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Dance Your Way Home: in conversation with Emma Warren

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Created through decades on dancefloors around the world, but shaped during the months away from them during the pandemic, Emma Warren’s new book Dance Your Way Home is a rare gift. Equal parts memoir and manifesto, it’s both a homage to the dancefloors that have made her and the wider lessons drawn from the dancing that took place on them, to help make happy humans and better societies. 

As an author, broadcaster and journalist, Warren has been documenting grass roots music and culture for decades, from the couch at Red Bull Music Academy to the Worldwide FM airways and on the pages of her own books and pamphlets. To appreciate Dance You Way Home, you must also understand the catalog it grew from. Her first book, Make Some Space, was a tribute to the East London studio and venue, Total Refreshment Centre, which helped nurture London’s jazz renaissance, and the both the name and themes have been expanded further into a broader mission statement: to “make space” for dance. 

Just as Warren implores the reader to dance your own history, so too has she written hers, charting the through-lines between her own Irish heritage, school discos, Manchester clubs, South London restaurants and Chicago streets. Any mentions of familiar dancefloors make for welcome reference points for the reader, but the rewards from these pages are just as great to a lone bedroom dancer who has found their community on TikTok, or a teacher wanting to incorporate more dance into their curriculum. 

There’s few cultural writers in the UK who have devoted more words to the power of dance, so it only felt write to speak to Emma in the lead-up to our International Dance Day initiative to go deeper into some themes of the book and why we should value dancing. 

Dance Your Way home is available now via Faber

International Dance Day is all about celebrating global dance culture, so here’s a quickfire to start us off using some definitions in your book: what contemporary dances, dancefloors and dancers are commanding your attention at the moment?

I’ll answer this in reverse order, starting with dancers that are commanding my attention. I’ve just spent the last three weeks in Cushendall, in the Glens of Antrim in Northern Ireland and one of the many lovely people I met told me that sometimes, when there’s a sticky situation in his family, he’ll invite his teenage daughter to ‘Eighties dance’ in the kitchen. This means doing a thumbs in the belt, Status Quo type move at each other and I love this image of dance as a really simple and soulful way of communication with loved ones.

Dancefloors – writing this book has reconnected me to my local dancefloors, which currently include Deptford Dub Club at the Fox and Firkin in Lewisham; HouSupa at Pop Brixton; and the brilliant Moonlighting night run by Marsha Marshmello, Leanne Wright and Zakia Sewell.

Finally, specific dances. I’m going to answer this by describing something I saw during one of the primary school workshops I’ve been running. This particular workshop gets children to make up choreography using dances that they know – which sometimes includes internet dances – so that they can teach this to the PE department, who can then use it for warm-ups. One child kept on walking at the wall, like a video game character who has missed the doorway. It struck me that this was a kind of movement that could only exist now, like – as someone says in my book – the Moonwalk couldn’t exist before the moon landing, or the Robot couldn’t exist before robots. Movement ­– and dance – is a reflection of the times.

It’s an impossible question, but of all the dancefloors you documented in DYWH, which one has had the most profound impact on you?

It is an impossible question and so I’ll answer it sideways. Being in Northern Ireland and hearing about youth club discos during the heights of the Troubles made a deep impact on me. The good people at Free The Night told me about Dancing On Narrow Ground, which documents the way dance music spots like Kelly’s in Portrush provided strong respite for kids living through 1990s Belfast. The dancefloor is deep, and it’s layered. I was profoundly outraged to hear that Studio 18 in Stroud is facing closure because of a noise complaint. I went to their Pop Up Stroud event earlier this month, which celebrated free party culture. It involved an exhibition, a film screening and Q&A from Jeremy Deller, a panel talk and music from DIY using the original DIY Soundsystem. The venue is by a river in an industrial site, with no visible neighbours nearby. It is extremely anti-social to try and stop people occasionally dancing together into the night and I sincerely hope Stroud council can push back against this minority sport of squashing collective enjoyment.

I know you’re a prescriber of the Gil Scot-Heron handbook of no-stalgia, so I hope you don’t mind this rose-tinted question we ask all our interviewees. In DYWH, you made a point of honouring Sven Lindqvist's "digging where you stand” approach to writing but what about the places you haven’t stood/danced? If you could go back to a dancefloor in history, what would it be?  

I’m not into going back, because there are so many dances I’d like to go to now and in the future. If I had to go back I’d go way back to alehouse raves in Anglo-Saxon times or ‘cheap dances’ in 1930s Ireland where everyone would be squashed in, sweatily, dancing to the new music of the time.

