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Animated Edition - Autumn 2004
International exchange
Cath Sims reveals how Ludus Dance hosted an international youth dance exchange, helping to pursue a long-held aspiration to develop their community work internationally

It is as the two groups of young people first lay eyes on each other, which is the most exciting, anxious and highly anticipated moment of the entire exchange for me. It is here that they eagerly 'check each other out', dying to see who they will be meeting, dancing and hopefully making friends with, over the next week. The timetable is arranged, the numerous parental forms have been signed and the welcome dance has been choreographed, but nothing can prepare both the dance leaders and young people for this moment of greeting. Will their expectations be met? Are the group how they pictured them to be?

Planning and hosting international youth dance exchanges has undoubtedly been an exciting development for Ludus Dance. Over the years, the Touring Company has travelled abroad to numerous countries, where they have performed and led one off education projects. This particular project, with a group of young dancers from Bulgaria, is the first international community dance exchange project the company has been involved in and has since led to other successful exchanges.

For many years it has been an aspiration of the company's community dance artists to develop their work internationally, but for numerous reasons, this has been difficult to achieve. One of the biggest hurdles has been finding willing and suitable international partners. Where to start? Relationships between organisations do not happen over night. It can be difficult enough to develop relationships with regional partners, never mind with organisations from another country.

It was by chance that we came across the British Council's Connect Youth website. Connect Youth is the UK national agency for the European Youth Programme. It enables organisations to find partners via their database and to fund exchanges. We immediately put ourselves on the database, however we were aware that lots of the other organisations were not involved in the arts and definitely not in dance.

Within weeks of registering, we were delighted to receive a phone call from our soon to be partners from Bulgaria. The beauty of going on an international database is not knowing where your partners will come from and whether they want to host or visit. If I am honest, I think we were imagining ourselves leading workshops in a beautiful coastal village in sunny Italy and had not considered that the exchange might actually happen in not so sunny Lancaster. That aside, we were really excited that we might have found a potential partner organisation.

The Bulgarian group were part of an organisation called Friends of the World, who specialise in bringing young people from different cultures together. They had recently completed a folk dance project in Silistra in northern Bulgaria, which they hoped to develop further, by taking the group to the UK. The first telephone calls were very difficult, Kery the Bulgarian leader spoke very little English and I did not know a single Bulgarian word. Email became the best form of communication.

Having found somebody interested in taking part in an exchange, it was then hard to establish if our respective aims and ethos were compatible. We sent each other lots of literature about our organisations and the young people, but in the end, had to trust our instincts. The next hurdle was deciding if we could actually do this.

We were concerned about how to fit in organising such a project. The community development team at Ludus Dance have so many regular, weekly commitments - parent and toddler sessions, after-school clubs and adult contemporary to name just a few - that the thought of planning and hosting an international exchange seemed a huge commitment. It was a defining moment for the team, when in one of our regular meetings we all decided to go for it.

The funding application process was relatively simple. The British Council provides clear guidelines on how to complete the application and the contact details of a regional coordinator, who can give further advice. The most difficult thing was getting detailed information from our partner organisation. It was important that we both agreed on the timetable of activities, what each group would share and found out basic information about the participants. Kery was only able to receive emails in the evening: she would show them to her English teacher, who would translate them and then reply. It could be a lengthy process.

Funding secured, we were ready to start the planning. It was decided that the Bulgarian group would travel to Lancaster in May. They were a group of nineteen young people, aged between fifteen and twenty years. Some of the group, were from Silistra, a town in North East Bulgaria, they attended regular folk dance classes and had performed many times. The other half of the group, were from small rural villages on the Bulgarian/Romanian border. Although geographically they lived very close, they were from different cultures and rarely interacted with each other. Historically they had remained separate. Their initial project was about bringing these two cultures together through dance. From what we could gather, this had been a success. The two groups travelled to Lancaster. Our group was made up of nineteen young people from across Lancashire. Although they had met a couple of times before the exchange, they were not an established group. Many of them were members of our regular youth groups.

During the exchange many activities were planned. Both groups were to perform separately at the Lancashire Youth Dance Showcase at the Charter Theatre in Preston. This is a regular Ludus community event, where over one hundred and fifty young people from the county's different youth groups come together to perform. Both groups would dance together in the Preston Afro Caribbean Carnival, watch the Touring Company perform, go on a day trip to Blackpool and finally perform a piece which they would create together at the Nuffield Theatre in Lancaster.

