Step by Step
Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen (Photographer)
Text drawn from Side Gallery archive sources:
In the early 1980s Amber Films made Keeping Time, a film based on the activities of the Connell-Brown Dancing School in North Shields, screened on Channel 4 in 1983. Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen stayed on after the filming to continue her photographic project there, resulting in an exhibition at Side Gallery in 1985. She then followed the pupils from the school over six more years, taking a broader look at women's lives and aspirations in the school's Tyneside environment.
She intended the study as an attempt at putting a finger on the troublesome nucleus of female experience, hoping it would act as a springboard for both critical and sympathetic examination of women’s lives within our society. The resulting photographs interspersed with excerpts from conversations offers an unusual, intimate and engaging insight into the life of a working-class community.
The realities of unemployment, poverty, divorce, hard work, are interwoven with the fun and excitement of the dancing school: run-down terraces and tower blocks are juxtaposed with tutus. Various themes develop from the words and pictures: the importance of home and family, the hard-headed yet often humorous resilience with which difficulties are faced, the importance of the school as a female community, the women’s robust combination of romanticism and pragmatism.
The clarity and warmth of the images complement the eloquence of their own words. Sue Wilson
Note: Sirkka had initially taken photographs of the dancing school in the 1970s. Some of the resulting montage images were included in The River Project an Amber exhibition and book published in 1974. The book is now out of print. Keeping Time (Amber, 1983) and the book, Step by Step’ (Bloodaxe/Amberside, 1989) are both available from the Amber website.
Text drawn from the book by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen:
Preface The wish to photograph a dancing school may seem like a paradox, as the two basic elements of dance, music and movement, inevitably elude a stills camera. After my visit to a small dancing school on Tyneside some fifteen years ago, I wrote with mixed feelings: ‘The first time I walked in and saw thirty children, some of them only three or four years old, dance a Cha-Cha with amazing perfection, amazing hair-dos and dresses, smiles and make-ups, it nearly knocked me out!’ After frustrated attempts to catch the atmosphere in straightforward documentary photographs, I made a series of photomontages, which I conceded at the time were more a private trip into the fantasy than an insight into the dreams of others, and ended up taking jiving lessons instead of taking photographs.
In pursuit of my own dreams, I arrived in England some twenty years ago to learn film making, and stayed on to become a founder member of Amber Films, a group of film makers and photographers, who met at the Central London Polytechnic in 1968. Wishing to continue working together, and outside the mainstream film industry, we formed a collective and moved to Newcastle upon Tyne. The choice of a northern working-class city was for most of our members a way of returning to their own roots - for the others the North East held a warm attraction, which led to a lasting commitment to the region.
We began our new venture by chipping off old plaster in an 18th century warehouse on the Newcastle Quayside, where we set up our film and photographic workshop. We made slides for education, taught and pooled our earnings; we made films on scrounged film stock and kept warm by playing rounds of darts. The fight for survival for groups like ours takes its toll of time and energy, and the financial support of Northern Arts, the Arts Council of Great Britain, the British Film Institute and Channel 4 have played a crucial role in helping us expand the range and scale of our productions and audiences, whilst running our own cinema and a photographic gallery.
Film, photography, video, animation, writing and theatre have all contributed to our repertoire, and new possibilities keep emerging with the pooling of skills and experiences. Most of our work is concentrated in North Shields, where we have an ex-Chapel as a studio and a base for an actor’s workshop, a seine net fishing boat and a pub. For Amber, film and photography are as much a means of exploring life and living it, as of portraying it. While making the film Seacoal we spent two years with the Lynemouth seacoaling community on the Northumberland coast, and I lived in and photographed Byker for seven years till my street came down.
Our film Keeping Time, screened on Channel 4 in 1983, began with a straightforward documentary approach to the activities of the Connell-Brown dancing school in North Shields, and ended up as a semi-fictional diary of a girl growing up. I stayed on to take photographs: my second attempt at putting a finger on the troublesome, but compelling nucleus of female experience, with both personal and political echoes and implications. I was taken on a seven year journey of discovery by a group of mothers and daughters, whose lives I documented in and out of the dancing school. In 1985 we mounted the mammoth exhibition Step by Step in our gallery, and from there on it lumbered round the country. I took the material back and forth to the dancing school, changing it, scrapping it, reshooting it, whilst listening to the experiences and comments of the mothers and daughters - and finally had the courage to shape it into a book. I hope it will continue to serve as a springboard for both critical and sympathetic examination of women’s lives within our society, and offer insight into our own dreams as well as others.
