love all of it. I’m not that experienced in battling. I used to do competitions when I was younger, but again that was like you make up a little choreography and you do it over and over again, which I don’t think is the best way to get into Hip Hop…I think it was partly a coronavirus situation where I was like ‘Well, why not? I mean, the world’s upside-down, I might as well just not be anxious and try and enter a battle.’ I also watched a lot of videos of battling in lockdown, and it completely got me really excited and I thought that would be such a cool thing to develop. But I also questioned why hadn’t I done it before? I’ve not necessarily seen any environments or spaces where I would feel comfortable joining in…because I can often feel quite different and isolated and I think that it’s very vulnerable to put yourself into a battle in the first place. So then someone that’s not expected to be there, that puts a lot of pressure on me and…it’s quite scary. So I thought, via Instagram, it’s a good step to get in, but I was really like, ‘Oh I just wanna try and be…a popper, I wanna be able to find somewhere where I feel comfortable training in and freestyling and practicing. Which is another thing that I actually started to try and do on ‘Message in a Bottle’, cause lots of people in that cast were used to training and practicing with each other. I think that was a space where I felt comfortable doing it, but again, I didn’t feel like I had access to the battle training areas.
IA: I’m interested to hear your thoughts on your relationship to training because training and drilling are very different to performance. What are your practices around that?
AE: It’s been a collection of things. I think my training initially was with ZooNation Youth, so it was very formalised, you do a whole day of it each weekend. You have a choreography class and then you maybe do a styles class, or another choreography class…something like that, quite regimented and skills based. And then…I used to hate freestyling, like it used to fill me with absolute dread, but the more I realised that it’s meant to be a good thing, it’s meant to be a nice fun way that you get to express yourself. Rather than like this pressurised performance where we have to impress people. I think once I unclicked out of that way of thinking, I realised that it was something that I really loved. Improvising and following my own desires in dance. I think that developed once I started going to university and we had lots of improvisation training, which is another form of training that is really interesting. I have to balance my desire to improve, try new things and dance for the love of it, with my physical like pain and stuff because a lot of the times, I want to train after rehearsals which is what people do, but my body would be really tired or I’d feel like I might injure myself if I do any more. So that is quite a difficult thing to…accept. When you wanna keep doing more, keep getting better and you feel people are progressing ahead of you, but cause you don’t have the…well, because I know my boundaries now, it can be like, ‘I have to take decisions to look after myself, but it can feel a bit disappointing. I could be at another level if I, if I just pushed it but…I know I shouldn’t. [pause] Don’t know if that answers the question! [laughs]
IA: Going back to what you were saying about popping…were you going down YouTube holes of all the battles?
AE: Yep, that’s where I was!
IA: Were there particular battles that you were excited by? Why did you choose to enter a popping battle?
AE: Well, partly because I really like popping music. Something about that style is so funky and…just really excites me. I like funk styles, locking and popping are my favourites. I think I just happened upon it and then you just keep clicking the thing. But…and I also think…it was quite good timing coincidence wise, when I was like looking at them. I was practicing a bit, I did a couple of warm-up classes and then the battle came out. I was like…’Well, why bloody not?’ I think, part of me is also, in a bit of a self-obsessed way, in that it just looks really cool. If you’re a popper, you do look like a cool person. I’m looking for that image as well, I definitely think that’s in my brain. But…no other reason other than I like funk styles and I just found myself doing it. If I’m dancing for myself, I lean towards those sort of sets of movements.
IA: What do you want to dismantle in Hip Hop?
