Dancing Across the Peace Wall

Masters of traditional global rhythms and west Belfast communities come together to strut their stuff and point towards changing times in Northern Ireland

Interesting times these, when residents of the Falls/Springfield and those of the Shankill come together, even in small numbers, to enjoy an international dance event that straddles the so-called Peace Wall.

It’s a sign of the times when the Brazilian, Chinese, Italian, Ugandan and Jamaican dancers strutting their stuff are all Belfast/Northern Ireland residents. And every half an hour or so, when big red buses ferry tourists to Cupar Way to photograph the art-deco Peace Wall, it is surely a sign of the new times in Belfast.

Held in Donegal and Belfast on back-to-back weekends, the inaugural Lughnasa International Brian Friel Festival is very likely the first Irish festival to be held both north and south of the border.

Perhaps more significantly, on this glorious afternoon with the Belfast hills bathed in warm sunshine, the dance stage bridges the divides between people separated by religious and political convictions. What more can a festival aspire to?

The Ayyub Troup led by Brazilian Sara McDonald gets the afternoon off to an animated start with individual and group demonstrations of Egyptian belly dance. 'When you flex your body you flex your mind', says McDonald, who teaches dance to improve women’s health and wellbeing.

Dancing at the Peace Wall 2

'I asked fifty of the women in my dance classes what the biggest benefit of dancing was and the majority said stress relief. Dance empowers women and makes them happy and if the woman is happy and healthy then the husband and family are happy,' she asserts.

'It’s a misunderstanding that belly dance is somehow sexual. It was originally developed to prepare the womb for pregnancy. It also raises women’s self-esteem; they feel like goddesses.'

And if initially many women come with the goal of losing weight, they soon enjoy belly dancing for the other benefits it brings. 'They learn to feel great in their own skin,' says McDonald, 'regardless of their shape or size.' 

Doubling up as Brazilian Beat Northern Ireland, the plumes, feathers and tropical moves of McDonald’s dancers outdo the Peace Wall’s artwork for colour and pizzazz.

The dance duo of Marie and Jacinta brings the sounds and moves of 1920s and 1930s New York and South Carolina to the interface with the stylish yet fun Lindy Hop and Charleston. The cooking swing and ragtime soundtrack even gets Donna Revie and Kate Martin of Pro Paramedics up and bopping. 

Revie in particular impresses. Dance, she later reveals is in the family blood; both her mum and uncle were Irish dancing champions while a sister and brother went to the Royal Ballet School in Covent Garden.

A teacher of Irish, ballet and contemporary dance herself, Revie extols the benefits of dance: 'Dance is great for muscle tone,' she says, 'and it doesn’t have to be in a serious way.' 

For her paramedic colleague Martin, memories of her time volunteering in a Ugandan orphanage are revived by Ugandan dancer Donna Namukasa, who opens with a sunny demonstration of the rural dance of the Northern Ugandan Acholi people.

Volunteers from the audience form a circle on stage for the gaze and Agwara dances of the Lugbara people of the West Nile region. Whether Ugandan natives would recognize some of the locals’ moves is debateable. No matter, for beaming smiles abound.

Every half an hour or so the hop-on hop-off tourists buses pitch up at the Peace Wall. They don’t dally at the dance stage, as it’s an unscheduled stop. But with tourists from the four corners of the world passing by this cultural breaching of the wall it seems like an opportunity spectacularly missed by the Northern Irish Tourist Board to promote the changing face of Belfast, not to mention its latest international bio-fest. 

Sassy, it seems, is not the preserve of youth, judging by Age on Stage’s performance. A dance group for the over 60s from the Island Arts Centre in Lisburn, the ‘babes on stage’ - as they are renamed by emcee Linda Nevins - look like Bond girls, all dressed in black with silver locks flowing.

Age on Stage

To ragtime music, the ladies of Age on Stage juggle coloured scarves before throwing them into the crowd, who toss them back. In many global cultures, perhaps even in Lisburn, such moves are mating rituals. 'If this was 1969', observed one gentleman tossing back a scarf, 'those would be rocks.'

The PSNI officer who eventually rocks up isn’t on the look-out for rioting, however. 'Just checking to see there’s no topless dancing going on,' he announces tongue in cheek before departing.

A little flamenco posturing from Age on Stage accompanies ‘Blue Spanish Eyes’; things hot up with Peggy Lee’s ‘I’m A Woman’ and romance is in the air with a carefully choreographed take on Perry Como’s ‘Catch a Falling Star.’ The ladies are really putting in a shift and having a ball to boot.

Afterwards, basking in the applause, Kay, a stripling of 86 affirms: 'I feel great. There’s still life in me.’

Next up Wei Hong Tu gives a delightful exhibition of traditional Chinese fan dances. Bright green double fans, flame-like long silk and the round-fan all flutter in sync with Wei Hong’s poetic movements – all flow and momentarily frozen stances.

Tu then leads a cast of young and old on stage in a fan-fest where participation, for the most part, royally trumps grace. Originally from Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, Tu met her Belfast husband Des while she was working as a nurse in Saudi Arabia.

It’s left unsaid if in Saudi Arabia she had beguiled Des with the coquettish round-fan dance, as the concubines did to catch the Emperor’s eye.

The toughest workout is led by Jamaican dancer Ripton, who leads audience members on stage through a series of moves guaranteed to seriously tone a few muscles. The Caribbean soundtrack goes well with the sunshine, which has played its part all afternoon.

Dancing Across the Peace Walls

A highlight of comes from the Belfast-based High Points Youth Ballet CIC, a company whose mission is to make ballet accessible and affordable to youth and to change lives through dance. The individual performers all shine but the jewel in the crown is the dance to an epic pop ballad by the duo of Kathleen Williams and Gerrard Headley.

Wonderfully choreographed by Louise White, Williams and Headley’s performance is imaginative and technically impressive, yet more significantly perhaps, impacts on an emotional level.

In a truly stirring climax, the Walled City Tattoo Highland and Irish Dancers set pulses racing with an exhilarating display of the type that seduced 13,000 people during the UK City of Culture festivities in Derry~Londonderry in 2013.

Another tourist bus comes into view, the passengers peering through the windows at the strange sight of youth dancing on a stage that bridges the Peace Wall. It doesn’t stop.

One message on the Peace Wall, attributed to Abraham Lincoln, talks of being neither a master nor a slave but today’s gathering is one where masters of dance and willing slaves to the rhythms share common ground.

They also share a vision of a more inclusive society where religion and politics, nationality and age are no barriers to having a booty-shaking good time together.

Photos via Beyond Skin.