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Animated Edition - Spring 2006
A remarkably effective training ground
No other art form has been developed through such a widespread appreciation that the arts should be available to all. By building a critical mass of entrepreneurial dance professionals Community Dance has provided a remarkably effective training ground for people working in all aspects of dance: who continue to see its importance and encourage its development. Linda Jasper, Director of Youth Dance England contemplates this extraordinary success
Community Dance (CD) can be attributed with integrating cultural democracy into mainstream professional dance. It has challenged perceptions of who can dance and how and where they dance. Even though one could argue that some professional artists were and are, concerned with these ideas anyway - the CD movement has increased the number of artists who actively engage with audiences and the wider public. This can be most vividly seen in the interactions between professional dance artists and practitioners with non-professionals to create high quality dance participation programmes and challenging choreography for performance on stage and screen. There appears to be no other art form that has been developed through such a wide-spread appreciation that the arts should be available to all.

CD practice has enabled dance to be seen as an effective tool in addressing a number of government agendas, for example healthy living, access to education and personal and social development. This has led to funds being allocated to dance that would not have been available to other areas of dance practice; even though modest, inconsistent and hard won. Public funding has been instrumental in the professionalisation of the sector, which has made Community Dance in the UK of national and international significance.

The number of people working in the sector has increased remarkably over the last 30 years - building a critical mass of dance professionals who have had direct experience of working in the sector. You don't have to investigate too deeply the CVs of our leaders to find that they have been involved as dancers, practitioners and/or managers in Community Dance. It has provided a remarkably effective training ground for people working in all aspects of dance: who continue to see its importance and encourage its development.

Is community dance a useful term?
The term was very useful when we were setting out to create a different dance practice and when there were only a few dance animateur posts. The value of using specific terminology is that it can identify distinctive work and direct resources to it. The use of separate terminology made possible the development of the sector through providing a language to challenge and define the work of artists and practitioners and subsequently to create training courses.

I now feel that we have the experience and confidence to recognise the breadth of the dance participation field and integrate our ethos and practice within it.

What has kept you evolving or reinventing? Was it organic or planned?
When I was starting out in the dance world - there were few jobs or careers in dance. The profession has expanded rapidly but there is still the necessity to be an entrepreneur and be willing to re-invent yourself. You can map my career with the development of contemporary dance and dance education in the country. I was a student at the beginning of the Dance Theatre course at Laban, one of the first dance animateurs (Berkshire), lectured on the first dance degree course in a European University (University of Surrey), in at the beginning of the National Dance Agency for the SE (South East Dance) and have now launched our first organisation for young people and dance (Youth Dance England). Starting new posts and organisations where none exists is characteristic of the development of dance in the last 30 years. I have also found each job insecure in terms of funding and materially have been led from one cul-de-sac to another. But in terms of challenge - there has been little to beat it! Being a part of this period of dance development has been an enormous privilege; I do not know of any other art form that has had such a rapid growth in such a short period of time. It has been exciting, worrying, and tedious in repeatedly having to make the case for dance.

What lessons have you learnt?
People make it happen. Structures help: for example the dance service organisations have been crucial to the development of an infrastructure for dance. However as dance is yet to be as embedded in publicly funded sectors as, for example, music there is much more advocacy to be done. The commitment and skill of the individual in advocating and demonstrating the benefits of their work is therefore vital in securing dance's future.

Progress is not linear. The quality and amount of dance on offer does not necessarily get better over time. It depends on the placement of people in a particular period of time as to what progress is made. Initiatives come and go but the important issues remain the same - at best progress can be experienced as an ascending spiral - with similar patterns recurring that are differently viewed.

Don't give up: There are people working in the most trying conditions who have survived and brought about radical change. National dance organisations, projects and buildings stand testament to their achievements.

How have you stayed connected to your core beliefs - have these changed?
I believe passionately in the power of dance to transform people - in the moment of dancing and sometimes beyond that experience into other areas of their lives. This belief has remained but the language in which I express it changes.

What unexpected factors have come into play?
Always expect the unexpected: constant challenges and unexpected events have molded the way I approach my work. There has always been the challenge of balancing forward planning whilst being flexible to respond to new opportunities.

How have you invested in yourself - Continuing Professional Development (CPD)?
Most of my learning and re-training has been done through working to capacity, and beyond, on different jobs. I have done formal courses such as an MA and some short courses, but being able to work in diverse contexts - such as a dance company, local authority, university, film production and dance agencies has provided the best CPD experience. The boards and panels that I have worked for have also been very useful in keeping abreast of developments and broadening my understanding of the wider context in which I work.

What do you see as the challenges for the future personally and/or dance?
Dance is now invited to sit at the table with the other art forms, but we are rarely asked to lead the conversation. We cannot relax in what has been achieved but keep pushing forwards. We have an excellent opportunity, at present, to harness interest in dance and physical activity from the public through to government departments to attract more profile and funding. But there need to be people able to continue with the entrepreneurship CD has been known for. We are still all animateurs – it is just a bigger group of people marching forwards.

We need to think of Community Dance as being a part of the very large dance participation field. Everywhere I look demand exceeds the supply of quality dance experiences for people - whether that is through a lack of artists, teachers, spaces or funding. If we do want to meet demand then we have to broaden our pool of workers without necessarily increasing the number of paid posts - particularly in this time of tightening of the public purse. Looking at how volunteers are used, particularly in the sport and voluntary sectors, would be useful to us. This does not mean cutting paid posts, there needs to be more of them, but rather seeking additional ways of meeting the growing demand. There are many people who attend dance classes and groups over a number of years that do not join the profession but who could be supported to extend our reach.

There is still a lack of career structure in dance even though there are many more jobs. A big message to get across to new professionals is in order to survive you need to commit to creating new opportunities for yourself and other people.

I feel very optimistic at present about the future for dance - we have made enormous progress and we are now in a position to reap the rewards. Unfortunately the next public funding round is expected to be tight so our newly secured profile will need to be used as a base to keep persuading and making the argument for dance and all its benefits.

Linda Jasper, Director, Youth Dance England. Email: ljasper@yde.org.uk

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Animated: Spring 2006