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Animated Edition - Summer 2007
DAiR To... develop partnerships and projects that create a healthy youth dance infrastructure?
Jane Ralls, Dance Development Director at DanceXchange, Birmingham, explains how five project partners and five dance artists in residence have worked together to increase opportunities for young people to engage in dance
Increasing access to dance and fulfilling the regional role of a National Dance Agency is no mean feat. This became apparent when assessing the dance development priorities for DanceXchange (and the West Midlands) in 2001. Outreach work was essential at that time because the Birmingham Hippodrome, where DanceXchange is based, was being refurbished. Relishing the opportunity to get out and about, DanceXchange had begun to deliver a series of Raising the Roof Roadshows - taster days of dance, in a range of styles, giving young people (and their families) the opportunity to 'come do, go see'. I took these on and worked with a local partner, normally a theatre but sometimes a community centre, in each sub-region to do so. These events were received amazingly well and resulted in a debate about how activity could be sustained so that we weren't just providing hit and run projects.

As a result of these debates, a Steering Group of people/organisations interested in addressing dance development was formed. The one-year pilot DAiR (dance artists in residence) project was a result of these discussions in 2003 - DAiR To... is a development of this.

DAiR To... is a dance development project running throughout the West Midlands until December 2007. Five Dance Artists in Residence (or DAiRs) create high quality dance activities for young people in their area. DAiRs are based with the project partners: BORDERDance in Shropshire, Dudley Community Dance Consortium (at Stourbridge Town Hall), Solihull Arts Complex, Stoke-on-Trent Theatres, The Patrick Centre (DanceXchange's venue).

DAiR To... aims to:
  • Provide an audience development initiative - the dance artists deliver education work related to performances programmed by the partner venue, as well as education work that is specific to the interests and needs of local groups. Evaluation has shown that young people's rapport with their DAiR is the determining factor in how highly they rate their experience; as trust is developed over a series of sessions, the DAiRs' suggestions regarding attendance at dance shows are often taken up
  • Fill gaps in dance provision - the rigorous recruitment procedure ensured that the DAiRs would bring new skills to the partner areas and wouldn't create competition for existing providers
  • Combat isolation - the dance artists work with other professionals and teachers in the area to provide professional development opportunities
  • Create dance work - the dance artists create thousands of performance opportunities for young people. They also work with a choreographer yearly to develop a touring performance piece. This gives young people the opportunity to see their DAiR as a performer and role model - and raises aspirations.
The overriding goal of the project is to engage young people in dance experiences that would otherwise not be available or accessible to them - and work with other providers to skill them up to do the same. Indeed, Arts Council England, West Midlands, and The Paul Hamlyn Foundation have supported the DAiR scheme twice precisely because DAiR To... aims to transfer dance-specific management skills (and confidence) from DanceXchange to staff in each partner venue/organisation. It is hoped that this will make the relationship between each DAiR artist and their partner venue/organisation sustainable once the project finishes, thereby creating a sound exit strategy.

The amount and type of support required by each project partner is quite different - mainly because the project partners, who aren't necessarily dance specialists, are extremely varied: regional dance agencies without venues, venues run by councils and the Ambassadors Theatre Group. Regardless of this difference, and because there needed to be an element of consistency in how each DAiR was supported, each project partner had to have the resources to host a DAiR physically, the capacity to manage their DAiR on a day-to-day basis (so they didn't become isolated), the ability to raise a financial contribution - and, of course, a passion for dance! With guidance, the project partners are responsible for the management of the project locally; DanceXchange is responsible for arranging quarterly Steering Group meetings, monthly team meetings and professional development workshops for the DAiRs, and the annual commission and tour. DanceXchange also monitors impact on young people, along with the project partners.

Through the project, we specifically try to target disadvantaged young people because we truly believe that dance can make a real difference to their lives. Of course, the type of 'disadvantage' varies since the local demographics in each partner area are really very different: from rural to inner city, the areas of the project contain some of the most affluent and some of the most deprived populations of the whole country. Sometimes location and lack of transport are barriers to provision (or different types of provision) and sometimes socio-economic reasons prevent participation. Whatever the reason, the delivery of dance activity aims to empower the young people as much as possible. Two examples highlight this. A recent project with Looked After Children placed consultation with young people at its heart and encouraged the development of creativity, having a significant impact on the confidence levels of the participants - evidenced by the observation of body language in addition to data collected through evaluative games. And another project with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children resulted in the development of a dance performance that interpreted the participants' struggle with the immigration system, aiming to challenge messages presented in the media.

Having delivered two thirds of the project, it's fair to say that the impact of the project is prolific: the DAiRs are extremely grateful for the support and opportunities the project provides, the project partners all benefit from the network and over 6,500 young people - including gifted and talented young people without resources to attend private dance schools, disabled children and children attending Pupil Referral Units, in addition to the two groups mentioned above - have had the opportunity to experience dance, often for the first time. Of course, the sustained investment in five areas of the West Midlands has had an impact on the activity DanceXchange can deliver elsewhere but you can't be everything to everyone all the time. You can, however, make a real difference if you have a strategic plan, good communication and negotiation skills, a flexible approach and strong, sound partnerships.

Time will tell whether DAiR To... has managed to embed the healthy dance infrastructure it has created - and what the long-term impact of the work will be on the project partners, the DAiRs and the young people they have worked with.

Edited by Kate DeRight, DAiR To... Project Manager, and Clare Lewis, General Manager.

contact jane.ralls@dancexchange.org.uk

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Animated: Summer 2007