AE: Hmm. [laughs] Well, obviously I would highlight the ableist things that I mentioned earlier. I get very frustrated with a lot of the gender binaries and hierarchies in Hip Hop as well. From my experience, there tends to be quite…not an over celebration, but more of a celebration of masculine attributes in Hip Hop, so like…strength or tricks or…that sort of…just male bodies if I’m honest. That can be frustrating and there tends to be again, in my experience…a hierarchy on it, so if, as a woman…if you’re the closest to the masculine styles or are successfully doing things that are attributed to men, like breaking or popping really hard then you’re considered better, but at the same time you might also be expected to present in a very female binary way, in terms of sensuality or “girliness”, so you basically can’t win either way. This is quite unfair because I think that suggests that traits attributed to womxn are inherently worse. In a more of an abstract way, I’d quite like to dismantle this culture of…giving everything or completely sacrificing yourself for the grind…or seeing it as a fitness endeavour. I know that people use dance for fitness and that’s great, but I think sometimes there’s an over emphasis on breaking your physical limits, which can be quite an excluding rhetoric for people that can’t do that. For example disabled people or chronically ill people…like I can dance really well but it doesn’t mean…sometimes there’s certain places that I wouldn’t go because I know that there’s a big emphasis on how hard you can push yourself…or how physically exhausted you can get and that proves your worth. I don’t think that that’s always fair. I’ve been in classes where, I’ve been in so much pain afterwards cause it felt like the aim was to just like die. [laughs] I don’t think that that…I mean, I’m glad that it exists, but I don’t want it to be the point of dance.
IA: Could you…could you talk a little bit about your relationship to Hip Hop and craft and practice?
AE: Yeah. [pause] I’m gonna answer this in a way that I think you mean. I’ve never been very inclined to choreography, in a way. I’ve always felt a bit of a hesitation towards it, I’ve done it and…it can be hard because sometimes I feel like I want to say a lot of things and I wanna put my creativity in the ring but I don’t feel much of a draw to choreography, so I’m tryna figure out a way to do that with dance…but using my skill sets and the desires that I want to do, not just making something because I wanna say something and it’s probably gonna be bad. In terms of my craft I have really enjoyed…having two sides of my dance training and putting them together. It’s funny cause, I’ve talked about this with a friend, Liam who’s in Rambert, I talked to him about this the other day - about how in the contemporary room, you’re the Hip Hop one. [laughs] And then in the Hip Hop classes, you’re the contemporary one. Sometimes it can make you feel a bit insecure, but I really like that I’m a mish mash of that now. I can definitely use both disciplines…I think my Hip Hop got better as I started doing contemporary, and I think…my initiation into contemporary dance was really helped by my Hip Hop training…I feel really grateful to have those two. A lot less identity crisis about it than I used to have…now I feel like my craft is…like a stir…a whole thing but it’s got the two in there.
IA: Can you articulate how your Hip Hop has got better by training and practicing another form? That’s an interesting perspective.
AE: It was really interesting to discover actually. Partly because, in my contemporary training, there was a lot of improvisation, like I said before…and also a lot of liberation. Thinking so wide…you’re not…a lot of the anxieties or the things that hold you back don’t feel as relevant any more, so you feel really open to trying things and less…less under pressure about how good you are. In terms of…so improvising, that then made me really like excited about freestyling, so I’m comfortable freestyling in Hip Hop now, but before I was really quite nervous about it. In a very physical sense…I got really in touch with my body and my physicality, and the different ways it can move. The different opportunities that you have for making movement essentially. That, next to my ability to pick up choreography, or knowing the foundational styles, it’s cool to have that but then be able to branch out from it. Also things like breaking translated well into contemporary floor work and the musicality from training in Hip Hop was useful in classical classes etc. That’s how I use my contemporary to help my Hip Hop.
IA: What was the first Hip Hop theatre work you saw?
AE: Hmm. [pause] Oh that’s…what was it? I mean it’s probably ZooNation. [pause] I think the first one I saw was the one that I was in. So I was in ‘Into the Hoods’ at the Novello Theatre, when I was ten. I was in it for 2.5 minutes but…I actually never got to see it when I was in it, but that was the first one I was around. I think eventually I saw it in the end. It was funny because, I was in it, but my whole family was watching it all the time cause they had to come up and bring me, they got such a taste for Hip Hop theatre, and I was like ‘I don’t even know what it is!’ Because I was on stage…it was probably ‘Into the Hoods’.
IA: Looking back at that now, how important is that to you…with some reflection, with the other things that you’ve seen, what does that work look like?
