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Animated Edition - Summer 2005
Bloomin' renewal
Skills development officer Yee Ling Tang describes the ways in which artists freshen up themselves and their practice at Cheshire Dance
Bloom is the name of Cheshire Dance's programme of continuing professional development for community dance artists. It was born out of the demand for the region's artists to work in challenging and diverse community contexts, and the need for skills development to be an ongoing part of our practice which is constantly being refreshed, refined and re-examined. The programme aims to provide opportunities which are flexible to the changing needs of dance artists and the contexts in which they work, and accessible to the diverse communities within the profession. It's a broad premise from which to work, and an even bigger and blurrier mission to address.

What's on offer
Bloom is funded by Arts Council North West and Cheshire County Council, and managed by Cheshire Dance, the county's community dance development agency. The programme is modelled around our 2002 research of artists' needs. We discovered that artists desired a range of developmental opportunities. These included finding the time to develop artistically, ongoing support for problem-solving and increased opportunities to gain skills and understanding in new areas. Alongside this, artists expressed a wish for an ethos to which all of us could adhere. If they were to make full use of bloom, the programme had to offer high-quality and challenging opportunities that are flexible to their levels of experience, accessible to their work and lifestyles, and specifically led by their needs and interests.

Bloom is now in the third year since its January 2003 inception. In seeking to meet artists' ever-shifting needs and address a multitude of professional access issues, it's undergone enormous change and, at times, some judicious cropping. No programme element is ever set, but rather reconceived in light of its ethos. Bloom's evolving nature has meant that some strands of the programme have been shelved and others modified or even expanded. What it is now is not what it was, nor what it may be in the future.

Currently bloom includes:

  • fresh - a four-day residential course designed to refresh artistic practice and offer tools for personal development
  • combine - a five-day intensive for combining dance with other art forms
  • the planning tool - a personal development workbook
  • issues-based training days
  • matchmaking, shadowing, buddying, and mentoring opportunities
  • wildfire - a quarterly skills development newsletter
  • how-to fact sheets
  • advice surgeries (in person or over the phone)
  • community dance apprenticeships (a part-time eleven-month placement)
  • the summer school
  • hosting the Foundation for Community Dance's Duty of Care course and Freedom in Dance's Leading Dance with Older People Training course
  • faith, hope and clarity - two days of taster and introductory sessions in subject areas requested by dance artists
  • signposts to other CPD opportunities nationally.

A fresh combination
Combine and fresh were devised from a sound premise: the nature of community dance is often such that, as we seek to develop dance and a host of other skills and experiences for the communities with which we work, opportunities to invest in artistic refreshment and focus on ourselves can sometimes take a back seat. We advocate the benefits of dancing, creating and collaborating, but don't always practice what we preach. Combine and fresh allocate intensive artist-time. They redress the balance and, in doing so, positively impact our work as practitioners.

Combine dance film has run twice within the bloom programme. The most recent course, co-facilitated by choreographer/performer Rosemary Lee and film-maker Peter Anderson, brought together ten community dance practitioners, two film-makers, six dancers and two camera/editing technicians from around the country. Over five days this mix of experienced and novice artists explored the aesthetic and technical fundamentals of creating dance and movement for film and video.

Working flexibly from a person-centred approach, Rosemary and Peter managed the range in levels of experience while meeting individual needs and interests. First they secured information on participants via pre-course check-in phone calls. Then, during introductory presentations on-site, they were able to find out exactly where the participants were at. Some wanted to develop present work or deepen a general understanding of dance film, while others sought specific technical knowledge. One hoped to rekindle an old passion for this hybrid genre. A few simply relished the chance to debate.

The two facilitators worked these disparate desires into the over-all structure of the course in a manner that was nurturing and responsive, rather than prescriptive. As film-maker Adam Holloway put it, 'Our roles within the group grew organically throughout our time together, guided from the inside by Rosie and Peter.' By observing and listening closely, posing just the right questions at key moments and stripping everything down to what the participants really wanted, they demystified dance film with a playful openness and honesty. The course shaped up into a perfect arena for questioning, learning, experimenting, planning, discussing and sharing.

