It hosts more canals than Venice and boasts the largest library in all of Europe. It even has a crater on the moon named after it. It is no doubt that the second largest city in the U.K., Birmingham, is a vast and impressive city. While this may lead you to believe the dance scene here follows suit, you’d be wrong. In fact, the dance scene in the city that gave birth to The Peaky Blinders can often feel as bleak as the well-known program’s backdrop.
Birmingham is a beautiful city drenched in history, with incredible Victorian architecture seamlessly blending with buildings of a new age, and hundreds of diverse and outstanding shops and independent restaurants. Even with all of this, it still somehow manages to keep a homely and welcoming feel. I would be so incredibly happy to move here—unless I worked in the dance industry.
Smack bang in the heart of the country, Birmingham naturally feels like the epicenter of the U.K, especially because you can access 95% of the rest of the country from here within just four hours. Dance here, however, is disjointed, unorganized, and unnecessarily competitive. This is a real shame, considering we have access to some of the best events the world has to offer and produce some innovative and groundbreaking talent.
Split down the middle between concert dance and true hip-hop, Birmingham from the outside must look like a parody of the old Step Up Movies, or when SYTYCD tried a season of “Stage vs Screen.”
For the most part, dance in this city is inaccessible as a career to those not born with a silver spoon in their mouths. Overly white-populated governing bodies and funding organizations hold the key to making a living here, where the same chosen few are selected again and again within a system that pushes incredibly talented newer-media dance artists further away and alienates young, talented contemporary dancers from less fortunate backgrounds.
This constant withholding of council money forces people to hustle their way into making money by setting up their own collectives and doing whatever else they can to survive. While this is incredible for individuals creating a brand, it creates segmented and distant groups of people all working towards the same goal, when they could be helping and supporting one another if they had support from above.
Birmingham is home to the largest theatre outside of London’s West End, “The Hippodrome,” which is one of the most stunning theatre venues I have ever visited and has housed some of the world’s greatest companies and performers, from Alvin Ailey to Judy Garland. The city is also the home of The International Dance Festival, which takes place every two years and sees thousands of dancers flock to the city to perform and watch pieces from companies all over the world. For the 30 days that the festival runs, the city is bursting with incredible talent and incredible support and drips in art. A paradise for creators and performers that hyperbolizes just how incredible this city is and how incredible it could be on a permanent basis with the right help, guidance, and leadership.
One of Birmingham’s greatest assets to the dance community is the highly prestigious and respected Birmingham Royal Ballet, an exquisite classical company that’s now in its 90th year and has its own award-winning conservatoire for aspiring dancers, Elmhurst, which trains 169 students to the highest standards every year.
Now under the direction of internationally-acclaimed choreographer and director Carlos Acosta, Birmingham Royal Ballet has already collaborated with groundbreaking choreographers across multiple dance styles and is now paving the way for cutting edge new work performed by a company usually heavily draped in tradition. This gives me and so many other people hope for the future of the company and what it will bring to the city of Birmingham when people see the power of collaboration.
In regard to open classes and opportunities for dancers to train, there are two main studios in the city center, danceXchange (DX) and HEART WORK STUDIOS. DX is a government-funded charity that provides open classes in a variety of classical styles to adults five days a week as well as housing Birmingham-based concert dance companies such as Rosie Kay Dance Company, which choreographed the handover ceremony for the commonwealth games in 2018, an event that was broadcast to 1 billion people.
HEART WORK STUDIOS is an independently run dance studio which hosts open classes in all styles of dance seven days a week, as well as multiple training companies for aspiring professionals. The studio has enjoyed world-class choreographers on its guest faculty, including Erica Sobol, Tovaris Wilson, Miguel Zarate, and Rob Rich. HWS was created to bridge the gap between the privileged and those who aren’t by offering free studio hire to local artists from impoverished backgrounds as well as housing a training company specifically designed for Black female-identifying artists. Associated with the local LGBTQ+ Centre, HEART WORK also works very closely with the queer community and raises monthly funds for the trans community as well as those affected by HIV & AIDS.
Birmingham currently houses no dance agencies or management companies, which means nearly all dancers seeking commercially based professional work have to venture out to London. With travel being so expensive, most end up moving to London. This takes incredible talent back out of the city and starts the cycle all over again.
Birmingham is a beautiful city full of incredible opportunity and promise, with access to incredible venues, outstanding festivals, and performance opportunities. It is a shame that these life-changing ventures are seemingly on offer only to a few, privileged individuals. When funding is available only to the same elite few, the rest are forced to focus so much on their own careers that they miss the fact that we are all part of a much bigger and broader picture. It segments us by dance style. It abdicates our place as a potential commercial dance hub. After all, we are all just moving. If we all worked together, we would move a lot faster and with a lot less stress.
I urge all reading this to offer a hand to those in your city, to those in neighboring studios, to those in alternate companies. Reach out and collaborate, look at what is missing in your community and work together to fill the void. We are so fortunate to be alive and doing what we love. Let’s lead with that love and celebrate dance together, globally and unified.