Maisha Kungu & Jess Woodhead

on creativity, self care, and friendship.

Maisha and Jess are childhood friends from Hebden Bridge, who both enjoy successful careers in dance and the arts. Sam chats to them about their individual practices and the significance of creativity to their upbringing. Plus they share how they like to look after themselves outside of work, with some fun memories thrown in!

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Show Notes

Do connect with them on social media!

Maisha – MaishaKungu.DanceArtist on Facebook and @maisha.dancer.tapper on Instagram

Jess – @jess_woodhead on Twitter and @jessiwood14 on Instagram

Guest Info

Maisha Kungu

Maisha Kungu is a dance artist – contemporary is her foundational practice however influences now include a plethora of styles including, tap, physical theatre, clowning, jazz, improvisation, West African dance, pop, funk, and soul. She is invested in freedom of expression, joy, deeply saturated colours, the power of communication, and connection.
She would love you to get in touch for anything from a friendly chat to any upcoming events and opportunities online or in person.
Jess facing the camera and smiling on a white background. She is wearing a grey top with the words Curious Motion on it in green.

Jess Woodhead

Jess Woodhead has a background in movement and dance. Jess began her professional training at Liverpool John Moores and graduated with a BA(Hons) Dance Practices in 2015. Since then, Jess has accumulated a wealth of experience in the creative industry working in a variety of different settings from community arts organisations to educational organisations with lots in between. With a background in site-specific work and multidiscipline performance, Jess has cultivated her skills in drama and theatre facilitation to incorporate aspects of different art forms to create and facilitate work.

Jess works for Huddersfield based theatre organisation, Chol, on their Imaginary Communities programme as well as delivering workshops and assisting in a range of other projects. She’s also a dance artist for Curious Motion!

Transcript

Samantha McCormick:

Hello there. I’m Sam McCormick and welcome to Curious e-Motion; a podcast about the stories of people involved in arts and culture to enrich your soul. Today we are joined by my Maisha Kungu and Jess Woodhead, two talented dance artists who grew up together in Hebden Bridge in Calderdale. They have a background in contemporary dance practices and now explore a range of other styles and influences too. Maisha’s work expose freedom of expression, joy, and the power of connection through styles such as tap, West African dance, clowning, and physical theater. Jess works with Chol, a Huddersfield based theater charity and she’s a dance artist at Curious Motion too. Their friendship is a real joy to witness and our chat left me with such positivity and hope. We start by finding out about their individual practices and upbringing, and later we hear how they look after themselves outside of work. There’s some funny childhood memories in their too. Do check out the show notes for more info on both of them. Now let’s get into our chat.

Samantha McCormick:

Welcome. Hi, Maisha and Jess, thank you so much for joining me on our new podcast. And I wondered if we could start with having a little chat about your individual artistic practices; anything that sort of influenced you, or is a key factor of your work at the moment? Maisha do you want to go first?

Maisha Kungu:

Okay, sure. I feel like I was almost born into quite an arty family. So creativity and making and sort of translating things from one form to another, be it like a thought into a painting, or even just something somebody said into changing the words to make it more understandable for yourself, or anything like that. It was welcomed and was pretty normal in my upbringing. So I didn’t really understand the word creative until maybe my mid twenties, because it was so normal, I couldn’t see it. So people would always say, “you’re so creative.” And I felt like, “What are you actually talking about though?” Cause I’m just existing.

Maisha Kungu:

I didn’t know there was another way to be. And so I was just sort of living in a certain way. And then it took me a while to consciously realize what it means to be a creative person. And then another layer of that was embracing it and consciously utilizing it. I have always been a mover. I come from a very physical family. My dad and brother are both fine artists. My mom also went to art school and did lots of dancing when she was younger. She used to Highland dancing, she’s Scottish. And so I did all the dance things I could and just basically anything physical, really. Really rooted in the body. So I always had the physicality and I always had artistic expression around me. I didn’t really realize until during lockdown, how much my family loves language and using words to have fun. Rather than using words to be like elitist, or like overly academic, playing with the sort of poetry of language and descriptive words.

