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Animated Edition - Spring 2005
Dance for Life
Cathy Middleton on dancing for life in Bradford
Dance for Life started in January 1992, created by the Heart Health Strategy group (HHS) formed to address the severe problem of premature death from coronary heart disease in the city. At that time, the mortality rate from coronary heart disease was 30% higher in Bradford than the rest of England and Wales.

Members came from Bradford Council and Bradford NHS Health Promotion Service. At this time one of the group attended a conference on young people's physical activity at Exeter University where Dr. Neil Armstrong's research showed that teenage girls were significantly less active than boys of the same age. Armstrong also found that if girls were physically active, one of their favourite activities was dance. This evidence, along with the fact that Bradford had, and still has, a high youth population (25% across the district), led the HHS group to plan a project to engage young people in physical activity in an innovative way. The group felt that if nothing was done about poor physical activity levels amongst girls particularly, the future looked very bleak for the health of the city.

The initial aim of the project was to engage children aged 9 - 18 years, particularly girls, in aerobic dance activities that would develop stamina and hopefully contribute to cardiac health in the long term. One of the main target groups was girls from black and ethnic minority communities, whose communities faced an even higher risk factor for coronary heart disease (CHD) than the rest of the population of the district. There is no clear evidence to say why this is, but it is believed to be related to a diet that has a high saturated fat content (through using ghee for cooking, for example). Health workers are seeking to address this issue by training communities to use vegetable oil instead of ghee and to introduce more fresh vegetables, salads and fruit into the diet. Also these communities tend not to access exercise opportunities in the city. Diabetes is a real problem along with obesity, high blood pressure and CHD. Dance for Life along with other projects such as BEEP (referred to later) are working really hard to find ways of encouraging physical activity with these groups.

So the Heart Health Strategy Group sought and found funding to set up a dance and health project to engage young people, particularly girls from ethnic minorities in physical activity. Out of the six funding streams, the main funders were, the Sports Council (now Sport England) and Yorkshire Arts (now Arts Council England, Yorkshire), the Directorate of Housing and Environmental Protection and Bradford Health Promotion Service. The finance was in place for 3 years.

I was employed to run the project. My aim was to bring Dance for Life to as many young people as possible in the first year. To do this I delivered a variety of dance activities in education and community settings, with the emphasis on making the sessions aerobic, to make hearts stronger; creative to challenge the minds; and most of all fun so they would want more. In 1992 I ran our first summer school for 43 children with members of RJC Dance Theatre, organised dance sessions for over 500 children in the summer play schemes and worked with 1,500 children over the year. We now have 100 children doing the summer school, and over 4,500 dancing through the year.

It became clear to me that dance had the potential to do far more than encourage young people to be active. Encouraging them to make the right choices and to deal creatively with issues relevant to them, was a more potent and valuable means of ensuring the health of these young people. Getting them active was only part of the story.

It was more important to change hearts and minds and encourage them to take responsibility for their own health as they grew up. The physical benefits of dance as a physical activity were proven: it developed both physical and social skills and increased fitness. But being creative and performing had the potential to develop the child, and to encourage an independence of mind that I felt was crucial to develop young people's spirit. These two aspects alone could contribute to raising confidence levels and developing a sense of self. Dance sessions included discussions with the children about health issues and the reasons why people were unhealthy in spite of all the knowledge at our disposal. Here, smoking was a clear example to illustrate that we all had to work at being healthy and that it was hard to kick an addictive habit.

The project targeted children from inner city areas. Although all sections of the community accessed Dance for Life in curriculum time, children from black and ethnic minority communities tended not to access out of school hours projects in youth clubs or summer schools. This was addressed by working with schools in ethnic minority communities to set up after school sessions for parents and teachers. This way I reached a community that was hard to reach. Mothers began to see for themselves the benefits of dance and exercise and brought their teenage daughters along. Sometimes whole family groups would attend the same session. Along with setting up lunchtime sessions in schools and girls only clubs at weekends, this method helped Dance for Life to exceed our targets for these communities. (Currently 45% of Dance for Life's participants are from these communities).

By 1999, and several successful funding applications later, Bradford Council made me a permanent member of staff. That brought the project more stability. Now the budget could go further, more dancers could be employed and we expanded. Thanks to Bradford NHS and Bradford Council, jointly funded grants have enabled us to employ community dance development workers to plan, organise and develop work in the district. Different government funding streams finance two discrete dance projects in different parts of the city. This has made a huge impact to the activity levels of these local communities.