Digging deep
In 2005 Cheshire Dance held the fourth edition of fresh. Over the years the course has adopted various approaches within a range of dance styles, each time informing subsequent sessions and the bloom programme as a whole. This year fresh was co-facilitated by our dance director, Jacqueline McCormick, and Sue Akroyd, programme manager at the Foundation for Community Dance. The pair brought with them research skills and techniques from life coaching and professional development, plus considerable and wide-ranging experience as artists and practitioners. Their joint focus was to lead course participants into an exploration of creativity and its relationship to our dance practice, artistic growth and teaching.

Fresh is often described as a journey which is, of course, different for each person. My memories as project co-ordinator take me back to the sun and showers of early April, in an old schoolhouse in rural Cheshire. (Think Mallory Towers.) There the fourteen dance artists had access to a large dance space, a lounge, dormitory accommodation, a playing field and, handily, a couple of village pubs or, alternatively, reflexology sessions. What was unique to each person, I wondered, and where could we find common ground?

The practical introduction to the course involved clasping our hands together and noticing which thumb rests on top. We were then told to go back and switch to the opposite digit! The notion of changing habits by trying something different and registering how that feels - simply achieved, yet with profound implications - was here turned into a tiny, first taste of some of the challenges to come.

There followed a sitting meditation and, afterwards, a personal warm-up guided by a sense of contemplation and mindfulness of the habits into which we so easily fall. An open circle of people was introduced. Some moved inside, 'listening' to the body's instincts, while others witnessed. The group discussed the experience. One person spoke about how important it was to answer the call to move whenever it arose, without regarding the circle as a barrier.

Meal-times are often important in such a gathering. Lunch breaks often rolled into buddy-time - hooking up with someone to discuss, debate, walk or dance. Some shared coffee in the lounge or talked in the car park. A couple paced the playing field. Others wandered off alone, not far but deep in thought. Outside resembled an exercise yard and inside, a mothers' meeting. I particularly enjoyed the Breakfast Booster: a good wish, or challenge, tailored to each person. These were received each morning on coloured slips of paper decorated with glitter pens and scattered over the breakfast table. Throughout fresh there was always sufficient time to digest both what our bodies consumed and all that we experienced as 'food for thought.'

During the course Sue encouraged participants to 'dig deep' through a process of self-reflection. Being asked to ponder 'you and your practice' through the kinds of self-evaluative questions we rarely pause to consider - Why do I do it? What matters to me most in my work? What are my minimum requirements? - meant it was an emotional experience for some. The discussions were managed informally but expertly. Gradually our sessions together deepened in longevity as we challenged ourselves to extended periods of stillness, greater spontaneity, or more layered and varied ways of thinking, moving and being. Splitting into small groups centred on personal development issues, we shared strengths and weaknesses, expressed needs or sought and found advice and affirmation. There was also a chance to connect the artist and the practitioner as Sue challenged us to look at our habits in relation to teaching and creating.

Reflecting on our different experiences of the course, it was clear that people had begun to push barriers and cross boundaries within themselves. With it came a tangible sense of individual and collective achievement.

Leap of Faith
Courses like fresh and combine offer dance artists vital 'me-time' during which needs and interests as an artist, a facilitator and a person are examined and nourished. The impact of this investment goes beyond us, rippling into the communities with which we work and circling back into our planning, teaching, thinking and evaluating.

What arises and continues out of projects like combine and fresh is a questioning of ourselves and our approaches. One artist felt combine had changed the way he planned and played with the video documentation of community projects, while another felt she'd become more creative with perspective and light. Course participants speak about the influence of the facilitators on their own creative and teaching practices. They talk of renewed focus, clarity, enthusiasm and commitment, and the desire to introduce more dance and creative movement into the reality of their working lives on a daily basis.

In conclusion, bloom was a leap of faith for Cheshire Dance. The blurry mission we set ourselves has yielded significant rewards. We knew there was a link between regular and proper artist-time and the demand for community dance practitioners to work in challenging and diverse contexts. Now we're beginning to see the fruits of such artist-centred activities and their ability to permeate practice long-term. True, with such a splayed and busy programme we ran the risk of being in a constant state of reinvention, where nothing is fixed and all is up for grabs. Yet grounding this surface instability is a rock-solid ethos. The guiding principles of all the opportunities which fall under the bloom umbrella are that they are challenging, flexible, accessible, of high quality and artist-led. It's with these beliefs in mind that we continue conducting, and learning from, the work.

For more information on bloom contact info@cheshiredance.org or 01606 861 770.

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Animated: Summer 2005