New Belfast choir ready to move in harmony
Fresh from her success in Epilogue, which was part of the Belfast International Arts Festival, 61-year-old Sandy Cuthbert is now bringing the joy of dance to women across Belfast. She tells Gail Bell how bodies will harmonise in her new Movement Choir - and you could be part of it
SANDY Cuthbert is at home at Ballyhackamore in east Belfast, excitedly explaining in her cadenced "slightly posh" Geordie accent, that all voices, wherever they're from and however tuneful, are remarkably redundant in a visionary new 'choir' which has classes starting up across the city this week.
"The Belfast Movement Choir will be just that - moving together (to music) - and the idea is to have the same celebratory feeling that a vocal choir would have when working in harmony and in unison," enthuses the 61-year-old dancer, who is spearheading the innovative project with Maiden Voyage Dance.
"We want to get that sort of feeling through movement, instead of voices. Last year, which was a sort of pilot, people would get in touch with me thinking they were going to have to burst into song - so we really want to get the message out now to potential new participants that definitely no singing is required."
Originally from Tyneside, north east England, Sandy has lived in Belfast since 1994 - "the longest I have lived anywhere" - but still doesn't speak like a native.
"People say I speak like a slightly posh Geordie, which makes me laugh," she says, "although my accent is probably a mix of everywhere I've been..."
A former national gymnast, she taught and danced in London, worked in the circus as an aerial ballerina in South America and danced with Diversions, the national dance company of Wales, for five years, before meeting her Belfast husband during a dance tour to Northern Ireland in the 1990s.
"It was a time when not many dance companies toured Northern Ireland, but we always got such a warm welcome here and I loved it," she recalls.
"I met my future husband who was a freelance theatre technician at the time, so Belfast has been my adopted home ever since."
At the age of 34 she moved permanently to Northern Ireland after her husband took up a full-time job as technical stage manager in Belfast's Grand Opera House, using the opportunity to make a new start herself - she created In Transit dance company while also lecturing, in dance, at Belfast Met, later moving to work with Maiden Voyage Dance at the invitation of its artistic director, Nicola Curry.
"I was company manager with Maiden Voyage when we were looking at developing this Movement Choir, so I applied for funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation through its 'Explore and Test' grant," explains Sandy, who trained at the London Contemporary Dance School after completing a degree in Creative Arts and gaining a PGCE.
"It meant we had funding for two years to test it out - like a pilot scheme - to see how it works and how we might develop it.
"At that stage I was co-ordinating the project but now that I'm facilitating it, I can't wait to teach again, alongside Jane Mooney who danced in Epilogue with me (a recent sell-out film installation as part of Belfast International Arts Festival), Rosie Mullin, a past student of mine, and dance artist, Anna Treanor.
"It is a free, inter-generational project which focuses on movement for health and wellbeing for women across Belfast and I hope we can attract women who have never danced before. The aim is to bring together the different groups to perform in one big communal, celebratory, cultural activity in an outdoor venue - possibly Ormeau Park - next spring."
In preparation for that anticipated get-together, small classes start this week in north, south, east and west Belfast (Duncairn Arts Centre, Crescent Arts Centre, Vault Studio and The Spectrum Arts Centre respectively) alongside a Zoom class for women who don't yet feel confident enough for face-to-face sessions indoors.
Taking inspiration from modern dance pioneer, the Austro-Hungarian dance artist, Rudolf von Laban, the Belfast Movement Choir will aim to "instil a real sense of a community coming together and moving as one" says Sandy, who, having attained an MA in Dance and Somatic Wellbeing from Preston University a few years ago, also aims to bring an element of "mindful movement" to the performances.
"I do some somatic work as well and so I want women to feel totally connected to their bodies," she stresses.
"It's about working with the whole body, while looking after each participant's physical and mental health. It's about listening to the body and knowing what that body is capable of - I want people to be really 'present' and to leave everything else behind."
For her own star turn in the recent Epilogue at Flax Studios, Havelock House, she focused on doing exactly that, dancing in unison with 67-year-old Jane Mooney in a hypnotic celebration of the "lived in body" - a poetic testament to the transformative power of dance, whatever your age.
"With the Movement Choir, we're also looking at a similar themes of re-emerging, rediscovering," she says, "this time, in relation to coming out of lockdowns. At the moment, it's a very broad canvas, but we will see from the actual participants where we want to go with it.
"What does re-emergence or rediscovery mean for them, for instance? Each person will have their own self-expression and we will be led by that. As people get more confident, we will then move on to small groups and maybe duets, letting the movements take shape organically."
Response from women so far has been positive, she says, with many staying on from year one and other new recruits signing up this autumn. There are still some places left in the various groups - which run on different evenings - including one for young adults aged 13-18, led by Rosie Mullins at Vault dance studio in east Belfast.
Returning to the stage herself to dance in Epilogue was both a joy and a challenge for this inspirational sexagenarian, having led a more "sedentary life" over the past five years as company manager with Maiden Voyage Dance and filling much of her spare time with felting (she belongs to Feltmakers North) and gardening in her allotment with her husband.
"I loved being back in the rehearsal studio again, though," she says. "It was all there - it's still in your body. It was like coming back to an old friend, saying, 'Hi, this is the way you do it... and you just do."
Her body has always been quite strong and has "held up" quite well, she thinks, considering her long and demanding career in contemporary dance. "Although, I do have bunions on my feet," she concedes - "but they are dancer's feet and can still point beautifully. I have an MOT now and again with an osteopath because sometimes my spine and neck need re-aligning, but I will keep going - I can never retire.
"Dance keeps me young, vibrant and alive. I have danced all my life and I couldn't not. Dance is just part of me and now I want it to be part of more women in Belfast. I am so excited for the Movement Choir - we will be building a lovely relationship and just seeing where it leads. It's free, it's fun and it's brilliant - be part of it."
Taking part in the Maiden Voyage Dance Movement Choir is free and no previous dance experience is necessary. For details, email Sandy at email@example.com stating your name and preferred Belfast venue.