AE: It’s interesting. I feel like at the time I was super lucky, because I really liked doing street dance and Hip Hop…I liked to dance, but I didn’t really know where I was gonna go with it, or whether being a dancer was just dancing on the X Factor. It was cool to see…and I think I had a general love for theatre as well, so I was definitely very lucky to, at a young age, to have seen that those two…that that is a place where you can go. And then staying in the company, working in that field and having a bit of a…a projection towards that as the goal. Just knowing that that was an opportunity from quite early on was really great. It was nice to know that that wasn’t the only…opportunity as well, I was working there but then you try and do things and you realise it’s an option and you can go wherever you want with it. It’s cool to know that it exists.
IA: One of the things that Hip Hop doesn’t do well is the idea of self-care and mental health awareness. What are your practices of self-care and ensuring positive mental health?
AE: Hmm. It’s a good question. I think I’ve had to work a lot on…I think it’s important to know how you feel. I mean, that sounds really obvious. But, I’ve learnt to be honest about what I feel in general, whether it’s in a rehearsal room or outside of it or whatever’s going on that day, I don’t like the idea of leaving it out of the studio, coming in and being this blank canvas to be worked on. That doesn’t really work for me. Because I feel like entering into…I love dance and it’s my job…who I am is also who I am as a dancer, so if I don’t bring my thoughts and feelings to my dancing, then it’s not…you’re not getting all of my potential in a way. I’ve learnt to have really strong boundaries now and I’m a lot less self-sacrificial. Under the feeling…trying to perform under somebody’s eye. I think I’ve trained myself to just start from me. Not in a selfish way…know what I can give and I’ll give that – I’ll give all of it, but not more than I have.
IA: Is that in response to some of the things you’ve already experienced within Hip Hop? You’ve mentioned that idea of having to leave everything out there and almost sacrifice yourself.
AE: Yeah. I think it comes in Hip Hop, that’s where I was as a young person, but also in dance in general and being somebody that’s different. It’s very hard because you do have to leave yourself a bit, because nobody…you’re often the only person like you in a room, so it’s really hard for you to be honest about how you feel, because it isolates you so much. You can feel uncomfortable in ways that you don’t really understand yet. Then other people, for example micro aggressions…things like that…you don’t feel comfortable bringing them up because nobody will understand and you don’t think that anybody there can support you. So in a way, you have to solve it, internalise it or leave it at the door, which is something that I…having worked with companies like Candoco, and being around people with similar experiences or an awareness, that’s been really nurturing. Having those things as valid and not leaving them at the door, just because other people don’t know how to deal with it. It’s like well, you’ve hired me so you’re gonna get [laughs] everything that I have to bring. The good and the bad.
IA: Talking of Candoco and the duet with Jemima, can you talk a little bit about that? You as performer in a very different work to an indoor, Hip Hop, commercial work.
AE: It was really, really great working on that…again, it was another experience where I went and nobody knew…I wasn’t known of so I didn’t have any history or…I felt like I could go in there as a professional artist and present myself as an…adult [laughs] in a way. Which was nice. The performance experience was really different because it was outdoors and people hadn’t seen it or bought a ticket and decided to see this work, it was open for the public. Which brought quite a lot of anxiety on my part, just because I can have difficult experiences in public and people reacting to me. But at the same time, it was nice to be surprised…not have the reactions I expect…just interacting with people in the street and performing a work that I really like enjoyed doing…I would have this initial anxiety but then I’d get into the work and people would be smiling and it would be like ‘Oh,’ I’d be pleasantly surprised. It was my first international tour, and me and Jemima got on really great so it was an all-round great experience.
IA: What does success and happiness look like to you?
AE: Hmm. There’s definitely a part of me that’s like…I’m on Sadler’s Wells, I’m doing a solo and everybody’s on their feet, crying and I’ve made everybody re-think their attitudes about disability and racism and sexism. I’ve just done all of that and that’s success. [laughs] But I think in a more realistic, or humble way, it would be working with nice people and being proud of what you make and using dance for social change? And being a human being at the same time. I guess that would be happiness for me.