Soon after the Bulgarian group arrived, the groups danced together for the first time and immediately the cultural differences between them came particularly apparent. The Bulgarian group played traditional instruments and performed some of their traditional dances. Their whole group joined in. It was not one of their set choreographed pieces, but a series of dances which they do at social events. It was fantastic to see the group dance and perform together so naturally. The UK group was captivated by it and were soon learning new steps and joining in.

Soon the Bulgarian group looked to our group to perform some of our traditional dances. Panic stricken the British young people did not know what to do. They had their contemporary dance piece, which they were to perform at the showcase, but it was clear that was not appropriate in this social situation. This posed a number of interesting questions for us about how unaware young people here are of traditional cultural dances. From chatting with them, it was fascinating to realise that they were aware of dances from different cultures and countries, mainly through artists leading sessions in their schools or through organisations such as Ludus. Many of them had learnt traditional African dances or Indian dance, but very few were aware of any traditional British dances.

We were to discover many cultural differences as the exchange continued, especially in relation to our understanding of community dance. The Bulgarian group were used to a stricter, more didactic style of facilitation. We watched videos of their dance classes, which involved the young people standing in rows, wearing uniforms, with the teacher shouting instructions from the front and the group learning and demonstrating difficult set sequences. It optimised the notion of the 'professional' model. I was aware of the sharp intake of breath from the Ludus Community Dance Artists as the Bulgarian dance teacher announced to the whole group, which of their group was the best dancer and then placed them in order of ability.

We were anxious about how the Bulgarian group would respond to our sessions and how the two groups would work together. Initially this was no problem. Both groups enjoyed the inclusive warm ups and movement games. The Bulgarian group responded particularly well to the physicality of the contemporary movements and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to explore their own movement vocabulary. They did find it difficult to move away from the steps they were familiar with.

It was a challenge getting both groups to work together, mainly because of the language barrier. They found it frustrating not being able to explain their ideas; it took a few days for them to create their own way of communicating and expressing themselves. The dance artists leading the sessions had to be particularly energetic and constantly maintain enthusiasm to ensure the groups remained motivated. At times, the Bulgarian group would take advantage of the way our artists led the sessions, which was not always didactic. They were not used to making any decisions of their own in dance sessions at home or taking responsibility for creating material and would therefore think it was acceptable to wander off for a cigarette as soon as they were left to develop a task alone. However, what was great to see was the way that they soon realised that this was not appropriate, they could see the rest of the group involved in the task and started to respect this new way of working.

Creating the piece for the final performance was incredibly exciting. This was the first time that the two groups truly integrated and worked as a company. The piece they created together was based on their experiences of the exchange and fused, Contemporary, traditional Bulgarian Folk dance and Break and Street dance styles.

The Ludus Dance Development Team learnt a lot about working with young people during this exchange. It inspired everyone to consider their own practise and how important clear communication is and the different ways this can be achieved. It re-affirmed our passion for community dance with young people and how important it is to involve them in the creative process, enabling them to experience ownership of the work. It also made us even more aware, that wherever young people are from and whatever their life experiences are, they do share many of the same interests, problems and dreams.

I have to admit that initially I was sceptical about how successful the 'language of dance' could be in uniting these two groups. I wanted to believe it, but especially at the beginning of the exchange I was concerned that this was a cliché that was often used in funding applications for international dance projects, but did not work in reality. However, although it did take a lot of hard work and skilled facilitation, the two groups did work very well together and created beautiful work, which celebrated both their similarities and differences. It was incredibly rewarding to see how much all the young people developed over the week. It was great that they had a unique insight into each other's cultures and hopefully had made new friends.

This has led to other international community projects for Ludus, including an exchange with a group of young women in Cairo. An exchange with Poland is due to take place in 2005.

Cath Sims is Head of Dance Development for Ludus Dance, email or visit the company website at or see for more information about Connect Youth.

Ludus Dance Company was established in 1975 from a base in Lancaster and today consists of a touring dance company and a community development team - and is a partner in the National Dance Agency for the North West. The touring company teach and perform in schools throughout Britain and have also toured internationally. The community development team works with all sections of the community in Lancashire and through out the North West region. Ludus has a commitment to creating total accessibility to dance for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds through education, participation and recreation. The Ludus Dance practise reaches across barriers of race, ability, gender and poverty to encourage enjoyment in the arts and to stimulate aspects of learning with in the national curriculum and lifelong learning within the community.

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Animated: Autumn 2004