Dance summit

A nation on its toes

We love to watch Strictly Come Dancing, but why don't more of us have a go ourselves? Sue George reports on a summit that debated how to get more people in the UK taking up dancing as a fun physical activity
dancing
Dancing in the street: The Dance Champions want to get 100,000 people dancing regularly by 2012. Photograph: Alamy

Dance-related television programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing attract many millions of viewers, yet this popularity is not reflected in the numbers who actually take part in dance.

According to a YouGov survey conducted for the Dance Champions Group, 89% of people don't dance in public, many of them saying they are too embarrassed to do so. Other reasons for not dancing include lack of time, or not having a partner to dance with, although a fifth of people do dance in their own homes.

Yet dancing is widely recognised to be of health and social benefit to people of all ages, from under-fives to people with Alzheimer's, with all levels of ability and fitness, and in all parts of the community. So how can more of them be encouraged to dance more often?

A dance summit, organised by the Aldridge Foundation charity and chaired by former TV newsreader Angela Rippon, gathered together some 60 delegates and speakers from many different parts of the dance world. It aimed to share ideas and develop strategy to promote involvement with dance.

The event started with Dance Champion Arlene Phillips setting out the aims of the day. The Dance Champions' overall goal is to get 100,000 people dancing regularly by 2012. Champions are working across the UK to participate in regional events from September 2010 to March 2011. This will also be backed by the launch of the Dance Champions website (dancechampions.org), designed to attract people working in dance, as well as people seeking classes or dance partners.

However, there are many more steps that could be taken to increase participation in dance across all parts of the community.

According to Rod Aldridge, chair of the Dance Champions Group, dance appeals to so many different sorts of people so it should be made more accessible and more fun, taking in people who used to dance but no longer do so.

"It is vital that we go to them rather than wait for people to come to us, to make dance less elitist. Perhaps the current structures that [the dance world has] should be less precious. We have to come together for this to happen," he said.

And while there are opportunities for talented dancers, it is important to open up dance to those who are not so talented but who want to feel that enjoyment. "It's not about perfection," he adds.

One way some participants considered dance could be made attractive to more people was through viewing it as a sport. Mark Foster had swum at five different Olympiads and believes dance should be an Olympic sport. Despite his high levels of fitness, he lost a stone in weight as a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing. He is passionate about getting young people involved in physical activity.

Young people and dance

Dancing is now the biggest physical activity in schools, next to football. Between the ages of 5-11, all children dance as part of the national curriculum. However, in years 7 to 9, dance participation is not required, although young people can go on to study it at GCSE or A-level.

According to Judy Evans, chair of the National Dance Teachers' Association, access to dance is variable and there is a long way to go. "Where dance is taught it's of high quality in schools. But primary schoolteachers can't be expected to be specialists," she said. There is also the question as to where young people can dance after their school careers.

As a young man, Miguel Doforo, Dance Champion and choreographer, had thought that dance was only for the elite. Now he runs a production company helping young people, some of whom reached the second semi-finals of Britain's Got Talent.

"We need to encourage kids, let them know that opportunities are there," he said. He also considered that, although it was easier to involve boys in dance after Diversity had won Britain's Got Talent, this was still sometimes a challenge.

Dance Champion and Strictly Come Dancing contestant Darren Bennett is involved in the Essentially Dance scheme, funded by the Aldridge Foundation and designed to give all children in the UK a chance to experience ballroom and Latin dance. He said there are now fewer venues in which to dance than before. "There used to be dance halls, but they have been closed down," he said. "Dance studios have been made into gyms. Now people are also saying they have no time in their long working days."
But Steve Berrwick, an east London resident who is involved in community theatre, believes you need to go to the people.

"Make sure you have childcare, or you will exclude lots of people. There is also a perception of dance classes that you need specific clothing and shoes," he said. "Children won't go to dance classes if they don't have the right clothes to wear."

Olympics and legacy

The newly appointed director of the Cultural Olympiad, Ruth Mackenzie, spoke of dance being a passion for herself and her team, which includes major figures from the world of ballet and performance. It was also one of the most obvious ways of bringing art and sport together. The challenges were, she felt, around under-5s and disabled dance. It was important that dance events were not simply held in London.

"The Cultural Olympiad has been led by projects from all around the country, with big and small ideas," she said.

Jacqueline Rose, director of the Big Dance Week spoke about the events happening in 2010, and in particular the event taking place at 1pm on 10 July, where people all over the world will perform the same choreographed steps. This will be taking place in a range of non-traditional venues, such as libraries, and would set the scene for the Big Dance event in 2012.

Far too often, though, various branches of the dance world do not speak to each other – they are simply too diverse. Small children go to dance classes, 18- to 35-year-olds dance in night clubs, older people go to tea dances – but they have no contact with each other. Ken Bartlett, creative director of the Foundation for Community Dance, believes that "this is a time to celebrate not only participation and excellence, but also creativity and expression".

Janet Archer, a Dance Champion and director of dance strategy at Arts Council England, argued that the dance world needed to reflect society as it is. It should be more culturally diverse, and there should be more opportunities for older people to dance.

"We need to make the case for what dance can do, finding a way of positioning dance within the creative economy," she said. Archer went on to talk about "wellbeing economics", looking at how Britain's GDP had doubled since 1970 while British people's satisfaction with life had hardly changed. Dance, she continued, can help build resilient communities and encourage wellbeing in ways that other activities can't.

Other delegates felt improvements could be made elsewhere. James Ireland, from Thameside Wheelchair Dance, is a disabled performing arts student involved in a range of dance from hip hop to wheelchair ballroom and Latin.

He felt that his teachers sometimes didn't know how to involve him in the lessons. Diana Morgan-Hill, a participant in Dancing on Wheels, said it was important for people to know which dance studios or spaces were wheelchair-accessible as so many feel excluded.

And Monique Deletant, administrative director of Akademi, looked at taking dance to south Asian communities.

But south Asian dance is not high profile. Single sex classes often need to be offered but, as dance is considered masculine, men are willing to be involved. Several participants mentioned the high correlation between TV watching and obesity.

Do TV dance programmes have a unique role in getting more people to participate in dance while they are actually watching? Perhaps, some wondered, when the next Strictly Come Dancing airs, there might be opportunities for viewers to dance as they vote.

Backstory
The Dance Champions Group - an alliance of 15 experts – was set up at the request of the Secretary of State for Health as part of the Be active, Be healthy plan. The dance champions include celebrities, sports personalities and representatives of the health, dance and cultural sectors. The dance champions share a common goal of inspiring 100,000 people of all abilities to take up dance by 2012. Among the goals of the dance summit was to draw up a strategy to get British adults to overcome their barriers to dancing. An integral part of this is the Dance Champions website, dancechampions.org

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