IA: I’ve got some more questions, but is there anything that you’ve not spoken about so far, that you want recording, or that you want to talk about? It might be a memory or an encounter that’s important to you that hasn’t been triggered by the questions so far.
AE: Hmm. [long pause] I don’t know if I have anything pressing to add. I feel like I’m quite good at rambling all my opinions into any question that you ask to be honest. If something else comes up I will mention it.
IA: How does Hip Hop manifest in and on your body?
AE: Hmm. Interesting… [pause] I don’t know. How does it manifest? It’s definitely changed, throughout my whole experience. I think initially, I was very attracted to the groove of it and just reflecting the music very closely. I don’t know if that is how Hip Hop manifested in me, in the music and me showing what the music is. I had teachers like Tali…a bit later on my ZooNation training, and that was nice cause there was more of a…I remember at the time being ‘Ooh, this really feels nice in my body, it’s a different style’. A bit in between, but at that time I was like ‘Oh, I feel like this was me but I didn’t know it’. Now I think Hip Hop manifests in…in a bit of a jumble in me. I really like code switching and being able to do the full-on locking routine and have the right technique and really enjoy the skills of it but…I also think Hip Hop…I also like doing whatever I want to a Hip Hop song. Lots of different ways but mostly…I think I value both as much as each other, the styles and doing a choreography class. I really like doing those things, seeing something and it moving on me; I also really like being in Hip Hop and then bringing whatever I feel doing at the time as well.
IA: There’s two camps in the Hip Hop world, the purists and the evolutionists. Those who want to protect and preserve the original foundations and styles and those who want to acknowledge but evolve it. Where do you sit on that?
AE: I don’t know if I have a very strong stance on it yet, because I feel a bit young and also I’m not that experienced if I’m honest. In my training, there was always an emphasis on the sanctity of how you do it properly, where it came from and that is extremely important…I definitely think that the origins of Hip Hop is as a Black cultural movement and the music coming out of that experience. That’s really important to value and keep alive, especially now cause everyone wants to join in and some people might, you know, there becomes a question of cultural appropriation. If we were a bit more grounded in where it came from that might not be such a sticky area. I feel like you can do pure Hip Hop and then also do other things with it. I don’t know. That’s not a very good answer but… [laughs] I guess my answer is ‘I don’t know’. [laughs]
IA: That’s a perfectly valid answer. 2020. How has this year been for you?
AE: Well, it started off flying pretty high. [laughs] I was feeling really good…because I was working and dancing a lot and being with cool people. Feeling like I was really active. Not just in a physical way, but being like, I felt…ready to do things. And then obviously…it happened. [laughs] And I moved home, I was there for a long time, so I think the general feeling has been…re-evaluating, I’ve re-evaluated dance a lot. Because I’ve had a lot of time to not dance, and just exist a bit, it’s been hard because I wanted to dance, but also not felt a desire to dance, or I felt like I’ve lost it, and feeling like there’s nothing for me to go into. Especially as a disabled person…you can really feel left behind. Cause it’s was kinda hard anyway and now it’s all stopped. I feel like I saw quite a difficult path into getting back into it, but at the same time, I felt quite a productive amount of reflection on where I want to be, if, when things return and how I want to approach dance. That’s been useful. But I’ve felt in general like…a bit cut at my peak.
IA: With your disability activism, is there something that you want to explore or work on in Hip Hop, dance or something wider?
AE: [pause] I don’t know if I’m necessarily targeting Hip Hop, not targeting but focusing on Hip Hop…my activism is more cultural…cultural ideas in general, cause I feel like if they don’t change then dance won’t change. Specifically in dance, there’s a very interesting relationship, because we have this idea of creative choice and excluding people, but we don’t see it as discrimination because we didn’t think of them or it doesn’t fit the idea or you need to have a certain aesthetic and that’s fine. It’s assumed that that’s fine, to require physicalities of people, I understand that, sometimes it’s appropriate, but also there’s a big gap where we’re just excluding certain bodies and we’re not really taking responsibility for it. I think that happens in Hip Hop…and contemporary. I’d like to challenge that and sometimes I’ve felt like just being in a Hip Hop space was a form of activism, a sort of burden and a blessing when you’re an other, because you feel like you have to represent your kind in the room. That’s a lot of pressure but you also feel proud…you are also the expert on your experience and you get to inform people on it. Part of me wants to just be in dance and reflect what I want to happen, but also…I wanna do more than just be there. I think it will be good to challenge ideas and attitudes as well.
