Raymond Sweetman is not your typical dance professional. He began dancing as an adult, transitioning into a dance career from the sports sector; and he enjoys K-pop dance as much as the more widespread dance genres of ballet and contemporary dance. As the founder of Purple A, a London-based K-pop dance group, Sweetman organizes dance events and has served as judge for K-pop contests. Today, we discuss his experience as an adult dancer, learn more about dance as a cultural bridge and discover which irresistible songs most make him want to dance.

Four adults dance on stage
Raymond Sweetman performs at the London Contemporary Dance School.

Raymond Sweetman Interview

Welcome, Raymond.

First of all, just to say a big thank you very much for inviting me to do this interview. Your website is a fantastic resource that dancers of all levels should be aware of!

Thanks very much! We try very hard to include aspiring dance enthusiasts, dance professionals and everyone in between. And, on this subject, you have transitioned from a recreational dancer to a dance professional.

Could you offer any advice for adult beginning dancers?

Just do it! I was thinking of writing down something to sugar-coat things, but honestly you just have to try out classes across a range of styles to find out what suits you best physically, technically and artistically. Yes – you will be shy. Yes – you will lack confidence. Yes – everyone else will always look SO much more advanced. But only the individual themselves can take those first steps (no pun intended!) and create a new interest or hobby for themselves.

Also, get to class really early (at least half an hour). You’ll often find that warming up before the class in the waiting area, that you’ll get chatting to other class members and after a while you’ll start making new friends and acquaintances if you go regularly. People don’t tend to socialize once they’re in the class itself for obvious reasons!

Your honesty is really refreshing (and a good pun, intentional or not, is always welcome here).

Do you have additional advice for adults who would like to transition into a professional dance career?

Transitioning into something more professional and making a career out of it will be hard. Often very hard. If you are over 30, even harder… You’ll have to pay even more attention to being in first-class physical shape. No way round it, background conditioning will have to be equally important as technical class. You have to do those dance style(s) that you choose, with conviction.

The mantra I personally believe in is: ‘follow your heart’. With an uphill struggle already, if you don’t have a full-on drive for a particular dance genre(s), then it will show. And just like [when you begin dance], when it comes to auditions, the advice is: just do it!

Also, if you’ve built up a good relationship with your instructor(s), outside of class ask them for tips on creating a CV or getting a showreel done (can be studio footage if you haven’t notched up any shows). Finally, there is stacks of free advice and technical help if you know where to look! I’ve been a member of The Network for a few years now. Membership is free and they have many resources for dancers to help them on their way to create a professional pathway.

Those are some great tips. It sounds like you’ve really connected with the wider dance community.

When you first began to take dance classes, did you find your peers and instructors welcoming? And did you find that this varies by dance community: academic, professional and recreational – or by dance style?

In my experience, those early days were interesting. I tended to hide at the back of class, so as to ensure I always had someone to follow in front of me. Beginners classes had a great vibe; first and foremost, pure enjoyment and escapism were to the fore. As I moved into intermediate, then into the advanced and professional levels, the dynamics definitely changed. Especially with the advanced/pro levels, similar to some auditions, there was sometimes a scramble to bag the front row – even if people were already sitting there! (Teachers and instructors are often very aware of this; hence they regularly switch rows…)

I was so lucky that both Danceworks and Pineapple Studios have always had a selection of the very best of London’s instructors/teachers. Like many others, I found myself drawn to classes not only by genre [but also by the instructors’ teaching philosophies, which encompass more than mere movement]… Stuart Thomas, who teaches Contemporary at Danceworks, has always been a big influence.

As for peers, I have found a big difference in the various sectors you mentioned. Professional level is just that – mind always on the job in hand, be it rehearsals, company class or whatever. Never had a problem. Academic is where I’ve picked up a few negative experiences. The problem is, at university (I’ve done 1 x BSc plus 2 x MA programs) people tend to form social cliques, and this often carries over into activities. If you are not one of ‘us,’ then you could get left out. No problem for me as I’m older, more thick-skinned, but for an 18 year old away from home for the first time, it could be crushing.

A man and woman dance ballet on stage with three female dancers in the background
Raymond Sweetman performs in ‘Swan Lake.’

The social aspect of dance can be so rewarding, but beginning dance, trying a new style or even joining a new studio can be so nerve-wracking. Thank you for your insight.

Do you feel that practising dance has increased your kinesthetic awareness beyond that of your sports training as a track and field athlete?

Yes – my previous athletics training had, in comparison to dance, less range of movement (but nevertheless was absolutely physically punishing!). However, in dance performances, combining expressions of emotion and generally being ‘artistic’ adds a whole new dimension which, in my opinion, makes dance a far more challenging field in terms of physicality.

You currently focus most of your training on ballet, contemporary and K-pop. Which aspects of each dance style most appeal to you?

Ballet: technical precision combined with grace and beauty. Contemporary: free-form movement and avant garde philosophy. K-pop: fun! But I also add in a bit of avant garde outlook into my group (‘Purple A’) to give things a little more depth. Actually, for some of my own solo choreographed ballet pieces these are also very avant garde. I guess subliminally I like to challenge received audience expectations when it comes to dance!

