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Why Men in Early Years Dance aren't just here for fun!

This is George's recent interview that was published on the People Dancing blog. George was interviewed by Liz Clark, People Dancing's Associate Artist for Early Years, about maleness, nurturing and mental and physical health.

Image: Zoe Manders

Four Hands' recent show Touch was part of Yorkshire Dance's Family Encounters Festival and their new (as yet untitled) work has been recently commissioned by South East Dance's Little Big Dance initiative.

Liz Clark (LC): Let's talk about maleness - with men making up only 2% of the early years workforce, what opportunities and/or challenges does being male bring to your practice? Do you feel it's your role to challenge perceptions about men working in early years?

George Fellows (GF): It’s a massive privilege working in early years, both in the education and care sector and also in dance. I do feel that perhaps more attention is directed at me due to my gender because there are so few men around. I feel fairly confident in saying that people are looking for men to work in early years because there are so few of us. I've always felt very much like my gender has been a huge asset in terms of my career as an early years practitioner and as a dance artist. I recognise that this is a good thing for me, but not necessarily a good thing for the sector. There have probably been opportunities that I have been given partially due to my gender, which has meant that people who aren’t men haven't been given those opportunities. In an ideal world there shouldn't be so much attention brought to men working in early years, because it should just be seen as a very normal thing. Ideally there should be just as many men working in the field as women.

One challenge I’ve faced is that, particularly in the early years sector, more so than in dance and the arts there’s this kind of perception of men in the field as being the 'fun people' who have lots of energy, who want to run around outside and do sports and games. I don't like that perception because I feel like it doesn't give men credit for having other elements to their early years practice and so I find myself resistant to this. I’ve experienced the kind of stereotype where people see me as being the guy who comes in and picks up a child and swings them around their head. It’s in my nature to try and take on the caring and nurturing roles with the children that I work with, but I also make a point of subverting the male stereotype as much as possible.

I think that the main reason why there are so few men working in early years is that we live in a patriarchal society, where the culture expects women to take up the caring roles and the brunt of emotional labour. There are deeply rooted social, cultural and historical stigmas around men taking on these roles, which are ever present. To compound this situation, in the UK, the pay and conditions for the early years sector are abysmal. This has a massive effect on the status of the people who work within it. Because of all of these things, men are less likely to enter the field. In Norway (a country with a world-renowned early childhood education and care system) the pay and conditions are more in line with other areas of education, a practitioner’s status within their communities is higher and 10% of the workforce are male, with a national target of reaching 20%. The UK had a target of reaching 6% by 2004 and failed. The only way that we can change things is by creating a situation where the workforce feels financially and culturally rewarded.

There is also the issue of education. Early Years Teacher Status is a scam, whereby the government responded to the Nutbrown Review (2012), which recommended getting more teachers into nurseries, by changing the name of the existing qualification from ‘professional’ to ‘teacher’ and denying graduates qualified teacher status (QTS), despite the level of qualification being the same as a newly qualified teacher with QTS. This means that early years teachers’ starting salaries are £16,000 compared to a NQT’s salary of £24,000, which speaks for itself really. It was a change in name only and a betrayal of the early years community by the government.

(LC): How much is your new piece of dance linked to your desire to want to push against those stereotypes of the man as being the ‘energetic game maker’ and not the ‘nurturer’?

(GF): I find that a lot of art and performance work that is made for young children prioritises fun and entertainment over everything else. These are both elements that are stereotypes of the roles that men are expected to play in children’s lives. I wanted to resist those stereotypes and make a piece of work with care and nurture at its heart. I also wanted to make something that was for those children that don't find it easy to engage with high energy entertainment - the children who maybe feel left out of high energy play, the ones that aren’t seen because they're not the confident children that would rush up to someone and want to play.

I really wanted to explore children's emotional worlds in more depth, by not just focusing on ‘positive’ emotions. I wanted to delve into a range of emotions that all children experience, but specifically some of the more quieter emotions, like fear and sadness. These are emotions that we all experience, but that are not seen as much as the ‘louder’ ones, such as anger and joy.

(LC): Tell me a little bit about the piece…

(GF): It's a piece that focuses on the emotional landscape of children with a particular focus on caregiving and receiving. I’m hugely influenced by attachment theory and what I'm trying to get across in the relationship between the two dancers is the image of a secure attachment relationship. So you’ll see one of the performers caring for the other one in a very simple and quiet way, up to a point where they can exist in the world on their own. When that one person is left on her own, she goes through an intense emotional journey, of joy, fear, sadness and anger before there's a resolution at the end.

(LC): If I hadn't heard of the word “attachment” could you give me your version of what that actually means?

(GF): Attachment theory is all about this idea that when a child is born, in the best of circumstances, they will have someone in their lives who is their primary attachment figure who serves as an emotional regulator. So when baby feels an emotion, like anger or sadness, they'll express that emotion and the primary attachment figure is there to soothe and regulate that that experience for them. Without that primary attachment figure a child might not learn to regulate their emotions on their own. Secure attachment is the foundation of healthy child development and, therefore, central to the world of the child and to humanity as a whole. I wanted to bring attention to that through my work.