 

The Irish-Caribbean, Síbín-Shubeens connection you made wasn't just illustrative of your own personal journey through dancefloors but also one of many examples of migration's power to shape the way we dance and the spaces we dance in. It's a subject we also explore through our Migrant Footprint panel series, so we'd like to extend a question we like to ask our guests: what do you feel is migration’s greatest contribution to club culture?

Migration is movement in its most fundamental form, and it’s an essentially human thing to do. We move. That movement affects the dancefloor. Movement is life.

British sound system culture recently lost one of its foundational figures in Jah Shaka, someone who is also memorialised in the pages of DYWH. What do you feel is Shaka's legacy to dancing? 

Jah Shaka’s influence will last forever. We have him - and the multitude of men and women who built and ran soundsystems - to thank for almost every single aspect of UK dance culture. He created the space that was needed, for dancers who really needed it. We’ll feel echoes of his unique style and his musical message for decades to come.

The youth gets a prominent “big up” throughout DYWH [note to readers: this phrase is also the subject of the book’s standout footnote], both in their contribution to club culture and the impact dance has on their development and wellbeing. This offers a nice connection to founding values of The Right To Dance, so International Dance Day feels like a fitting time to ask: why should we be taking dance seriously as a tool for children to harness? 

Firstly, to quote Whitney Houston, I believe the children are the future. There’s good evidence that children and young people benefit from music to movement in all kinds of ways – interpersonally, physically, and emotionally. There’s also good evidence that dance is good for problem-solving, which should be of interest to school leaders. I made a list of intentions for my book when it came back from the printers, and one of those intentions is that it gives teachers, heads and school governors language and a framework to advocate for more dance in schools. I want things to change. OneDanceUK are advocating for this nationally, particularly around dance in the community and in the curriculum.

Through our Dance For Good initiative, we’re trying to stake a claim for the club being part of the International Dance Day celebrations as much as the traditional forms of dance, and you make reference to this point through Theresa Buckland’s “cinderella” analogy. For those who haven’t read the book yet, would you mind expanding on why the kind of social dancing commonplace in clubs is just as important as dancing for performance? 

I reject the phrase ‘social dance’ and I purposefully avoided using it as a term and as a framework. I reject it because I think dance is dance and adding in ‘social’ before dance suggests that the real, proper, important dance is not social – that it’s created by experts or professionals and consumed by people who are not expert or professional. I think that this is part of a monied Western European separation of performer and audience which is culturally specific and which can cut us off from the communal enjoying of moving to music. I often think of the Chicago composer Angel Bat Dawid. I once heard her say to an audience that her music was supernatural, extraordinary – which she then said again, pulling apart the words: super natural, extra ordinary – before asking everyone in the audience to make music and to contribute, even if it’s just banging two spoons together. I feel the same way about dancing.

There's a common argument in music discourse that the establishment doesn't appreciate the value of club culture to the UK. Would it be accurate to say that DYWH argues more fundamentally: that dance itself isn’t valued enough? What do you feel can be done on a structural level to make dance be taken more seriously? 

Ordinary dance isn’t taken seriously at all and isn’t valued. I’m really grateful to the grassroots organisations who are making it their business to advocate for the dancefloor, specifically Give Us The Night in Ireland and Free The Night in Northern Ireland. There are people in the UK doing great grassroots things too, like The Music Venues Trust. The dancefloor is political, even if it doesn’t always feel political when we do it – and we know this by the way the state responds. The first bill proposed by Giorgia Meloni’s new right wing government in Italy was a law that made organising a dance without a licence much more illegal.

Given your passion for community work, are there any stories of hope you’ve encountered on a local level that are expanding our ability to dance?

Always and often. It’s really important that we don’t give up hope, because there’s always hope. The worse things get, the more we’ll need the dance. I’d point you towards the Fandangoe Kid’s Grief Raves, the fact that my small corner of Lewisham now has three small venues in it, the people contacting me saying that they want to run an U18s night after reading my book, and the response I’ve had, on a very small level, to the work I’ve been doing in primary schools. Sad children look much happier when you’ve encouraged them to make up dances with their friends, and adults are just grown versions of this.

Continuing the theme of hope…you spotted a contrasting correlation around collective dancing in recent decades; one where IRL dancing has declined in line with the increase in digital dancing. Are you hopeful about the future of dance culture?

I don’t exactly think that IRL dancing has declined in line with the increase in digital dancing, or that one is exactly linked to the other. Anxiety is a big barrier to dancing, and also a big reason why more dancing is needed, because it’s a really good remedy for worry and fear. I think we’re just dancing in different places, in different ways, differently configured. I think we’ll build the IRL dancefloors we need, and I have zero doubt that this is already happening.

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