There are about sixty small dancing schools in North Tyneside, six of them in North Shields, a once thriving fishing port at the mouth of the River Tyne off the beautiful North East coast, where each year the fish grow smaller and fewer, whilst the planners’ dreams multiply. Tourists and residents alike are soon to be invited here to dream up the missing smells of fish in the odourless sanctuaries of ‘Heritage Centre’, ‘Sea Aquarium’, ‘Fishing Experience Centre’ and finally – ‘The Fishing Museum’.
Off the main street, along an unlit, semi-industrial road in a gable-end of a terrace, where the demolition has paused to catch a breath, the pulse of Saturday Night Fever beats out from the Tuesday night disco class into the foggy winter night.
Margaret Brown started dancing at the age of two and a half, sent to dancing classes by her mother, as everybody said it was the thing girls did. First ballet, then ballroom and tap. When she got older, she wanted to become a teacher of dancing, well… her mother didn’t agree, and things got a bit rough. She didn’t think it was… quite nice, she didn’t want her daughter to be one of those. She began to teach in her mother’s living room.
‘A lot of schools went to the wall in the 1950s, the ballroom schools just couldn’t make it pay. I qualified as a teacher of ballet, ballroom, tap - the lot. John was a good amateur dancer, and when we got married I said: “Right, now you’ll take your letters!” We taught over twenty subjects; we survived.’
With mother’s sitting-room gone, the gable-end room and the disco class gone, the Connell-Brown Studios, engraved in brass, now invite you on their polished floors in a grand old Mayor’s Banqueting Hall sandwiched between a row of estate agents and the Salvation Army in the main street. The Connell-Browns are enrolling their second generation of pupils.
’When mothers bring their youngsters into the dancing school, they mainly bring them in for social graces, for coordination - and for the discipline! We had the whole of the North Shields football team sent in one year, and by the end of the year they won the Amateur Cup!’
Boys rarely venture among the lycra and the leotards. Saturday Night Fever changed everything. Boys started coming for the first time since the 1950s, some being keener than the girls. They all thought they could do the same as Travolta, become stars overnight. ‘When they found out it was actually hard work, they left. Bodypopping and Breakdance brought the boys back in, but no way was I going to let them be road drills on my premises. As soon as I turned my back, they were at it again! I had to close down the class.
‘Most of the girls lack confidence, that’s their biggest problem. I keep saying: Come on, if you don’t think you are the greatest, who the hell will! I teach them how to look confident. It’s just an act in the beginning, but as the years go by, it becomes part of them. We do modelling, which helps them to walk nicely, to sit down nicely, to have good dress sense; we try to get rid of the worst of their accent. In the class we encourage them to criticise each other, as they take much more notice that way - and they really go to town at each other sometimes! We put them through the British Theatre Modelling Grades, which is quite a traumatic experience, but it does them a power of good. Everybody in that class that's gone for a job - other than modelling - has got one, so we are pleased.
‘Only one mum in two hundred actually wants her daughter to go on the stage. Even the kids who come over long periods have little ambition to go out into the Big World; some of them don’t even want to teach - in fact most of them just want to dance! They would all like to dance on the stage, of course - providing they could stay at home!
‘We started our dancing school in 1951. We are now getting the children of the children we first taught, it’s fascinating. For us it’s become like a religion… seven days a week, day and night - dance, dance, dance. I said to John we are going to crack up, we need a hobby; we need to get out. We got a dog. Being the kind of people we are, we started to breed them; we went to training classes, beauty classes - they even have Christmas parties for dogs, where the owner is just something attached to the other end of the lead. We had to put a stop to it - one obsession is enough. I think the kids realise as well, that we belong to them.
‘Most of the girls leave when they get to about fifteen. There’s a lot of things that come in the way of dancing… boyfriends… you know. You can’t keep them forever, you’ve just got to accept that the ones that’ll stay are the ones for whom dancing’s become a way of life, too.’
In my home town in Finland I was sent to a ballet school at the age of nine, to correct my flat feet. I didn’t survive beyond the big part of a grasshopper, who hopped just once in the first half of a summer show, and in the second half turned into a toadstool. My first and last pair of pink ballet shoes, along with the lovingly made costumes, remain among my mother’s treasures. At school I learned from deportment classes how to cross my legs, and later on spent much time undoing them through Jive, Jazzballet and various forms of exercise… My daughter, aged nine, enrolled in dancing classes with her friend, and five lessons later declared they’d learned how to dance, and stopped. Owing to the persistence of a mother's dreams the two of us still play violin - five years from the first lesson. The joy of moving music has remained with me; seeing others do it with skill still thrills me.