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Animated Edition - Summer 2006
Dance for life
Nikki Crane was featured in the Independent newspaper as one of '40 women under 40 who will shape Britain in business and the arts' (1). As a result of the partnership she established with the Youth Justice Board, Nikki has produced Arts Council England's first strategy for the arts and youth justice. This partnership has to date raised over three million pounds from the Youth Justice Board, lottery funds and other agencies. A 2005/2006 juror on the BAFTA and Grierson awards, she has also produced and presented for television - bringing ground-breaking arts projects to the attention of the general public - through documentaries and interviews with independent film companies and the BBC. Underpinning her firm commitment to education and public access to the arts is dance, which she likens to the air that she breathes. Here she explains...
As far back as I can remember, I have been dancing - picking up the baton from my mother - one who had no formal training but who, by all accounts, danced in the meadows near her home in Lincolnshire and, from an early age, entertained those who came to the house with spectacular tap-dancing routines. Her love of dance sprang quite simply from a joie de vivre, not to mention a large of dose of exhibitionism, all of which have rubbed off on me.

I relish the frivolous side of dance - even now, it is not uncommon for my mother and I to break into a high-kicking chorus-line number in the kitchen while cooking. I do feel that I missed my vocation somewhere. And with my dance-trained friends, reminiscences of early Martha Graham training always seem to lead in one direction - the re-enactment of that most painful of contortions (complete with anguished look) - 'contraction' and 'release'. This is followed of course by a spot of choreographic experimentation... I can still hear one of my improvisation teachers saying 'what other surface could you lead with dear?' This is all about the sheer, unadulterated JOY of dance - the heavier stuff comes later.

I trained at Laban - a serious business that stood me in good stead for all that has followed. Ballet and contemporary techniques were the staple diet and I found both a struggle, mentally and physically. It was soon clear that classical ballet would never be for me in the long term - Sylphs, Wilis, Nymphs and Swans were all too ethereal and the technique was far too rule-driven. As for contemporary - I just didn't get it at the time - it all seemed a bit rarefied and obscure. I wanted to find something more human, more immediate - and it came... in the discovery of flamenco - of all places in Scunthorpe. It was here that I took up my first professional post as Dance Animateur for South Humberside (I have a habit of acquiring strange titles) and faced the daunting task of promoting dance in the community. In the course of this work, I met two inspirational teachers, Elena and Eduardo (otherwise known as Helen and Edward) who spent their time teaching flamenco in a local church hall. For the first time I was given full license to explore my raw emotions through dance while striving to master flamenco's fiendish technique. I had moved in one small step from 'contraction' to 'release' and it was like opening the flood gates - I had arrived, I had found a life-time's companion. Flamenco and all that it stands for continues to teach me so much of what I need to know in life and hence it is a lifetime's study.

It was also in Scunthorpe that I discovered how much dance had to offer to so many people - from the over 50s keep-fit groups to tea dancers, break-dancers to young adults with learning difficulties, young people at risk to Scunthorpe United footballers who I coached for over a year. All were caught up unselfconsciously in the business of dance but few of them concerned themselves with whether this was the arts or not and how to classify the dance they were doing. This was a refreshing release from an arts world which I perceived, even then, as being riven with artificial divisions - amateur versus professional; community dance versus mainstream dance (whatever that is); high art versus 'so-called' low art and so on. These community groups came together in the showcases that we ran each year and saw each other perform - there was a sense of community that came through dancing together - never mind the age gap or any cultural barriers.

So Scunthorpe was the best training ground I could have had. From there I moved on to a more strategic role working for many years as Dance Officer for Arts Council England. I still dance once or twice a week at local classes and I need this outlet like the air that I breathe. It helps me to keep life in balance - physical, mental, emotional and spiritual - it's a dance of head and heart. Much of every day life can be dehumanising and there is nothing like dance to help reintegrate us and remind us of a world elsewhere.