IA: You mentioned a bit of that in your interview with Celeste on The Place website, about feeling that burden…everybody doesn’t have to hold those dual roles. If I just want to dance here, is that enough or not? Do I have to take on this leadership role as well?
AE: Yeah. Yeah. As a young person, I was definitely doing it cause I liked dance and I didn’t feel like…I think there was a bit of internalised ableism - I think I said in the interview - you don’t wanna make a difference of yourself, you just wanna fit in, you wanna do what everyone else is doing and that’s success if you manage to be just like everyone else. So, in that way, you’re not aware of the burden. But it’s kind of creeping up on you, once I became aware of it, I was like ‘Well I’ve got to either embrace this or…I guess I’ve just got to embrace it!’ In the end.
IA: You mentioned bodies and representation…in flyers, posters, photographs in reviews, you always see the virtuosic freeze or the body upside-down. What are your thoughts are around the representation of the virtuosic body in Hip Hop?
AE: I think it’s important to have good representation of bodies…in promo and in companies as well, but I do feel that sometimes that has been used as a tool. It doesn’t really mean anything if the people in the room don’t feel like they’re supported or looked after. I sometimes resent…when places that I know are failing people…get to appear as an inclusive and diverse organisation, even though I know that people there aren’t being cared for. The intention’s there and we can’t deny that there’s lots of different bodies doing dancing now but you don’t get to appear to be on the right side of history if you’re not doing it from the inside. You can’t just put it on your poster, that’s false advertising.
IA: Hip Hop and documentation, this is a nice segue. I think we’re in a really rich period of different makers, dancers, people training in the scene but their archive isn’t very well considered. What is your relationship to your archive, your practice and how you document your own work?
AE: Hmm. [pause] There’s probably a portion of my dancing where I wasn’t thinking about anything other than, you know, just having a good time and doing it. It’s only recently that I…have a documentation of my ideas and what’s going on. I think that started…I was excited to write my dissertation because it was what I wanted to say at the time, what I was feeling and I could just give it to people and they could understand my experience a bit. To be given…a space to do that and a physical document where I could be like ‘Read that!’ Rather than talking or performing. I have valued having things recorded and having interviews and writing things down cause I feel the side of me that’s really present in my dancing…they’re being side-by-side a bit more, there’s not just a video of me dancing any more. It can be an interview. The ideas that I have around dance are visible next to the me enjoying it.
IA: What was your dissertation on?
AE: It was on the representation of people with disabilities in history and culture, and how that influences our attitudes within the dance sphere. I mean, I’d love to publish it but, I don’t know if it’s any good! [laughs]
IA: I’ve got a couple more questions, but I’ll ask the one again from earlier on - is there anything that we’ve not spoken about that you think ‘Yeah, actually, I wanna talk about this.’
AE: Hmm. [pause] I don’t think so. I think I’m good, yeah.
AE: Thank you though.
IA: You’re welcome. I’m interested in your experience of institutional hierarchies and structures of power in Hip Hop.
AE: [pause] It’s funny, like I think about things all the time, and now I’m tryna get my thoughts together. What kind of institutions do you mean?
IA: The Place is an institution, Sadler’s is an institution, ZooNation is an institution.
