The Monthly interviews Brona Jackson from the Brona Jackson Dance Company

Your earliest memory of finding a connection to dance?

Dance was a huge part of the fabric of our family life. I am one of six children, my mum was one of 13 children, so I have lots of aunts and uncles, lots of cousins, and dance was part of everyone’s life. Growing up in Derry the one thing you get sent to do when you are a child is Irish dancing. My whole family, my sister, my brothers, they all went to Irish dancing classes. My mum is a beautiful dancer and she was a champion dancer when she was younger.

I think I went to my first dance class when I was two and a half years old. I would go to the class for the youngest, tiniest, children and then I would stay around for other classes, and my sister went to the classes for her age group and I would stay around till she finished her class. I was just surrounded by dance as a child.

Irish dancing in Derry

Did you do anything else?

My mum also put us into an amateur dramatics group called The Growth, and every Saturday my sister and my brothers would go to their drama class and they would take part in the Christmas Panto at the Rialto in Derry and I went along to see that and was always wanting to take part because I just wanted to perform along with my family.

Did you go on with Irish dancing?

I did a little bit, did a couple of Féis when I was younger, but it really wasn’t for me. I moved towards musical theatre, jazz, panto and freestyle disco dancing and I was searching for something which suited me, but there wasn’t really anything formalised in Derry and there wasn’t any contemporary dance, there were no accessible, creative youth dance classes. You just went to your local youth centre and you would pay 50p to be part of a dance class.

How did you develop your skills?

I was quite an academic child, and at school there really wasn’t much support for the arts. I ended up going to university to study History and Politics at Queens. The idea was that I would do my degree and become a teacher.

And that wasn’t what you really wanted to do?

Earlier on I had a lovely experience. I got an audition for a Summer School at Magee University and I was one of the 12 dancers who was picked to be part of the project. This was when I was 17 years old, and that was the first time I did a ballet class, and I did other classes and that was what I really wanted to do.

What happened after that?

When I was at Queens University, I also enrolled at the Belfast Met in a BTEC in Contemporary Dance, so I was enrolled in two different courses at the same time.

Then I found out about a summer course at Laban in London and that was when I realised that dance was what I could do, and it was what I wanted to do. I found out about a course at Magee University in Derry and I contacted them and I was accepted into that course.

How did you meet up with DU Dance?

I was introduced to Community Dance Practice at the Magee University course and the lecturers talked about Du Dance and the kind of work they did.  They were talking about a show that Du Dance was doing where they needed volunteers, I contacted Mags Byrne and she asked me to come along. Mags helped me with expenses and I would get the bus up to Belfast a couple of days a week and work with DU Dance. The project was called “Emergency”, and it was a brilliant experience for me watching how you could bring different groups of young people together and produce a professional show.

From there Mags kept in touch with me and would tell me about opportunities and would help me get access to auditions and things like that. She was very supportive, helping me with funding applications, has mentored me with regards my practice and has helped advocate for me when I was looking to broaden my experiences.

You went to the Gary Clarke workshops?

I have been working as a professional dancer facilitator for nearly 12 years. Sheena Kelly contacted me and asked if I wanted to be part of the development class. I had just had my first child 6 months before Lockdown, and we had to change the way we worked because of Covid, and I hadn’t really been doing a lot of teaching before the workshops.

I think I had lost a little of my confidence, becoming a mum had meant that I wasn’t moving quite the same way as I used to, I hadn’t been teaching, and while I had been working at home thanks to support from the Arts Council, I felt I really needed to reengage my skills as a teacher and as a dancer.

Gary Clarke Workshop

What were the key things which came out of those workshops for you?

I had stopped seeing myself as a dancer, rather I was a maker of work or I saw myself as a mum, and those classes reinvigorated me. I rediscovered my love of being a dancer, and the classes really allowed me to reconnect with my body and my skills.

Why was that?

The classes were conducted in such a way that you felt there was no judgement but rather the classes were there to make sure that you were able to move forward and develop. The class confirmed that your skills were never lost, that there was no need to worry about that. That you had the capacity and the skills to dance and to teach and to facilitate other people through a creative process. I left the workshops with a huge amount of motivation and enthusiasm. It was a brilliant example of professional facilitation. And on top of that I reconnected with people I hadn’t seen for years.

Brona Jackson dance Company

Where to now?

I had been working on a piece for quite a while and I just wasn’t sure what it was meant to be, whether it was for professional dancers or it was a community dance piece, or a youth dance piece or even an installation. It seemed to have all these ideas, lots of bits and pieces to the work.

Gary’s class allowed me to work out exactly what I was trying to do, and that work will be called, “Hold the Mother, Not the baby” and it is very different from what I usually do. It is a big departure for me. It will be looking at working with people from a local community, it will be a reflective piece working with the stories of mothers and their children. And it will be built around those stories. Had I not been part of the Gary Clarke classes I wouldn’t have had the space to work on that piece.

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