Introductions: Andrew Coombs
In the first of our interviews with people who have an interesting answer to the question “what do you do?”, we meet Andrew Coombs.
Andrew is Artistic Director and CEO of Hackney Children’s Theatre, and has been creating dance and performance experiences, events and lessons for over 15 years. We met up after one of his parent and toddler classes, Romp And Roll, to find out how he got to be where he is today.
Tell us a bit about your background
I grew up in South Africa, middle of three boys, in a pretty macho and tough culture. It was all outdoors - TV in South Africa didn’t start broadcasting till I was 10. My mother was a dressmaker and all three of us grew up a whizz on the sewing machine - at 19 my brother reupholstered his car interior. As a child, my parents allowed me to dress as I liked - my father in particular made sure that when I wanted a pair of ‘girls’ Mary Jane style shoes, that I got them.
When did you first want to be a dancer? How did you find out about it as a possible career?
As a small boy, I used to see girls going to dance classes above the chemist’s in town, in their leotards and pink ribbons. I didn’t know that they were dancing but they had a great uniform and seem to have a secret world.
Boys did not dance where I came from. I never saw live dance performances until my late teens, and then only ballet. My mother said she did not want her boys to dance because all she saw was men lifting the girls, like a porter. I loved rollerskating so I used to get my brother to rig up lighting and sound so I could do rollerskating shows.
Mid-way through my high school years I switched to a state run art school. You studied either art, ballet, music or drama - I studied art. There was one boy taking dance and he had to fight for it.
In my twenties I came to London and worked as a clothing designer. I saw some contemporary dance which showed me that there were other interesting ways to dance and tell stories with your body. A friend who saw how I liked to dance in nightclubs said I should try doing it professionally. I was accepted for dance training first at Roehampton, then at Laban in South London and finally at Middlesex. This training taught me not just about dancing but also how to be in the world.
And what brought you to where you are now?
When I finally found my way to dance and finished studying, I wanted to work for myself. I set up with a friend and we applied for platforms, festivals whatever... we were eager!
We performed in a park as part of a festival and the children that were in the park loved our performance, so we thought, ‘we’ve found an audience’!
I was interested in dancing in unusual places, not in theatres, and our themes were fantasy-based so I was a dancing goblin in a troupe of goblins and fairies for many years. We worked outside, around the world, from the Royal Parks to South Africa and responded to the natural environment around us. When I felt I was maybe too old to be a goblin any longer, I started to work in a different way. Through an artists’ residency at St John at Hackney Church, and working with the community, I set up Hackney Children’s Theatre. There was not a lot of well-made affordable theatre for children in Hackney and I wanted children local to me to be able to experience good dancing and theatre.
What about working with early years?
There are very few men working with early years. Working with very young children is often considered women’s work, and I find it hard to recruit men to do what I do, to cover my classes. In fact I sometimes feel that I have to justify why I, as a man, would want to work with pre-schoolers.
I like working with children - they redefine what dance is and can be. They’re not bound by any strictures yet. Childhood is an honourable place in itself, and I like facilitating spaces and areas for them to learn about dancing and using their bodies, and for them to also take some creative ownership of what they are doing.
What skills and strengths do you need to be a dancer? What have you learnt through dancing that you didn’t get elsewhere?
You need to love doing it and be disciplined - which is not hard if you like it!
Being a professional dancer is not just about performing, there are lots of ways to be involved with dancing that are not about being on stage, from dancing with other people for fun to dancing in battles or sharing your knowledge with other dancers. I am more interested in the power of dancing with people than dancing for people.
Dancing is a fantastic way to be with other people. It teaches you to communicate and listen without words. It’s good for your health, keeps you supple, it makes you feel good and it teaches you to think about yourself in relation to others and the world we live in.
I get to play a lot, roll around on the floor, not wear a suit everyday, be creative and use my body. I work with people that are enjoying themselves, who love what they do and I help others to feel good about themselves and their bodies.
Do you think that boys are put off dancing and physical performance? Are some types of dance more ‘acceptable’ than others?
It depends where you are.
When I wanted to study here in London, there was a lot of encouragement and incentives to get men dancing, even though I was not that good, did not have much experience and was quite old!
Boys are encouraged to show off and compete. It’s ok to be a dancer if you are really really good - the best in fact. There is definitely more opportunity for male dancers now, though men are much more objectified. A lot of dance shows are sold on images of topless men.
Competitive dancing like hip-hop, breaking and street dance styles are much more acceptable for boys than ‘stage dancing’ like ballet and contemporary. Breaking has both a strong community and a very competitive side to it. While you learn from each other, the ‘battle’ is still the way of performing Breaking will become an Olympic youth sport in 2018, so then it crosses over from an expressive art to a sport. Programmes like Strictly Come Dancing also reinforce the idea that dance is performance and competition, all sparkles and scoring.
Do you think attitudes have changed more recently? If so what do you think is making the change?
I think there are more opportunities for men to dance and attitudes to dancing men have changed. But the focus on dance for men is still to be macho, strong, hard and competitive. Men being graceful, fluid, soft and delicate is still questionable. I think it’s still hard for boys to dance just for pleasure, and not be the best at it.
I like dance with humour which connects us as humans and allows for natural movement. Dancing that isn’t for show or about being good or the best. Dancing in African rural communities has a different focus - everyone does it, not to battle or be the best, but because it is an expected part of interacting with your community.
Here, men are tested and women are objectified, which holds for dancing too. As women are gaining equality hopefully means that men can too.