K-pop dance is frequently described as fun! Do you think more people are venturing into K-pop dance classes now?

Absolutely. Compared to even just 3 years ago, and before coronavirus hit us, in London there have been situations that for many weeks on end you could attend a public dance studio K-pop class nearly every day of the week. Same with the university scene; it’s just simply exploded over the past couple of years. In one sense it’s great that there are so many opportunities but I really feel for those individuals and companies around from the early days of the scene that have got squeezed by the ‘market’ being saturated. Up until around 18 months ago, my group used to sponsor one-off K-pop workshops to help make the genre more accessible, but as things stand it’d be incredibly difficult finding a ‘space’ on the scene to do that at the present time.

And do you think these dance newbies are completely new to dance – or are more dancers branching out from other dance genres?

I wish more people would think about [this]. I’ve drawn up a little diagram (below). So we have the K-pop fans who want to try out the routines that their idols perform in music videos and live shows. Often complete newcomers to dance studios. On the other hand we have the dance and performing arts sector, which provides the physical infrastructure (studios, stages, etc) and a possible pool of interested dancers.

In that crossover intersection, we have both the ‘fans’ and the ‘dancers’ pooling together in classes and sometimes performing. Just in my observation (others may have seen differently) I’ve not seen many K-pop fans being inspired to try out ballet, contemporary, latin, traditional/folk, etc. Though I have seen a few try out hip hop and commercial, though not in any lasting sense.

On the other side, I’ve seen a few people move into K-pop from other dance genres (again, mainly hip hop and commercial) to just try it out but they seem to then go back to their original style(s). It could be that as the ‘explosion’ of interest in K-pop dance classes is, just for debate, only a couple of years down the line, so perhaps we need more time with which to categorically say ‘x’ is moving into ‘y’ and vice versa.

Readers, if you’re keen on K-pop (or merely intrigued), check out my K-pop dance class review with Love K-pop Dance London.

Whew, that’s a thorough analysis of the K-pop scene! Are there any K-pop songs (or other) that always make you feel like dancing?

Yes! For K-pop I’m a die-hard 2nd Generation fan (but really I do like some of the more recent groups).

So, we have: 2NE1 ‘Go Away.’

For general pop music, I’m a big fan of the 1980’s ‘New Romantic’ movement. That avant garde aspect is coming out again!

So, we have: Visage ‘Fade to Grey.’ 

Excellent song recommendations – each from a different continent. In addition to dancing in the UK, you’ve also performed in Japan and Taiwan.

Do you think dancing has helped connect you with people from other cultures – and maintain cross-cultural friendships outside of dance clubs?

Definitely, [although] my academic studies and existing friendships give me a solid grounding in connecting with East Asian cultures when I go out there. But you know, I would argue that even if people can’t learn the local languages, having a common interest will carry you through and you can engage with fellow dancers and make some lasting friendships. I’ve known a number of people that didn’t have any academic background, could only muster a couple of phrases, yet they still had a fantastic time either performing or training. In life generally, and to use a cliche, if you have a passion for something and meet others with the same interest, something like dance really can help you bridge any perceived divides and bring about cross-cultural friendships.

Finally, on the topic of getting away, if you were to embark on a dance retreat, what would your ideal day look like – in terms of training and creating work?

Oh boy – this last question is a difficult one… To warm-up I’d definitely start of with, believe it or not, an aerobics class! Sometimes my right hip can get a bit inflamed and aerobics is a perfect way to get the blood flowing and making things loosen up. Then I’d spend around 45 minutes doing simple floor stretching on a mat – nothing fancy; just the basics.

Assuming my ‘usual’ genres are on offer I’d naturally take them up first to keep up technical sharpness. Also, at the present moment in time, I’m working on various strands to try to bring a Kabuki (Japanese traditional dance) performance to the stage in future months. In the past I’ve also dabbled in Waacking and even Chinese classical dance on a few occasions. So I’d be more than willing to try out something new or unique to expand my perceptions.

Improvising is also a must! A couple of contemporary auditions I’ve attended (2017 and 2018) were good examples. In one, I was presented with a packet of mints and the other a can of tinned fruit. I had 5 minutes to contemplate, then I had to create a 3 minute piece based around those objects! I don’t have any pretensions towards acting but I do admire the Stanislavski method, and even for K-pop, I’ll use objects and clothing whilst alone in a studio to help create a sequence or movement concept. I also like to improvise costuming as, being a fairly distinctive 6′ 2″ male, effective costuming and stage make-up will transform my usual appearance and aid in stage characterization.

What a thorough and varied regimen – with elements of aerobics, improvisation and a handful of dance styles! That’s certainly food for thought.

Thank you so much for sharing your wide range of dance experience with us. We were sorry to hear about the cancellation of the Welsh National K-pop Championships this May. We hope it resurfaces when things settle down, and we are glad to hear that you’ve been keeping well.

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