(LC): You're making a new piece around emotions and mental health, which is a fascinating and significant subject for early years - the wellbeing of our youngest children is a hotly discussed topic in the early years sector at the moment. How does your experience of your own mental health and long-term health condition influence your drive to make a work like this that focuses on attachment and emotions?

(GF): Ten years ago, I went through the process of being diagnosed with a long-term health condition, which was a really difficult time in my life. I had some incredibly therapeutic and healing experiences through talking therapy but also through dance therapy. I was not in a good place in my life. I had a lot of anxiety about my health situation and was in denial about what was going on with me. I didn't want to allow myself to really feel what was going on. I formed a really negative relationship with my body: a kind of self hatred and a disconnect between my mind and body.

I was encouraged by a friend to go to a dance therapy group in Brighton. At the time, I wasn't even someone that particularly enjoyed going out dancing, but I found that through being in a space where I could express how I was feeling through my body, I began to form a positive relationship with it again. It completely turned my life around. I don't believe there's a separation between the mind and the body so the improvement in my mental health was intrinsically linked to the improvement in my physical health. Now my health condition hardly has any physical or emotional effect on my day-to-day life, so I can honestly say my experience of dance has been incredibly powerful.

Whenever I'm doing anything with young children, I'm always thinking about the adults that are going to be there as well. I'm not interested in making art experiences which are just for children, because children experience art within a relationship, not within a vacuum. If it's not interesting and engaging for the adults as well, then I see that as a failure. So when I'm talking about making a work about mental health and emotional landscapes, that's just as much geared towards the adults that are coming to see the work as the children.

(LC): One thing I'm often asked for from dance artists is new ideas. What one gift of an idea would you give to dance artists working in early years?

(GF): In all of the classes and performances I’ve created we have a space in the room called 'home', usually a rectangle made out of tape. We simply say at the beginning of the session that 'home' is a space that anyone can go and sit in if they don't want to engage. So if a child is feeling tired or just feeling like you don't want to do one of activities, you can go to 'home'. It’s just as much for the kids as the adults and it's been a really useful thing to have in the space for lots of reasons. It means that children never feel under pressure to join in, so everything that they do in the session is an active choice. Importantly it also takes the pressure off the parents because they're not in a situation where they feel like they're having to push the child into doing something that they don't want to do. If a child is in 'home', we just encourage the parent/carer in the room to carry on with the session as much as they can and we find that the child will come back when they feel empowered to do so on their own terms. I would definitely recommend this as a tool for anyone working with young children and their parent/carers.

(LC): You're unusual in that, as well as being a dance artist, you've been an early years educator for over 15 years and are still practicing today, alongside leading dance classes and making work. What's the most important early years theories and practice you've brought with you to your participatory and performance work?

(GF): About five years ago I read a book called The Continuum Concept by Jean Liddloff. There's so much gold in that book. It made me really evaluate my practice in terms of being ‘child centred’. Previously, all of my practice was really focused on the needs of the child and putting those needs over my own. This book turned me on to the idea of encouraging children to be successful participants in a community, which means having empathy for other people and knowing when it's appropriate to take up space and knowing when to allow space for others. These skills are absolutely essential for a healthily functioning social being.

When adults only focus on what a child wants or needs they’re not giving a child a true experience of what it is to be in a healthy community. I think a lot of people who spend time with children get really exhausted because they do everything the child wants them to do and they feel like that's an appropriate way to be with kids. I think it's really important for adults, and for the children we’re sharing our lives with, to be able to just say to a child “I have my own needs and they need to be prioritised right now.” This was a turning point in terms of my early years practice and in working in dance, it’s affected a lot of my participatory dance work. I offer just as much attention to the needs of the adults as I do to the needs of the children.

(LC): Okay, so imagine that I'm standing at the edge of your workshop space and you're leading a participatory class, but I'm visually impaired. I can't see what's going on, can you audio describe for me what's happening in your class?

(GF): Sometimes classes can seem, from the outside, as if they are chaotic. There’s lots of physical play and games. There’s lots of physical contact between parents and children, aiming to encourage positive, physical relationships. Often we don't advertise our work as dance because it can put people off.

A lot of the time I'll team teach with Nick, who's the other co-artistic director of the company. One of us (usually me) will demonstrate the role of the child and the other, the adult. This can often become quite hilarious, because obviously we are both adults and a lot of the movement is specifically geared towards a big person working with a small person, which can create quite funny situations. We like to play with the ideas of roles, in terms of parents and children to develop empathy, trying to put both of those groups of people in the situation where they think 'What is this like for the other person?' so that, maybe, they can have a better understanding of each other. The adults say they really appreciate having a special time with one of their children, because they feel like they get to know them a bit better and because it’s so removed from day to day life. They're just there focusing on each other.

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