Maisha Kungu:

Like my brother, who’s three years younger than me, so he’s in his mid twenties and his girlfriend came up to head to Hebden Bridge in Calderdale for lockdown. So it was the first time we’d been together really all as adults for a long time. So my mom, my stepdad, my brother, his girlfriend, my youngest brother, and then me. And the words they were using were so funny and well-rounded, and every single description would be hilarious. It wouldn’t just be like, “Oh, here’s some cheese.” It’d be like, “Oh, look at this incredibly slippery, bright yellow, sunshine cheese.” Everything was sort of like really playful and silly or would come from the heart. There was lots of use of tone and stuff. And I think this is all the stuff that I thought was just normal, but because I do so much listening myself to podcasts and audio books, I was sort of listening to my family.

Maisha Kungu:

So yeah, language is a big part of what I do and physical expression. And so I went on a journey through Saturday dance schools. I watched a film called “The Cotton Club”, which is actually one of my huge and long lasting inspirations. Featuring Gregory Hines, who’s an incredible black American tap dancer. So I started tap dancing because of that. And I’m now aware that musicality is a huge part of what I do as well.

Samantha McCormick:

How wonderful to hear you talk about how that was intrinsic in your family? A lot of the time the story is, “Oh, it wasn’t allowed” or, “Oh, I had no access to that and I had to fight for it.” What are you working on now Maisha?

Maisha Kungu:

I’ve just actually created a solo, which I’m quite pleased with. It’s because I’ve recently moved to Manchester and I have become a member of a big building, a cooperative, called NIAMOS radical arts center, which is based in Hume. And that building was opened in 1991, with a performance by Nina Simone. So there’s a live stream that happened. The name of the show was “Purpose”. And it was kind of like thinking about showcasing black artists and the whole show was really sort of based around Nina Simone’s music and her art history and what she did for civil rights. And so I used a live recording of Nina Simone performing in the NIAMOS, and then I was performing a solo in the same space where she’d been performing it. So it was like really full circle, this loop. And the beginning of the piece of music was a remix by a producer that also works in the building, so it all felt really encapsulated.

Maisha Kungu:

So I’m what I am working on now is pulling together all the different sort of fractious, various, different strands of things that I’ve been on through my life. I’ve had that contemporary dance training way after dance school and in my latter twenties, from 26 onwards. I’ve really started to explore my blackness. Because I grew up in a white middle-class town with the white side of my family and the Scottish side of my family that I know really well. But the only connection to any form of black culture I personally had was my dad. And I had quite a long distance relationship with him. And I realized that my lens of black culture, and particularly East Africa in Kenya where I’m from, was way outdated because it was really my dad’s lens. So it was from the 1970s and I was like, “Hang on a minute. There’s the internet now.

Maisha Kungu:

I can watch loads of videos of music from around the world. I can check out different diaspora art forms.” And that’s been a huge part of my emancipation and uplift and stuff. So I think what I’m really trying to do now is integrate the knowledge and cultural practices from both sides of my heritage. And that’s actually making me much more confident and making it much easier for me to understand my own physiology in relation to movement. So yeah, I’m really trying to incorporate sort of African dance, West African dance, but really diaspora dance and things like old school jazz. Or the rhythm and syncopation that I can take from rhythm tap and putting it into my contemporary dance and using the flow and the groundedness of contemporary dance, and things like narrative and storytelling as well. So that’s where I’m at.

Samantha McCormick:

Wow! That is amazing. We could talk about all of that.

Maisha Kungu:

I know!

Samantha McCormick:

In an entire podcast series.

Maisha Kungu:

Yeah, just on that! Well, watch this pace.

Samantha McCormick:

I really love how you have, like you say, you’re mixing all these things together. We don’t have to only be one thing. But also really important that we highlight parts of our society that are often not valued in the same way. Have you had experience with that being part of the black community?

Maisha Kungu:

It’s something that’s happening right now. So I can only speak from my personal experience and the caveat to what I’m about to say is that I grew very young, so I was bigger than everyone else for a long time, and was also very outspoken and confident. So maybe I didn’t experience racism because I was intimidating. As a young person growing up in an entirely white environment, I didn’t experience racism. I felt like I did grow up in a very open-minded place, that was very into equality. But the perspective for the equality was very much sort of feminism rather than racism, if you know what I mean. But what I did realize through a lot of my own personal reading and research was, although I didn’t experience racism, I experienced an absence of multiculturalism. And what that meant is that I experienced an absence around my own understanding of myself. So people weren’t hating on me or they weren’t putting down anything, but they also weren’t giving me any positive role models.

