Croydonites Festival 2017 review: Confessions Of A Cockney Temple Dancer

By - Friday 21st April, 2017

Traditional dance subverted into something even more powerful

Photo by Martin Dewar, used with permission.

Confessions Of A Cockney Temple Dancer combined humour, expressive physicality and – on an evening when Croydon would make national headlines – shone a spotlight on what it means to have a ‘foreign identity’ in Britain today.

The show, part monologue, part dance recital, started with a mint. As audience members took their seats inside Braithwaite Hall, dancer Shane Shambhu gave out mints from a brown paper bag. With this humble act of hospitality, Shambhu invited us into his world, where he would be our guide for the next hour.

Braithwaite Hall was a perfect venue for this performance, striking a balance between impressive and intimate – just like the show, in fact. As Shambhu’s athletic, dynamic bharatanatyam dance began, his feet striking the herringbone flooring, the vibrations pulsed through the soles of your own feet. In this way, an instantaneous connection formed between audience and dancer.

It is not only the limbs that tell the story of the dance

Much like Shambhu, my parents made me learn a traditional dance in childhood. In my case, it was the Filipino tinikling. However, I was not familiar with bharatanatyam. What impressed me was its total expressiveness. It is not only the limbs that tell the story of the dance – but each glance, each eyebrow, each finger. The audience learned that these gestures have been passed from dancer to dancer for millennia.

At one point during a dance sequence, Shambhu was kneeling in front of me, looking me in the eye. At such close quarters, you could appreciate the sheer focus it takes to pull off this precise-yet-passionate choreography. He explained, “where the hand goes, the eyes go. Where the eyes go, the mind goes”. And so it proved. It was impossible not to be engrossed by Shambhu’s quick-fire shape-shifting.

The show is what academics call ‘a hero’s journey’. Shambhu shepherded us through his beginnings as an East London lad named after a Hollywood Western, to a dance education kept secret from his friends, then on to his final triumph, namely dancing in a way that is true to him, rather than acquiescing to requests for him to wear “a colourful costume and ankle bells”.

I wondered whether the violence was necessary

The journey comes to a climax in an extraordinary scene in which an enraged Shambhu stamps on his wig – here used as a symbol of his past. As I was watching this scene, with bemusement giving way to shock, I wondered whether the violence was necessary. Was Shambhu’s struggle really enough to evoke such ferocity?

The performance was held the same night as a brutal attack on a teenage asylum seeker, just a few miles from Braithwaite Hall. The violent stamping I witnessed in the show was echoed hours later by the gang of attackers.

The idea that ‘foreign’ automatically means something negative, even dangerous, is pernicious. Even if you were born in Britain, you may still have a ‘foreign identity’. Shambhu revealed that he practiced his dancing in a concealed alleyway so that other kids in the playground couldn’t see him. If you are a weirdo, a black sheep, a round peg in a square hole, you are – in your own way – a ‘foreigner’.

We need to be brave enough to dance to our own tune

In truth, we are all strangers in a foreign land until we are brave enough to dance to our own tune – and that is the message that I took from this show.

Friday night’s attackers must have thought that they were doing something right by ganging up on a ‘foreigner’. However, their actions have backfired. They have made strangers of themselves in a borough which is proud of its diversity – and its compassion for those in need.

Neil Ridulfa

Neil Ridulfa

A life-long resident of Coulsdon, but also a bike seller, event director, singer and part of the first wave of creative writing graduates from the University of Surrey-Roehampton. Find me on Twitter or working at Cycling Made Easy.

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