I count my blessings that I have experienced dance from so many perspectives. Writing about it - unforgettable days with Alastair Macaulay learning the art of dance criticism and developing my understanding of aesthetics. Jazz, tango, street, folk, ballroom and Kalari martial art - I've played with all of these along the way. Dance has led me across cultural boundaries and made nonsense of all the barriers we put up. My love of Indian, Spanish and Egyptian dance in particular has brought me together with life-long friends and taken me to these countries - and through dance we have shared so many other things, especially food!

I have enjoyed the exhilaration of performance but the richest experience of all has been teaching and promoting dance - from working with beginners in many community settings, to young offenders and with psychiatric patients and the elderly. Like so many others with the same passion, I have carried dance like a torch and with relative ease it has spread as if through a bush fire. People are so ready, so receptive if you can just tune in to what provides the spark for them and where they want to go with it. We have so much to learn from the communities with which we work, the people we teach, our audiences and I'm not sure that we always listen attentively enough.

Teaching dance has been a training for life and the dance I have shared with others has shaped me in all that I am and all that I do - probably most evident to me in my current work where I certainly live by my wits and need to draw on extra resources from somewhere deep within. My experiences with dance have turned me away from being a passive recipient in the arts, to demand more and I don't expect others to be passive recipients either. Dance has always been at the forefront of participatory activity. It has had to find its way deep into the heart of communities, as it has been unsupported, relatively speaking, by the bigger institutions and infrastructure common to other arts forms - opera houses, concert halls, galleries - and we have all learnt from this way of working. The experience of dance has kept me in touch with people at a very personal level - something we miss very quickly as we move into strategic roles. I still feel I can tap into this, which gives me the courage to do the job that I do - often working with those in the most traumatic of circumstances. Dance helps me find that balance between the rational and the intuitive; it has sharpened my perceptions and above all has helped me maintain my vitality.

So there is the intrinsic love of dance but what I want to go on learning more about is its power in changing lives. I'm now Head of Social Inclusion at Arts Council England (another of those titles) but this doesn't mean that I see dance (or other art forms) as a production line for social change. However, I'm in no doubt that dance shapes individual spirits, experience and perceptions in ways that can empower people to change. Dance can offer a combination of revelation AND escapism, as well as delivering hard skills. There has been much emphasis in the past on diversionary activity for example with young offenders - yes this is important up to a point but it is much more about what the arts help reveal, about ourselves and others and the world around us. The arts can help us to see differently. I heard one young man saying to a dance artist, following a particularly intensive dance project - 'thank you for introducing us to ourselves'. Dance introduces us to ourselves but also to others through touch, trust and communication at the most basic level.

I am now in the fortunate position of being on sabbatical for six months and having the time to reflect on the remarkable experiences I have been through, especially over the last decade. As part of this, I am working with a number of independent television production companies to realise some of my ideas for arts documentaries. Currently, I am in the throes of making a film featuring Dance United working in Holloway prison and with Bradford Youth Offending Team. Dance United is a company highly experienced in setting up programmes in these contexts and adept at making their own films, mainly for the purposes of recording their work and raising the profile of what they do, which has been a highly effective strategy. Working with film has been a great opportunity for me to once more focus on dance and to keenly observe it from another angle, through the camera lens. I have watched how, even in the most extreme situations, dance will demonstrate its power to cut through all the seemingly impossible obstacles, connect with the most disconnected and bring around the most recalcitrant professionals. I've watched it 'infect' people, bring hope and set up a positive chain reaction that can have remarkable outcomes in the some of the most depressing of environments. Dance United sets extremely high standards, running counter to much of what is often dealt out to excluded young people - and they achieve these with profound results for all involved - the artists and other professionals as well as the young people themselves.

It's not about dance teaching lessons for dance but dance teaching lessons for life. I live off this resource and I look upon it as a faithful teacher. I don't need it to live but I need it to be fully alive.

Nikki Crane is Head of Social Inclusion at Arts Council England and can be contacted on Nikki.crane@artscouncil.org.uk

Reference
(1) Independent Newspaper (1989) 40 women under 40. London: Independent News and Media Limited

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Animated: Summer 2006