Folk Dance Remixed bill themselves as a “fresh, quirky, colourful and magical collision of traditional, hip hop and folk dance and music styles”. They go out onto the streets with the aim of bringing dance to young people, performing a genre-breaking mix of maypole, clogging, breakdance and more that reflects the long, diverse work of their founder and joint artistic director, Kerry Fletcher.
In 2021 Kerry was awarded a gold badge by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) in recognition of her work as a performer, choreographer, teacher and workshop leader of folk dance.
For a number of years Kerry has also coordinated the EFDSS Folk Educators Group, which brings together educators from around the country, sharing good practice, developing skills and creating support networks. On the day we spoke Kerry was “trying to do all my roles in one day!”
Kerry grew up in Whitstable, Kent, where her mother ran a folk club. “I have been dancing for years,” she says, “Morris and English clog styles, going to festivals and dancing in ceilidhs.”
She was inspired by a “brilliant Appalachian dancer” at a festival and so became “an Appalachian dancer for a long time”. In the 1980s Kerry danced in The Everlasting Circle, a touring show of English folk music, dance and song, and then toured with the Albion Band as a dancer in the Albionettes. This encouraged her as both a dancer and choreographer to use folk dance in the creation of new work.
Around this time Kerry danced with the Paddington Pandemonic Urban Express Molly Dancers. Kerry is proud that “as long ago as that” they were the first team to stop the traditional practice of painting their faces black. They opted instead for blue, “a bit Smurf-like, but so much better than offending people”.
Kerry can’t believe that the practice of blackening faces is still going on, even though most dance teams have given it up. She recounts how at a festival, only a few years ago, some of the dancers in her company, who had not encountered this, were very upset by it.
‘We would do a maypole dance and use street styles to make it more relevant and accessible to young people’
Kerry did raise the issue with the organisers but sadly is yet to receive any kind of apology. “Causing offence to anyone in the name of tradition is not acceptable,” she says. Kerry adds that “it is important to talk about practices of the past and their possible origins and then make changes … and move on”.
Kerry studied dance further on a one-year foundation course in Tower Hamlets, based around ballet, jazz and contemporary dance. However it also provided the opportunity to experience a much wider range of genres including Indian kathak, flamenco from Spain and a range of dances from west Africa, in particular from Ghana.
“I loved all of it,” she says. Kerry then trained as a community leader for dance and qualified as a teacher in adult education. “Doing this training as a folk dancer felt really good,” she says, adding: “I didn’t think there would be people doing that.”
As we go on to talk about Folk Dance Remixed, the dance company of which Kerry is joint artistic director and founder, it is clear how her own background in dance education and delight in a wide range of dance genres has influenced her work.
The beginnings of Folk Dance Remixed go back over a decade to when East London Dance (ELD) contacted EFDSS with a view to creating work involving folk dance.
Rachel Elliott, the EFDSS education director, put them in touch with the obvious person, Kerry. Together with Natasha Khamjani, a core member of ELD who had worked on choreography for the 2012 Olympic ceremonies, they created a workshop called Street Dance The Maypole.
“We would do a maypole dance and use street dance styles to make it more relevant and accessible to young people.” Kerry adds: “Morris dance is a kind of street dance anyway and can be adapted.”
However, it was a challenge to encourage people to make the step from watching to joining in. “We wanted it to be a family thing and we wanted to do more with young people but we found it hard to engage them because a) they didn’t really know what it was and b) some of the connotations [of Morris] were not great.”
So they decided to form a professional company so that they could perform and “people would go ‘Wow!’” and could see what was possible.
Some money from the Olympic Legacy Fund enabled the initial work with dancers and musicians. Although not successful in the initial bid for Arts Council funding, Kerry and Natasha went ahead anyway and created a professional company touring a 30-minute work, Step Hop House, while work continued to develop Street Dance The Maypole and Ceilidh Jam.
Since then the company has received continuing support from Arts Council England and is an associate company of EFDSS and ELD.
Kerry describes how they take elements from folk dance and hip hop and mix them.
“For The Waves Of Tory (a traditional dance) you stand in a longways set in lines, you go forwards and back, crossover, forwards and back, crossover. Then you peel out, go under and arch, then everybody swings.
“With a family audience we might have lions and tigers lines, come forward and roar, then peel out. Then we might merge with the African American 1970s soul train style so people can boogie down in pairs so the dance becomes a soul train.”
Kerry says: “We put street dance footwork into the Cumberland Square Eight. So we really try to remix it.” This also applies to the music, as the company work with beatboxers and bass players as well as more traditional fiddle players.
In recent years Folk Dance Remixed worked with Katherine Mueller from the University of Connecticut as part of her PhD studies. She describes the company as “a playful reimagining of English folk”.
Kerry says the company felt that Step Hop House was “a light-touch entertainment show, which we love, but we wanted to have a more political message. The arts, especially outdoor arts, are very good at that.”
Working with Katherine helped them to realise that they were already saying something through the diversity of the company, their cultural backgrounds being more representative of the wider population.
Katherine points to “the layers of symbolic and political meaning that can be read into their public performances”. She suggests that cultural exchange and collaboration is “the core of their company mission”.
Kerry believes that being an outdoor arts company also helps to remove barriers and their events are often, but not always, free.
The company also work in ways that are easy to adapt for different ages and abilities.
Kerry tells me that for Natasha, her fellow artistic director, the great thing is that connections are made visible through people holding hands or holding ribbons together. “Natasha is a complete convert,” she adds. “Any show or company she works with has to have a ceilidh at their after-party.”
‘We wanted to have a more political message. The arts, especially outdoor arts, are very good at that’
Kerry shares a quote from a workshop participant: “I didn’t know I needed a maypole in my life, but now I do!”
Of course, all of this does not always go down too well with some of the more purist elements of the English folk dance world. The company have been accused of “ruining” traditional dance.
However, Kerry gives as an example how Appalachian dance is a fusion of styles with aspects going back to European, African and Native American dances. “That process took centuries and was probably not a conscious thing, whereas we are choosing to make this fusion of dance styles which are relevant to people today.”
She adds: “Ultimately it is the music that drives us as dancers.”
Their most recent work, Hope, commissioned by EFDSS, has taken the company in a new direction, off the street and onto the stage. They worked with Bernadette Russell, the author of How To Be Hopeful, with whom they had worked previously. “This work has turned out to be even more relevant now because of the pandemic and the state of the world.”
Previous shows have not included speech, so the dancers had to become actors too. Kerry is keen to stress that all the dancers train equally in all the dance genres, which she sees as “opening doors”.
Having completed a short tour of Hope, they would very much like to take it on the road again in the not too distant future. “We are always looking for sponsors,” says Kerry.
Over the summer months there is a good chance of seeing and above all joining in with one of Folk Dance Remixed’s other shows in and around London and at festivals further afield.
Step Hop House will be at the Southbank Centre at midday on 2 June. Later in the month they are appearing at the Birmingham International Dance Festival and in July at the Hartlepool Waterfront Festival. You will no doubt find yourself dancing!