A lady with outstretched arms stands before you in the street with the message 'DANCE WITH ME' printed on her t-shirt.
Would you dance with a stranger, on a whim, in public?
For Rita Marcalo's latest project, Dancing With Strangers, she became that stranger in the street. But her unconventional methods added another level of unfamiliarity to her encounters. Not only did she invite strangers to dance with her, but the duets were devised for these encounters by elderly residents of Headingley Hall, a care home in Leeds.
Photographs of Compass Festival by Lizzie Coombes for Leeds Inspired
Like a Chinese whisper, movement was passed from these residents through recorded spoken word. Those who agreed to dance with Rita were given a set of headphones, through which these choreographic instructions were read. This way, the dancer could duet with Rita seemingly having prepared the dance, knowing the movements to mirror her as she performed them.
This creative concept, performed as part of Compass Festival, a public arts event in Leeds, was Marcalo's way of uniting communities; of connecting the elderly with their local residents. Having interviewed Rita, I learn that there was some uncertainty among the residents at first, but that by the end of her time at Headingley, every single resident was up for dancing. In feedback from the Headingley staff, there is even mention of tears; of cathartic response.
But how much more cathartic may it have been for the residents to move with complete strangers themselves?
Rita has been a wonderful vessel for the movement of these older dancers. But I can't help but wonder if, when these residents watch the encounters back, their imminent happiness at seeing something they have created being performed in public will be bittersweet. After all, they, the creators, are not the ones dancing it.
The next step, I feel, would be to bring these visitors in to really dance with the residents. To perhaps set up a comfortable indoor venue - of course, 'health and safety' allowing - with Rita inviting people to dance as she did outside, before leading them inside. It could even be a sort of 'Santa's grotto', with the emphasis on dance as the gift you receive. New friendships and intergenerational bonds could be created in the space of a day. There would be no need for commitment - the one thing which seems to put so many of us off volunteering our time.
I wonder if this is something Rita would consider in future.
That said, in this festive season of giving, Rita's thought of the dance as a 'gift' between strangers seems timely and poignant. Rita tells me - and I can see from her videos - that every visitor partaking was delighted with the result. And she herself has given an enormous gift through the very innovation of Dancing With Strangers.
Rita has given elderly people a chance to be creative, to make something rewarding, and to keep active. She has given strangers the chance to learn something new, whilst being distracted from their daily stresses. And ultimately, she has given one of the greatest gifts of all - a dance.
I remember two Christmases ago, volunteering at a dance session for adults with learning disabilities at Blue Apple Theatre in Winchester. One participant practically dragged me from my seat, and danced with me with happy abandon. It was a spirited, joyous experience - and far more memorable than a box of chocolates. Dancing with a stranger was something I will never forget.
Merry Christmas Rita. Here's hoping you are rewarded with an equally memorable gift or two this year.