I remember when the idea and subsequent rolling out of BHM across the UK began. At the time, I was beginning my dance training at the internationally known Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance. Being a young Hackney girl and just turning 18, this was a big deal for me. I decided to specifically audition for the school as I had watched the associated Rambert Dance company and noticed there were no dancers in the company that looked like me. Without really thinking about it, my audition and subsequent training at the school was a challenge to the status quo. Much like BHM in its very beginnings.
BHM was a challenge to the UK perception that black people were muggers, thieves and rioters, not to trusted and certainly not to be tolerated. Not that I noticed any of this at the time. My awareness of BHM was consigned to a footnote accentuated by seeing Diane Abbott and Bernie Grant every so often on the news. My attention was very firmly placed on becoming a dancer.
In hindsight, my training was the real beginning of being othered. At the school, I wasn’t seen as a pioneer from Hackney, the first cockney girl (to my knowledge) to attend the school. I was viewed by some of the staff as simply a ‘black body’ who was attempting the impossible. ‘Black People don’t do ballet or dance’ was a mantra that was very definitely felt by me. It’s a mantra that Cassa Pancho MBE, creative director of British ballet company, Ballet Black has spoken of recently. And one that still exists today despite the presence of the extraordinary Dance Theatre of Harlem who were a company of twenty years standing at the point I was in training. A fact that school staff at the time seemed to have ignored. For teachers who in theory were experts in the ballet world, this omission is rather startling. Indeed, it was only this week, thirty years after I had begun my training, that Ballet Black working with Freed of London have launched ballet shoes for darker skin tones.
Given I had begun my training at a local youth centre and went on to train at the Weekend Arts College I had up until this point always been around people who looked and sounded like me. Being a British black girl at a world-renowned ballet school was not the ‘Fame’ experience I was expecting.
I never imagined for a second, the colour of my skin would have such an impact on my every day experience at the school. As a child of the Windrush Generation, born and raised in Hackney, it never occurred to me that being British and black would become a serious bone of contention. A couple of teachers seemed to take some sort of exception to my presence at the school. It certainly wasn’t ALL of the teachers… sounds familiar…
The two teachers made a massive difference to my experience at the school. With a staff that had no POC representation, and with students predominantly white European, with some students as far afield as Japan, Canada and the US, seeing examples of black excellence in dance was challenging. I needed to see people who looked like me succeed in the arena I had chosen to live my life, to keep going, to be inspired, so that I didn’t falter. Thankfully the director of the school had cottoned on to how I was feeling and gave me a gift, one I have treasured to this day. The biography of Josephine Baker. Called Jazz Cleopatra, it was about an (albeit American) black woman who took Europe by storm at a point when the idea of a famous black woman seemed impossible. I read the book until it fell apart. And then bought it several times more.
In much the same way, BHM was a way of celebrating Britain’s black community and its contributions to the U.K., which is a home from home. The reach of the British Empire which has eventually morphed into the Commonwealth countries, extended to the Caribbean, where the British had ruled for centuries, leaving it’s mark through the Privy Council which various parts of the Caribbean still adhere to today. West Indians citizens had been told through their educational, legal, and political systems for 400 years that they were British. A fact seemingly denied upon independence from and entry into the U.K. during the 1960’s. The British decided that being black and from the Caribbean meant you were not of Britain but something else entirely, “no Blacks, no Irish, no dogs”. And this way of thinking remains to this day as we have seen with this year’s breaking of the Windrush Scandal. Make no mistake, the illegal deporting of Black British citizens had been going on for decades before The Guardian newspaper shed a light on it.
BHM came after the race riots of the beginning of the 1980’s when the black community railed against the over use by the police of the SUS laws on young black men around the country. In my recollection BHM was a way to build bridges that had been burnt by shining a positive light on the contributions of the UK black community. The recent return of such rudimentary and abusive laws now come in the form of stop and search
which has shown, yet again, to disproportionally target the black community… sounds familiar?
My awareness of BHM really came into being as my dance career took off. Cool Britannia was in, as was Suede, the Gallagher Brothers, etc. Soul to Soul, the Young Disciples and Mark Morrison were showing the world that black music didn’t only come from America it was a part of British culture, the MOBO’s were in its infancy and the U.K. perceived itself to be multi-cultural. Everyone was welcome and could be whoever they wanted to be. Britain was in effect was open to all.