AE: Got it. I think…well, my experience in an institution…and it’s not Hip Hop…was mostly really positive and I think because I was in a contemporary environment which tends to want to break boundaries and be forward-thinking. Not that Hip Hop doesn’t, but it’s also the case for contemporary…I felt like there was lots of availability to understand everyone and try to support people. There’s always lacks and gaps of awareness and I’ve found that sometimes, often the approach was to let me figure it out by myself. Or let me alter something, or you take a second to try and do it in your own way. Which is like, often good but also, sometimes you feel that there is more that a teacher could do for you and it’s hard to understand where you’re being…whether it’s supportive or dismissive, cause they don’t know how to help. I’m not uncompassionate about the fact that people aren’t gonna know what to do all the time. But at the same time…that’s why people are sceptical of institutions because they don’t see themselves being considered or the don’t expect because of the curriculum for example, I applied for The Place and I was like ‘I don’t know if I could do ballet, can we…’ and they were like ‘Oh, we can just take it off the timetable if you want’. But, I didn’t, I did it in the end and did it successfully in my own way. So I think my experience of institutions is…wanting to help, but not having the awareness and facilities and ways that you can, have your potential helped, it kind of falls through the gaps because people think you’re the expert, and sometimes you’re not the expert. Even though you have a different body or experience, you can still help someone find something. Sometimes I’m ignored by teachers because - this happens in Hip Hop as well - because they don’t know how to approach my body in this form. And I’m like, just try it, and I’ll let you know if it’s going wrong or not.
IA: You mentioned it earlier…about auditioning and trying to get jobs…can you talk about your auditioning experience?
AE: I think this is actually specific to Hip Hop but, my work opportunities in Hip Hop tend to be very specific about my size. So, it would be…they needed a body like mine. Whereas in other auditions and stuff, I’ve felt like they didn’t initially think of me but I could be an option. Which sounds awful but, it feels less pigeon-holed in a way. In terms of Hip Hop work, I’ve said ‘No’ to a lot of work because it’s been…I was asked to dance for The Greatest Showman on a commercial thing…and that film is actually quite…what’s the word? Among the disabled community it’s very painful and it’s actually a really bad film in terms of our history, so I felt morally I didn’t wanna be a part of that. But then I also thought the person that asked me to do that job, will not ask me to do another job for them because, this is what they saw me in and even though they might think I’m a good dancer, they couldn’t conceive of the fact that I might wanna like dance in another situation where I don’t have to be a character of my body. I don’t audition much because I have this assumption that if there’s a call out…often call outs say you have to be five foot eight, and it’s like…it’s not only excluding to me, it’s excluding to lots of people. For people that are really not in that category, it’s completely unattainable. I’ve auditioned for more contemporary things than Hip Hop things…most of my connections are…I’ve had ZooNation connections for Hip Hop stuff and that’s been helpful but, in terms of approaching new Hip Hop scenes, I feel very…unwanted, if I’m honest.
IA: What is your strongest memory of dance?
AE: Ooh. One of my strongest memories…again, my narcissism is coming out here…I have a really strong memory. When I was eighteen, I was in National Youth Dance Company which is the youth company at Sadler’s Wells. I worked with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, which was…mind-blowing. I basically, I had a solo in it and it’s what I said before, I did a solo at Sadler’s Wells and it was really quiet and I was dancing and I just felt…in a very obvious way I was very seen, but not in the way that I often feel seen which is like looked at and observed and judged. It was like ‘You’re all sat there and looking, and I’m dancing my arse off and…I know I’m great!’ That was a really good example of how dance, with all it’s shit, it’s definitely a space for me to take agency of how I’m seen and…how I present myself in the ways that I want to. Cause often that’s taken away from me. That is a very special memory for me.
IA: Paint the picture for those who didn’t see you, what was the solo? What were you doing?
AE: It was…so, in the piece we had these big metal structures that were designed by Antony Gormley. They were like, they were part of the set but at one point I was in this big cube and the idea was that I was stuck in the cube and…I mean it sounds a bit generic now, but I was fighting my way out of the cube. Which might be a bit of a on-the-nose metaphor, but at the time, it was very empowering…it was quite an intense feeling being on your own. Also, being very small, I felt very small in a big space, in a big cube and to sound cliché, I was feeling very big at the same time. [laughs]