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Animated Edition - Winter 2008
Dance and obesity: a big issue
Jan Burkhardt describes Dance Action Zone Leeds' activity programme to combat obesity in young people and the importance of community development in their work
If immunisation and sanitation were the big issues for public health in the last century then tackling obesity through healthy lifestyles is the big issue for this one. Promoting healthy eating and physical activity are now at the heart of the nation's public health programmes, so curiously dance could potentially become a key tool in delivering public health.

It is against this background that Dance Action Zone Leeds (DAZL) has developed and grown over the last seven years. DAZL is a community dance programme improving health and well being in disadvantaged areas of Leeds and aims to improve the mental and physical health of children and young people through dance. Programmes target those who lack access to physical activity or are at risk of sedentary lifestyles.

The government White Paper, Choosing Health,which sets out increasing physical activity levels of the general population as a key target is the main driver for DAZL's work. In response I have developed the  programme an obesity prevention initiative which includes DAZL's workand is supported by the city council and Leeds Primary Care Trust(PCT). The programme aims to engage inactive and overweight children and to develop 'a passion for being active' through dance, football, multisports and freesports initiatives. The project's approach includes grassroots development, inclusive teaching styles, and building strong relationship to engage sedentary children. The project also aims toengage parents and families and to link with healthy eating initiatives.

Evidence of the effectiveness of obesity prevention and treatment programmes is lacking, so robust monitoring is important. The Engaging Inactive Children programme is currently being evaluated through a piece of research with Leeds Metropolitan University that involves over 100children's physical activity levels being monitored using actigraphs.These highly sensitive pedometers provide accurate data on how active children are and will help evaluate the programme's effectiveness in increasing overall activity levels.

DAZL plans to develop a weight management project working in partnership with the nationally acclaimed Watch It programme. It offers a treatment service for overweight children and young people that includes food advice, group counselling and physical activity programmes. DAZL plans to offer an intensive four-week summer programme and year round twice weekly dance sessions to increase the intensity of physical activity on the programme. The dance programme should also improve mental health by increasing confidence, self esteem and positive body image.

The key approach DAZL takes is to work within youth culture. Starting with what young people enjoy, and through offering dance styles like streetdance, cheerleading and breakdance, DAZL has been highly successful at engaging young people from disadvantaged communities. It has established 17 youth dance groups and 10 after school programmes in South Leeds and last year engaged over 500 children and young people in regular dance activity.

The project also works within the principles of community development, particularly training local people to deliver the dance programmes in their own communities and DAZL's Dance Facilitator Ian Rodley's pathway illustrates the community development approach well. Ian lives on the Belle Isle Housing Estate in South Leeds, one of the disadvantaged communities targeted by DAZL. He started attending a DAZL after school project seven years ago which ignited his interest in dance. He trained through the Youth Dance Leadership training course which DAZL delivered for local people and then chose to go and study further at college. He was supported by DAZL to set up his own youth dance project, Escape Youth Dance Company,which has been running successfully in the area for 4 years. He now works for DAZL delivering an extensive dance programme funded by the Youth Service engaging at risk young people.

His success rate at engaging young people is such that he was dubbed the 'Pied Piper of young people' by local youth workers. This seems to be due to a number of factors: his understanding of local youth culture, his social networks in this close knit community and being a role model that young people can relate to. The trust built up through Ian's dance work allows him to engage and support many disaffected, hard to reach young people. Alongside the dance sessions he provides informal support for his dance group members in a variety of ways including signposting them to counselling, sexual health and education advice. As the first person in his family to go to university he has encouraged other young people and even his mother into further education!

To make a difference to the health needs of young people, sustaining their involvement in the longer term is vital. DAZL employs a range of approaches of which working towards shows and competitions is one important element. Our dance leaders aim to ensure there is always a goal. Setting personal best challenges around fitness, flexibility or agility (sometimes with prizes and incentives) helps too. Developing great relationships within the groups and with other groups is another big factor. The DAZL dance leadership training promotes team building and inclusive approaches as a priority. Listening to what young people want and being prepared to respond is also crucial. This has meant that one youth dance group's programme shifted from street dance to cheerleading to contemporary/street fusion over a two-year period.

DAZL's programme has been recognised as a model of good practice by Leeds PCT who now plan to roll out the programme to new target areas across the city as part of the implementation of the Childhood Obesity Strategy for Leeds.

Dance has an important part to play in the emerging healthy living agenda. Raising the profile of dance will be crucial as public sector organisations will tend to think physical activity means sports and may overlook dance. It is an exciting time for dance organisations to engage with the new health agenda and to be proactive in making partnerships with public health services.


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Animated: Winter 2008