I’ll never forget the day in 2011 that my friends and I danced the walkways of Willesden Junction. The impossible happened – we did discover beauty in this hostile, industrial environment. The purple buddleia against the wire fences, the broad smile of the ticket office man as we jumped up and down to Anarchy in the UK, the deep red organza which became a wedding veil, the exquisite tenderness we shared in a dank, dark railway tunnel to the loving tones of Al Green and finally the intimacy and stillness between us as we emerged onto the Grand Union Canal. By the end, I felt as though I was part of a nomadic dancing tribe and I loved it.
So much so that I wanted to do it again. I reflected on all the different stages – from the staccato to the madness to the stillness – of Dance Willesden Junction and thought I’d like to create another dance happening (don’t please call it a flash mob in that advert-centric way) which was focussed solely on the gentleness of the heart. And less of a journey and more of a pilgrimage to one destination where we would dance. And I wanted to collaborate. As well as have original music this time.
Enter Duncan – physical theatre teacher, Helen – theatrically trained, and Phil – music teacher and musician. Unlike last time, I wasn’t sure where this happening would take place. I had ideas about grave yards or parks. We went for a summer’s Harlesden walk. On our way to St Mary’s churchyard (not right, too English village), we came across a bunch of Somali gentlemen gathered around a car radio blasting funky tunes. Far more like it. We had even a digression into the Longstone Avenue allotments (amazing, there’s a distinct favela flavour with bedsteads replacing hedges) where I managed to get us locked in. The man on the gate obviously mistook me for an allotment holder with a key. Phil, it turns out, is not just a brilliant bassoon player, he’s also a stalwart in a crisis. He phlegmatically carried over a wooden pallet and we managed to clamber over the wall. Into a thorny, flesh-tearing bush. But it was all part of the adventure. Old people emerging from a bush looking a little worse for wear!
None of these locations were right. It had to be Harlesden proper. And the Jubilee Clock on the traffic island seemed the confluence of what Harlesden is today. The four of us were happy.
And so five months later, we found ourselves blessed with a sunny wintry Sunday morning. At 8 45am, the dancers arrive in wonderful sparkling evening clothes. I salute their willingness and commitment. Yes, early on a Sunday morning. The women are glorious in flowery, leafy splendour – I’d asked for late autumnal golds, reds, greens – whilst the delicious men are suited and waistcoated in the most formal of manners. They were the much-needed conformity to our anarchy.
We gather in my living room – a circle of intention and frothy excitement. I explain that I would love us to enter into a sacred space as we walk towards our destination. Most of them have no idea where we are going. You see how trusting they are. And that we are taking our gentlest hearts to the heart of Harlesden and seeing what happens. Could we have an affect on the harshness of Harlesden?
I feel like the pied piper. A merry, glamorously eclectic bunch we are. My friend, Rachel, head to foot in late summer grass green topped off with shades. Emanating nightclub. Naturally. She is a yoga teacher and former hard house DJ. She assumes the idea is that we are coming home from a club. No, I say, it’s more that night is meeting day and seeing what happens at that liminal border. The glitter and the heart. Between us all. And Harlesden.
And we’ve got the chair – the once rather grand chair with the red seat covering that we found on the Dance Willesden journey. I was thinking it would be the continuity. At the end, I’m not so sure. It becomes a bit of an ugly intrusion.
Sarah – my old friend, Sarah who went to Ilkley Grammar with me and I with her – is such a star. She has specially decorated an old net curtain with autumnal leaves and words like ‘pilgrimage’ and ‘sacred’. Spontaneously and perfectly. Because I’d been thinking – yes, the Jubilee Clock because it is the Harlesden landmark, but no, the Jubilee Clock because it’s an homage to Victoriana and the Empire. Which seems inappropriate in the now of Harlesden. So the first thing we do, is re-appropriate the Clock with Sarah’s curtain. Hurray!!
Phil starts tuning his bassoon in front of it and soon a haunting melody is floating across Sunday morning Harlesden. This traffic island is bigger than any of us expected. It seems to be just right as a performance space. Normally, there would be a preacher here or in the past, guys from the Nation of Islam. But never, I say this with confidence, has Harlesden seen the likes of us.
Before long, we walk one by one into the centre. Patrick – looking like a tango king today – takes that space with grace and presence. He also graciously makes way for a gentleman with a multi-coloured carrier bag who walks by slowly with crutches. We’re not dancing with passers-by this time because I want to keep the energy focussed, but we are welcoming them into the space. And hoping that they will welcome us into theirs. Most of them do. They are bemused or mesmerised.
Helen has a crown of yellow vine leaves around her head and looks majestic. She also walks into the space taking her time. I go up to the far end and dance right in the middle of the cars and buses coming by on both sides. Soon all 12 – we all dance 5 rhythms regularly* except for Sarah and she’s a natural risk-taker – of us are dancing, rolling, and sometimes embracing each other. Even on the dirty concrete pavement. Slowly we become less afraid that this might be a performance and more willing to really tune into one another. To truly reveal our hearts here at this moment in this unlikely place.
Sarah and Tim greet each other by placing a precious vine leaves on each other’s hearts. One gentleman stands transfixed by a bus stop. People are wondering what we’re doing but they also seem entranced in a way. They can’t take their eyes off our flowing closeness. It seems so unlikely yet at the same time seductive. Two ladies by the pound shop stare. Duncan and Tim are now bouncing off one another and then lie down with their arms around each other. Two tall men gently wrapped around each other in the middle of Harlesden. It’s beautiful.
Another gentleman slips into our midst. He has huge, sad eyes. He leans against the traffic lights and almost drinks us in. I stand beside him unseen. I want to be near him but not to overwhelm him. We are all taking him in indirectly. We’re with him without admitting it. We’re surging, stepping and stopping to Phil’s melody. There it is, constantly uniting us.
Jayne hugs Emily tenderly with a scarf. Caroline and I have a soft dance. Rachel leaps by. Helen is rolling over Patrick. Phill jumps up and down with Tim like young stags. Bridget twirls. And then, we stop again. The stops are almost as important as the starts. Like pauses of togetherness.
We’re in the middle of a bubble, dancing our hearts out when a police siren crescendos nearby. We hear it but somehow it doesn’t distract us. And then it happens, a woman comes by and proclaims acerbically. “How dare you impose that on us?”. Gradually, we all realise what she said. We laugh with embarrassment. We laugh as come out of the tenderness. Her comments broken up our little heartworld. But that really is life in the middle of Harlesden. And we don’t want to avoid that either.
Others come up and ask questions. They want to join in and experience that feeling of closeness. For some, it looks as though we’ve been having some kind of sensual contact. We have, but not in the way, they think. One bloke – a builder – is dying to join in. Next time…
Dance Harlesden is coming in film format very soon.
*5 Rhythms is a dance practice created by Gabrielle Roth and there are classes all over London. You don’t have to be able to dance to do it. Just a willingness to move. More info on calltodance.com
Join Onebillionrising.org on Feb 14th and dance for a safe world for women. Initated by Eve Ensler – who wrote The Vagina Monologues – she is calling for women and men to say ‘No, now to violence against women. I’m dancing at 2pm at the London Eye in black and red.