Maisha Kungu:

I didn’t have a lexicon. I didn’t have a language or a framework to explain the differences in my experience compared to the other people around me. And that’s been my personal study and personal research pretty much until I moved to Manchester, which was July. That was entirely through books and podcasts, so outside media, rather than people that I was interacting with on a daily basis. So now it’s a big part of my understanding of myself [inaudible 00:09:52].

Samantha McCormick:

Yeah. So you were in Hebden Bridge.

Maisha Kungu:

Yeah.

Samantha McCormick:

And that’s where you grew up. And Jess, you were there too. Just to bring you in here, how long have you guys been friends?

Jess Woodhead:

My earliest memory was in the playground when we were like four. And Maia was sticking up for me against some people who were bullying me. She gave me a piggyback. I loved listening to you then Maia, just talk about your family, because knowing your family, and I can just imagine that “slippery cheese situation”. You go into it like your home is everyone’s home. I just really, really felt exactly what you were saying then.

Jess Woodhead:

And a lot of our friends have these wonderful creative families and we’ve been surrounded by that forever. My mom is very creative, but in a different way. It’s not particularly arty. She was a caterer. So she sort of explored her creativity through food. And then my dad he was like a laborer. So yeah, my family is pretty different in terms of the creativity. And I think I can always remember creativity in my childhood, but I think especially being surrounded by families like yours Maia and being welcomed into homes from a very young age of families like yours; I just think that we were nurtured with such creativity from a lot of different families that it’s been a really integral part of my practice, especially, and also with the children, young people that I work with now, because I realized that not a lot of them will have those spaces where they’re able to just take their own creativity and yeah. So I’ve always leaned more towards dance and movement. We had dance as part of the curriculum. We had an amazing dance studio and that, it like was a community hub.

Maisha Kungu:

Yeah.

Jess Woodhead:

I was actually having a conversation yesterday, talking about this same topic. And I used to get into loads of trouble and get sent to be removed. Because I’d fall asleep in my lessons, because it was so boring. I could not concentrate and I have Attention Deficit Disorder, so I can’t focus if someone just stood at the top of the classroom. So dance was a lesson I never got sent to remove in or fell asleep because you can’t fall asleep if you’re dancing or if you’re moving your body. That outlet was just so incredible. And I feel personally, I took it for granted, cause I just thought, “Oh this is just something that everyone has.” So I have a daughter, the thought of her heading to high school and not having an outlet like that, or not having a place like we had scares me.

Maisha Kungu:

That is another subject we could do an entire podcast on.

Samantha McCormick:

What do you find useful for your wellbeing? How do you look after yourselves outside of work?

Maisha Kungu:

I like to contextualize my experience. I tried to look at the micro/macro of a situation. Like “I feel this”, “This is something for me.” And then I try and zoom out and think what’s happening for my entire demographic. What’s happening for everyone I know that I went to school with? Or everyone that I know that it’s like about to turn 30. Or just left university, or are they also having money troubles. It’s like that personal, political all the way through to global, to try and give me some breathing space. To make myself think, “Okay, right. I can do this. I’m one unit where there’s something vaster and greater.

Samantha McCormick:

How about you, Jess? Anything particularly that you like to?

Jess Woodhead:

I’ve been getting up at six every morning. So I’ll get up at six, and I used to find it super hard to get up in the mornings. And I used to just be woken up by Nyree, my daughter. And when she’d wake up, I’d have to be falling out of bed and be a zombie for the next half hour. But I’ve started getting up early at six. I’ll get up early and I go out for a run and just being outside at that time, I don’t know what it is. It’s like the golden hour. It’s so peace at that time of the day. And I find myself feeling really grateful in a way that I haven’t actually really experienced before, to stuff like the sky, and the tree, and nature. And obviously I’ve been surrounded by beautiful hills my whole life, and thought, “Oh, that’s beautiful.” But recently it shifted in a way where I feel really grateful for it. It’s filling up my bucket. So that when I go back into those doors at half past seven I am ready for the day.

Samantha McCormick:

Those times help you then, with the really challenging times. It’s like you said, filling up your bucket. You’ve got some resource there you can use to help you get through that in whatever way you need to. And again, that’s not to say, “Oh, now it’s easy. I can do this.” Not at all. But yeah, I really admire you for getting up at 6:00 AM and going running. That just doesn’t happen in my house.

Jess Woodhead:

Well, honestly it wasn’t easy at first. I think, because in lockdown, because we live in an apartment and we have no outdoor space and we’re with people all the time. And so there was obviously Josh and Naomi there, and there was no where to go. There was no way to escape before. Like even just the half an hour drive to work and I thought, “If I don’t get up before people and go out of the house, I’m not going to get this time.” So that’s kind of what instigated it. And it was so hard to do it. I thought I’m just going to do it for 30 days, because I’d read something somewhere that said, if you do some things for 30 times, I’ll make it part of your routine for more than it will become your routine.

Maisha Kungu:

I’m going to remember that.

Jess Woodhead:

It stuck! It stuck. And honestly now I jump out of my bed at six I’m like, “Woo!” Josh is like, “Shut up!”

Samantha McCormick:

Maisha, coming back to you. What do you do just for yourself? That’s not work related.

Maisha Kungu:

Just for myself? It’s all about soothing. And as an adult, how can I really learn to self-soothe? So for me, heat, is a form of love. So having a really hot bath is something that I find really amazing. And then after a hot bath, completely head to foot while I’m still really hot, put some sort of oil on my skin. One of my friends has a company called Afro Deity that does really beautiful whipped body butters. She makes them herself, from homes, it’s like a little startup business, it’s fantastic. But I say thank you to each bit of my body as I’m doing it. So it’s about gratitude to myself. So it’s a ritual practice rather than just making sure my skin is hydrated. So, individually being like, “Thank you toes, thank you legs.” “You can do loads of really cool stuff.” And rubbing my belly in smooth circles. Things that genuinely calm your actual nervous system down. And then after that, feeling much more compassionate towards myself and having a much clearer mind.

Samantha McCormick:

So, to finish off. I have been asking people I’ve been interviewing about things happening in the future, which is actually a really bizarre question to ask in a pandemic where everything changes constantly, isn’t it? But I know we were chatting before we started recording, about connecting with other dancers with other artists. And I wondered anything’s in your hopes and dreams for the future, even if it’s just tomorrow? Or it might be next year or people you’d like to connect with?

Maisha Kungu:

I’m kind of new, I’m kind of fresh in Manchester. I feel like I’m finally really embracing my creative practice instead of trying to do it on the side and do other things as well. So I would love to connect with dancers and movers, but also photographers and videographers and people that are interested in doing like multimedia installations, things like that. If there’s anyone out there, I don’t know if you guys know any. Anyone that’s interested in narrative and atmosphere, I would love to be in touch with.

Samantha McCormick:

That’s good we’ll put that out there into the universe.

Maisha Kungu:

Yeah, put that out there.

Samantha McCormick:

Jess, any plans or connections you’re looking for or anything like that?

Jess Woodhead:

I work for a Chol theater; which we do loads of work with children, young people, and adults. So yeah, you can follow us on social media. It’s Chol Theater C H O L. We’ve got lots of things coming up in the next couple of months. I guess, in terms of my freelance work, I’ve not been doing too much freelance work. But I know that me and Maia have been chatting about maybe we’re going to do a thing. I’m very excited that you’re here and back in Manchester. I don’t really know. Obviously there’s so much uncertainty around life in general, at the moment. So I’m just hoping that you just find these beautiful moments still. It’s lovely to spend with you guys. Finding these moments is really, really, really important.

Samantha McCormick:

I love that. Beautiful moments, yeah. Where can you find them and how can we make them happen? Well, we’ve just made one happen.

Maisha Kungu:

Yay. Yeah. So definitely a celebration and joy, I think is a good thing to think about.

Samantha McCormick:

We can still find some beauty even in the darkest of times.

Maisha Kungu:

Or if things are dark, knowing that this too shall pass. And there will be good times again.