We tend to work locally to achieve the most benefit for individual groups. This way we are able to work with local people and organisations that are in the same business as us, developing healthier communities. We work in partnership, helping and supporting each other to set up and maintain groups. This relationship could be as simple as providing a group wanting to dance, to providing a venue free of charge or dietary advice and weight management alongside the dance. All our work with young people with different needs has been developed through voluntary organisations and in partnership with the youth service, theatres and Bradford Festival.

In 1999 Dance for Life reviewed itself and sought new ways of working. The team had achieved great things over the first seven years. Thousands of children had been introduced to dance and were getting hooked into physical activity. Our original aim, to encourage teenage girls to be more active and to help prevent them becoming victims of CHD in later life, has developed into a much broader, holistic and effective one than was initially envisaged.

However I was aware that I wasn't using a valuable resource to its full potential - the dancers. I formulated an idea to encourage and inspire young people to dance even more by letting them see professional performances in their own communities. And so 2000 started with a new look and Stance Dance Company.

With a rare under spend, we formed a company of four dancers, two men and two women, commissioned a choreographer, and Stance was born. The success of the company was greater than I had imagined. Most of the children who saw them perform in their school had never seen contemporary dance before, and certainly had never been confronted with dancers who performed stunning, athletic dance that challenged them to think seriously about their own attitudes and behaviour. Their first piece, called 'What 'you looking at?' addressed the issue of bullying and peer-pressure. By participating in the follow up discussion and workshops pupils experienced the excitement of contemporary and creative dance but also addressed their own feelings. During April 2002 - September 2004 6,125 children have seen Stance perform and 4,055 have participated in workshops. Through four pieces of repertoire these children have had the opportunity to question their own aims and ambitions, their own feelings about their identity and their place in the society they live in, as well as experience the joy and challenge of contemporary dance. Although funding has now finished, we are positive that Stance will become bigger and better given the right partnerships and financial support.

In the last four years Dance for Life's localised approach has been most effective with the GP referral scheme BEEP (Bradford Encouraging Exercising People). This gap in provision was filled partly due to parents' eagerness to dance on seeing their children perform. We actively targeted adults through BEEP. Now about 20% of our participants annually are adults, which is about 1200 people. These 1200 people have been referred for being overweight, having CHD, arthritis, diabetes or depression. They also self refer as a result of positive reports from friends and family. Participants range from their late 20's to mid 80's. This work has been set up in partnership with BEEP, Primary Care Trusts and other health projects, and is growing. Some people attend three sessions a week, and our evaluation shows that they are not only getting fitter, but they feel well and positive, are better co-ordinated, more flexible and more confident.

A combination of yoga, Pilates and contemporary dance has proved popular with council and health employees. Although not aerobic and not specifically promoting cardiac health it is nevertheless helping to address stress in people's lives, enabling them to feel calm, relaxed and energised. So it is still addressing heart health but in a different way.

Training includes Dance Leader in the Community Courses to develop the community skills infrastructure, and INSET training for teachers to support the work in schools, along with support material through Stance. Dance Worker training days are also run to unite the dancers in developing a consistency of approach that will ensure good and effective practice throughout the project.

Developing confidence and a strong sense of self has been a key feature of Dance for Life from the outset. Using the content and context of the dance class to promote both children's and adults' ability and desire to take control of their lives is integral to the ethos of the project. From looking at heart health to total health and well being, Dance for Life has expanded to address health inequalities in the Bradford district over the last thirteen years. With the right financial support and the willingness of statutory organisations to underpin an effective project, there is no reason why the Dance for Life Project cannot continue dancing for life.

Latest statistics show that premature death from CHD has reduced to almost the same level as the national average. Although Dance for Life cannot claim that it has single-handedly made Bradford a healthier place, along with other health projects and an exemplary tradition of partnership working we are all working together to create a 'Healthier Nation'.

Cathy Middleton is Project Manager for Dance for Life. Contact or visit for more information.

Useful References:

'Government Response to the Department of Culture Media and Sport Select Committee Report on Arts Development - Dance [HG587] Session 2003 - 04' which recommends that 'the Government should investigate further how it can increase benefits through participation in dance' (para 46)

The Dept of Health policy document 'National Service Framework for CHD' (2000)

'Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology - Health Benefits of Physical Activity' (White Paper, Oct 2001 no 162)

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Animated: Spring 2005