Dancing in “The Area”

The Area (video still)

The Area: A Dublin Dance Map” is a 25 minute film (Ireland 2013) in which the Macushla Dance Club for the over 50s work with professional dance artist Ríonach Ní Neill and filmmaker Joe Lee to reclaim a section of Dublin city though dance and the sharing of their life stories.

I was privileged to view “The Area: A Dublin Dance Map” at a symposium called The Geographical Turn in the Royal Irish Academy. This symposium was organised by Professor Gerry Kearns from Maynooth University’s Human Geography Department. As the film started and I heard those inner-city Dublin accents I was instantly transported back to my childhood listening to the stories told by my Mam and her sisters as they sat drinking Maxwell House instant coffee. (Bird’s food factory was where Maxwell House coffee was packed and Bird’s had a large number of local people on their workforce. This had the effect that whole community became ‘related’ once a month to take advantage of the large employee family discount on products packed or produced in the factory.  Every household in the flats had a big red drum of instant Maxwell House coffee sitting on their small kitchen counter.) They drank coffee reminiscing about the beautiful dance-halls of Dublin city in the 1950’s. Back then it would not have been unusual for a 13 year old to have left school and be working in the local factories, which meant the dance-hall became a central part of people’s weekend escape from work. I heard it as a child listening at those coffee mornings and was reminded of it again in the film as one of the voices recounted that as “they headed off to the dance-hall they would be shiny on the outside but not on the inside.” This cheeky remark reminded me that the dance halls were not only a place for dancing but that sexual expression and romance where high on the agenda. My Mam and Dad met at one of these dances and I know, smiling to myself, that my Dad was one of the great dancers like “Skinnier Fox….up under your leg and everything, he’d have you this way and that way and all over the place and if he asked you up, that was the business”, that all the women wanted to dance with. I remember now my Mam and Dad dancing in a competition in Butlin’s and even though my Mam was ‘carrying weight’ she was transformed into this weightless fairy that glided around the ballroom floor in complete surrender to my Dad’s lead.

After the initial nostalgia of connecting it with my childhood I needed to break the film down into its different layers to begin to get a handle on the different forms of communication used in the production. I found that I needed to listen to the audio without watching the scenes to absorb the stories that the actors were so willing to share. Then I watched the film with the audio turned down to be able to see without the distraction of sound. I watched the dances, the subtle movements, to try and decipher the language of the movement and what they were telling us.

The first scene is shot in an under-ground loading bay which is grey with harsh lighting and huge steel bins. This loading bay is on the site of what was once a dance-hall. The music is played by a live band and the mixture of amateurs and professional dancers and the inter-generational element creates a sense of celebration. It almost felt like I was watching a video of an unusual wedding. The various narrators telling their stories gave me a strong sense of what it was like to be at the dance-hall when it was in full swing. How it was normal for the women to dance together and how they would be asked by two men if they were ‘breaking’, this was when two women were dancing with each other and if they both liked the look of their possible new partner they could chose to dance with them or if one didn’t fancy hers they would twirl and move away together.

In a documentary like this you might expect to see archival footage of the dancehalls in their heyday with the young dancers and the fashion of the day, however, in this film Joe Lee and Ríonach Ní Neill decided not to do this. What we are presented with are present uses of the dance hall space as it was in Dublin at the time of filming. This theme of using Dublin as it is now runs through the whole film. We see images office blocks, derelict boarded up social housing flats, unfinished buildings and we see ghost construction sites caused by the collapse in Celtic Tiger economy.

They also choose to show the dancers as they are now in their 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and to have them participate in the dances. In using archival material the older person is usually invisible with only their voices heard and the scenes from their youth presented, however in The Area the older body is a central theme. The filmmakers want us to see these people as they are now, in the city as it is now. Their bodies are older but the narration speaks of youth, dance, love and marriage, and with this we are reintroduced to seeing people with a life story rather than as just being ‘old’. In the conference we were told of how a youth group were constantly under surveillance as they walked around the city whereas the older cast of The Area were almost invisible and were allowed film throughout the city without the bureaucracy of form-filling. It seemed that just because they were old, they couldn’t do any harm, and the normal filming rules and requirements were waived by the property managers. In a poignant joke, Ríonach said that if you wanted to rob a bank in Ireland you should carry it out in the middle of the day with a gang of 70-year old ladies and nobody would see them do it. This invisibility, while helping them to make the film, must make us reflect on just how lonely this could be on an everyday basis?

The older body is represented by the Mucushla Dance Club which caters for people aged over fifty, and which has a social element seen as central and vital to the ethos of the group. The professional dancers in their forties. These professional dancers while younger than the Mucushla group are also considered in the dance world as being old and I learned that professional dancers are expected to retire from the stage aged 40 irrespective of their gender or physicality.

The Area (video still)

I have very little knowledge about dance as an art form but from what I’ve learned all movement is dance and in The Area we see dances which challenge the usual perception, for example, the first dance looks like a celebratory dance like would be seen at a wedding however there are men waltzing with each other, another man dancing with a drapers dummy and the older women dancing with more expressive moves than you’d likely see at a wedding today. The last scene in the film also has a party going on in the stairwell of an old Georgian house. Back in the 1950’s the Georgian house would have been subdivided into small units and rented out. This party could represent the wedding party introduced in the film where a piano was pushed up the street, we are told once the music started everyone came to the wedding there was no invitations, and I could just feel the community spirit, the celebration and the belonging. As the party is in full swing on the stairwell there is a lone dancer by a window upstairs mirroring the dancing of the entertainer on the stairs. I am not completely sure what the film maker wanted to highlight with this contrast, but for myself the two dancers show how one can be lonely while being so close to a bigger community or could the dance on the stairwell be a memory of the lone dancer, which could mean that our sense of place and belonging is always with us in our minds.

The Area (video still)

There are other scenes in the film where the older dancers sit on walls or benches swinging their upper body or legs in a childlike way as if they were thinking and contemplating or dreaming about life, in these scenes the professional dancer is behind them moving gracefully. Is this a memory or does it reflect how the older dancers feel as they move through the city in the present day?

At different times during the film we get close ups of the dancers faces and see their older skin, the patterns and shapes of their wrinkles. We see the joy on their faces as they dance around the space and the audience is forced to really look. This is a method of confirming their presence in the film and in life. This technique of zooming in on the older face was used without much sympathy in Britain’s Got Talent when a 79 year old woman Paddy takes to the stage with her mid twenties dancing partner Nico. The zooming-in in this case was used to tap into the ageism in the audience, we see Simon Cowell yawn, a snide joke is made by another judge about the nature of their relationship, all feeding into the idea that she doesn’t belong up there on the stage (all part of the ‘entertainment’ that is the … got talent show). As the speed of the dance quickens and becomes very skillful the cameras pan back away so that we don’t see the old lady anymore but the strong dancer; and the audience is forced to reappraise their judgement.

The narration throughout the film tells the stories and recollections spoken by the older cast members. We see them “playing cards” trumping each other with their various illnesses. There are important distinctions made, the menopause is not an illness but a stage in life and that the illness that trumps them all, including cancer and heart attacks, is senile dementia. This loss of connection with memories and loved ones is the greatest loss, and this is a fundamental theme of the film. It is about the loss of place, the changing of the city, which was only alive in their memories but now captured in this film.

This film has much to offer in the understanding changing place, the older body, memory and its attachment to place, it does require repeated viewing to tease out many of these themes but it is time well spent.

Mary Broe, PhD student


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