Flying Free

It was during a trip to Rio that Nottingham carnival artists Sarena Kay (dance and costume) and Ceri Howells (percussion and maker) noticed how inclusive their enormous samba school troupes were.

“From the youngest children to great-grandparents, everyone in the community was involved in some way,” says Sarena.

“We saw young people dancing wildly to the fastest samba we’d ever heard and we saw older people and wheelchair users riding on beautifully decorated floats, very much part of the action.

“Through a combination of adaptations and everyone playing to their strengths, carnival in Rio came across as a truly inclusive endeavor.”

So when Sarena and Ceri and long-time collaborator Alison Denholm of City Arts were invited by Kevin Tennant of First Art to produce a prototype carnival-style cover for Rufford Abbey County Park’s mobility scooter, it all seemed very timely. The rainforest-themed affair, made from ‘lots of plumbing pipe and glitter’, was showcased at a special schools celebratory event and proved an instant hit.

With this sample under their belts, Sarena, Ceri and Alison were now ready to take their idea further. Their aim was to include a fleet of mobility scooters in their troupe for Nottingham Carnival 2015, alongside a bateria and dancers. The name of the troupe: Flying Free.

Explains Sarena, who along with Ceri goes by the name of Can Samba, : “We felt strongly that the third generation and those with physical disabilities and health concerns limiting their mobility were not being represented well in carnival here in the UK.

“If we were able to incorporate a number of mobility scooters into our troupe, they would allow people to participate in a carnival parade who perhaps not previously had that opportunity.

“When we talk about ‘Flying Free’ it is not only our troupe’s theme but the aspiration for the troupe and art form as a collective. It is almost our aim, our mission statement, to come together and become more than the sum of the people and the art.

“It has become an ongoing theme and we are continuing to grow, develop and evolve it as we delve into what are the possibilities for ‘Flying Free’”.

At first, their search for suitable mobility scooters looked like it was going to prove fruitless. But at the last minute, Shopmobility in Broadmarsh shopping centre stepped in and offered a fleet of four. A further two were procured from participants who offered up their own scooters for customisation. And so slowly but surely, the miniature flotilla of ‘mono-floats’ took shape.

Carnival day started off fine and the Flying Free troupe of 40 drummers, 20 dancers, stilt walkers, dancing bees, six people driving customised mobility scooters, a giant green parrot and many small rainforest birds took to the streets, elated.

“The effect on the participants was profound and still brings tears to my eyes when I think about it now,” says Sarena.

“One participant, a woman in her mid-50s, said that her sons had always been involved in carnival but due to health and mobility problems she had never had that opportunity. This project had given her that chance.”

Sarena recalls another participant whose shyness had previously prevented her from taking part.

She explains: “This lady was so shy that she had never considered being part of a carnival troupe before. But when given the task of showing off all the hard work she had put into producing the mono-floats, she felt the focus and attention was off her and decided she could happily join in.”

The troupe’s eldest participant and mono-float driver was Betty, now aged 96.

Says Sarena: “Betty has been on something of a journey with us as she had also helped create one of our highlight pieces- the giant green parrot – through a City Arts residency at her care home, Millbeck House. Betty had a fantastic time working with carnival artists Jessica Kemp and Tony Mason, and through this, she, and her daughter, gained enough confidence to come out on the road with us all.

“Betty has piloted a mobility scooter in two carnivals with us now and has become very much part of the team. She hopes to take part again in 2017, ‘if she’s still here’, as she advised us!”

Even a downpour partway through the parade didn’t stop play, with the scooter pilots all briefed to take their leave in their own time, once they reached peak sogginess.

Says Sarena: “One of the most important aspects of parading for participants is that once you are on the road, this becomes the stage and you should aim to treat it as such.

“However, when it came to our mobility scooter pilots, they were given strict instructions to parade for as long as they felt comfortable or able to do so.

“Of course on carnival day in rained shortly after setting off and continued to do so until the end. This ended the procession for our most elderly participants earlier than they would have liked, but that is carnival in the UK for you!”

Despite their meteorological setback, the troupe went on to win accolades for both best troupe and best band and returned to parade again in 2016, when they were once again crowned best troupe.

Says Sarena: “These people’s journeys are quite special, and for us as carnival artists it makes working 14 hour days, seven days a weeks for months on end all the more worthwhile: to see the joy it can bring to people who are usually left on the sideline at carnival.

“The mono-float section of our troupe was a chance to involve people who would not normally be able to participate in a parade, whether long or short. We felt it essential to include and represent this demographic, as we felt so many carnival troupes leaned towards the involvement of youth groups on the road. We were proud to bring a new engaging, highly mobile, and exciting element to our troupe in doing so.

“It was always clear in my mind that these people were a highlight of the troupe and that the utmost care and respect should be afforded them, just as is done in Rio. They are part of our carnival family and I think that for us it is this extended family and the care we offer that has made it such a unifying and life-affirming experience for all involved”.

The Flying Free troupe is due to take part in Nottingham Carnival 2017 this August, and Sarena and Ceri are already thinking ahead to 2018.

“How about a fleet of 20 mobility scooters, all driving in a Red Arrows style formation?, she wonders.

With no limits to her ambition, Sarena believes they are just at the start of their campaign for inclusivity in carnival.

“I think that we are still in our infancy with involving older people and those with mobility difficulties in our troupe,” she says.

“The only thought that I can express is to approach inclusion with the respect that you would desire for yourself. Surely we’ve been talking equality long enough now that nobody should be excluded from carnival?”