Samantha McCormick:

Yeah I repeat that in my mind to myself quite often this year.

Maisha Kungu:

This too shall pass. That’s funny.

Samantha McCormick:

Well thank you both so much. I’ve got so much more. I could ask you.

Maisha Kungu:

I really want to say so much more. I’m like, “I want to talk about this. I want to talk about this. We could talk about wellbeing so much more. We can determine dance education.” There’s a whole world. And we started with a memory so I’ll share.

Maisha Kungu:

One of my earliest memories of Jess. I think I’ve told her this one before. It was at infant school, so that’s like nursery to year two, so the oldest people there are seven. And I think I must’ve been about six or five, something like that. And I was sat eating my school lunch, feeling all grown up. And little Jess waddled over. She knows what I’m going to say. She waddled over to our dinner lady because she was upset because her gingerbread man was broken and she was like, “It’s broken, it’s broken.” And because it was broken, she thought she couldn’t eat it. And I remember sat there being like, “Ha ha. I remember when I was as young as you. And I felt that because food was broken, you could no longer eat it. But now I know better.” She was like, “It’s broken!” I was going to say the gingerbread lady. The dinner lady was like, “You can still eat it, what’s your problem?” Just completely nonplussed by this child.

Maisha Kungu:

I remember the feeling like, “One day Jess. You too will know. You will learn the lesson. That you can eat broken gingerbread men.”

Jess Woodhead:

Well now I know.

Maisha Kungu:

Yeah, yeah. How much smarter we are.

Samantha McCormick:

I love that. We love that. Thank you for sharing.

Jess Woodhead:

Can I share one more thing as well. But I was actually going to say thank you to you, Maia, because Maia taught me how to stilt walk. And because she taught me how stilt walk, it literally gave me so much work. And that was all because of Maia. Thank you Maia.

Maisha Kungu:

I didn’t get work as a dancer really after dance school. I got loads of very unusual site-specific things, probably because I spent so much time frolicking around in the hills and camping as a child. So I became stilt walking coordinator for a company and then Jess was like, “Oh, I want to learn to still walk.” And I was like, “Easy. I’ll teach you in five minutes.” She was like, “What?” And I was like, “Yeah, your a dancer. You’ll be fine. You’ve got strong legs.”

Maisha Kungu:

And so I taught Jess to stilt walk. And then she did a few gigs with handmade parade who I worked for. And then as I was leaving handmade parade, I trained Jess up to take over my role. So she led us to walking after I left.

Jess Woodhead:

We did so many gigs with Mitch and got to go to London, up to Scotland, and do loads of really amazing gigs stilt walking. And it was so fun.

Maisha Kungu:

Well watch this space for some little dance videos that I’m going to be putting out eventually, through Jess as well, so. What goes around, comes around innit?

Samantha McCormick:

This is the perfect example of collaboration, community, friendship, dancers supporting each other. You know this is what we need in this world. Oh, I just love it.

Maisha Kungu:

Instead of being competitive, be collaborative. And it’s that scarcity thing isn’t it? That you’re thinking if you’ve got something you shouldn’t share it with somebody else, cause then you won’t get it. But that’s not actually how it works, really at all, it’s the opposite.

Samantha McCormick:

Okay. Well, we’re definitely going to have you back. We can talk more about many of these things, but I think that’s the perfect place to just finish for now. Let’s keep connected, keep collaborating, keep supporting each other. And I am very grateful to you both for being here and being part of this. Thank you so much.

Maisha Kungu:

Thank you too Sam I am incredibly grateful as well.

Jess Woodhead:

Me too!

Samantha McCormick:

Aren’t Maisha and Jess just so uplifting and inspiring. I’m so grateful to them for coming along and sharing such a breadth of experiences so openly. I will think of them the next time I eat a gingerbread man too. Please do check out their incredible work. There’s full info on our website and you can find them on Instagram and Facebook too. Just head to the show notes for more information. Don’t forget to subscribe to Curious e-Motion too and make sure you’re following us on social media. If you enjoyed this episode, please do share it with friends and family and leave us a review to tell us what you think. Thank you for listening. And until next time, remember to tune into your body, be kind to yourself and stay curious.