Wrocław based author Neil Bennion has published his eagerly awaited book 'Dancing Feat'. The 388 page text, now available to buy online, details Neil's mission to deal with his shortcomings on the dance floor by jetting off to Colombia and learning how to dance like a native.
Keen to find out more about Neil's experience, his book and his thoughts on Wrocław, we got in touch with the man himself for a quick Q&A:
Hi Neil, thanks for taking the time to speak with us about what many are saying is a most intriguing and insightful book. I understand it has taken some time to put everything altogether, so how does it feel to have got the job done and see the finished article?
It's great to see it out there, and also something of a relief. The dancing itself required hard work and commitment, but nothing compared to the book. It was 'nearly finished' for so long that it became a running joke with my friends. But it's out there now, and I'm delighted.
What was it that first sparked your decision to go on a mission to dance in Colombia and then write about your experiences?
A mixture of different things came together. I'd been a terrible dancer my whole life, but it was only when I stopped drinking alcohol (a whole other story) that I felt truly motivated to do something about it. I felt like my evenings had lost the fun factor, and I wanted to get that back. So that was the catalyst. As to where to go about it, I love travel, and Colombia, stood out as a great place to go about it, as dance is such an integral part of the culture there.
Finally, as a writer, the whole ensemble was an obvious candidate for a book. I felt that dance would give me an interesting lens through which to view the country, and the fact I was writing my exploits would mean I was honour-bound to see it through ("I had a go for a while, but then I gave up" would make for a fairly disappointing narrative).
In your journey across Colombia you encountered a number of different styles of the nation's music. Which did you find the most challenging and why?
It's a two-way tie between the mapalé (a frenetic, Afro-Colombian genre) and joropo (a dance of the plains with elements of waltz, flamenco and more).
Mapalé because it's just so fast that gravity doesn't seem to physically allow you to do what you want to do – I spent my whole time complaining to my dance teacher in Cartagena that what she was asking me to do wasn't physically possible (an unlikely claim given she was doing it just fine, right in front of me).
Joropo because it has so many different elements that need to come together seamlessly – waltzing, foot tapping/stamping, complex turns and so on. Trying to combine them is like doing that patting-your-head-whilst-rubbing-your-belly thing, except with a third hand trying to complete a cryptic crossword.
There are a number of stereotypes that people have about Colombia. Through your experience travelling around the country, which one do you think is most ill judged?
If you were following the World Cup you may have seen the meme of Colombian players photoshopped to look like they were snorting the referee's disappearing spray. Many Colombians find this kind of thing offensive because it generalises the entire population of a country on the basis of a single, simplistic notion, and also trivialises a sensitive issue. Indeed the UNICEF goodwill ambassador was forced to resign after tweeting that meme. It's certainly not reflective of what I saw out there – most Colombians take their pleasure from dancing and drinking, with the dancing being the non-negotiable bit.
How much have you found your experience to be personally rewarding? Would you recommend others conquer their fears by travelling abroad and giving themselves a personal goal to strive to?
Travel is a rewarding experience anyway, but combining that with a personal mission made it especially so. I'd definitely recommend this kind of approach to travel. In fact,it's something I waffled on about at length in my TEDx talk earlier this year.
Having some kind of goal or journey in mind when you explore a country enhances the experience greatly – you do things you might not otherwise do, go to less-obvious places, have a purpose for engaging with people and are pushed on by a sense of purpose. It means you have an experience which is unique to you and, if you pick something challenging enough, almost guarantees you're going to grow as a person.
From my own personal perspective, it also made me feel superior to the other tourists/backpackers, and that's pretty much what I live for.
As I understand it, large parts of your book were written here in Wroclaw. Why did you choose to come to the city, and to what extent (if any) have you found Wroclaw as a place that lends itself to writers?
It probably seems a little strange to write a book about Colombia in Poland, but I'd already written a rough first draft by the time I left, so I had all the material I needed. Why Wroclaw? Well, I was looking for somewhere to base myself in Europe and I'd been tipped off that it was a good place.
I can't speak for other writers, but I need a couple of main things in a place I'm living: somewhere to get the work done, and a good social life outside of that.
Wroclaw has plenty of libraries and co-working spaces where you can put a good shift in, and also lots of cool little cafes where you can sit around, stroke your chin and say "Yes, I'm a writer" in denial of the fact that you've actually spent all morning faffing about on Facebook.
In social terms it's great, too. It's really easy to meet people here, and I've found the locals to be warm and welcoming. The city is big enough that there's always stuff going on, but small enough to have a sense of community – the kind of place you can regularly bump into people on the street.
I love the place.
Having finished the book, what's next in store for you? Will there be another chapter in your life here in Wroclaw, or will you be looking to seek inspiration in pastures new?
Writing more books! I'm a sucker for punishment, clearly.
Will I stay in Wroclaw? Well, I'm a big fan of the city, so I've no doubt it will play some part in my future, but I also like to keep things fresh, so I can't really answer that one.
To get an insight into the book, you can also watch Neil's TED talk from this year's TEXxWroclaw event via the YouTube video below: