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Animated Edition - Winter 2006
Learning through doing
Ruth Till reflects on ten years of the Rubicon Community Dance Apprentice Scheme and unravels the secrets of its success
To date, Rubicon has trained and supported 20 apprentices from as far away as USA, Zimbabwe and Australia, though the need for excellent home-based dance leaders has been its driving force. Launched first as a pilot in 1994, it has run annually ever since.

Initially, the scheme was devised in response to a local potential community dance leader who, for personal reasons, was unable to go away to train. That in itself was, and still is, a valid reason for providing an apprenticeship. However, it wasn't until two years later - when we launched our new dance development programme Cardiff Dance and later Newport Dance - that the shortage of experienced, skilled dance leaders became something of a crisis. Within a relatively short space of time we had an ever growing programme of dance with a wide range of client groups (and an ever growing waiting list) in specific target areas of both cities; a commitment to working regularly and long term with all these groups; of raising standards and of setting high expectations.

So, whilst on the one hand we were facing a shortage of high calibre dance leaders, on the other hand we couldn't have had a better training ground to nurture the best community dance practitioners fit for the twenty-first century. Therein lay the immediate answer to our problems.

Now, some years down the line, the waiting list is smaller, five ex-apprentices are working with us, all ex-apprentices are working with or within the sector, some still in Wales. We have refined the programme. We have been through the NVQ tunnel and come out the other end. Some years ago Rubicon achieved Investors in People status and this has impacted on the way we care for our staff, and that includes apprentices.

The scheme is led by Tracey Brown, Dance Development Leader, and supported by all the Rubicon staff. Tracey is an inspired and experienced dance leader and has earned well-deserved respect across the sector. Since taking responsibility for the apprentice scheme she has shown equal inspiration in the role of trainer.

The apprentices have come from a variety of different backgrounds, and generally not just dance training or performance. They have many other skills to offer which they can bring to community dance.

For example, Robin came as a mature student. His background was in personnel so he has good managing people skills. He had a passion for tap dance and Appalachian dance, but when he did the apprentice scheme he discovered a real talent for working creatively with elderly groups and groups with high support needs. He now has his own groups at Rubicon and elsewhere.

Lauriel was a full-time student with us before going to John Moores University to do a BA Honours dance degree. She then came back as an apprentice and is now working freelance across Cardiff and Newport. As Lauriel says, she needed the degree course to develop knowledge, theory and choreographic skills, but it was the hands on day to day practical work-shadowing that helped her make that quantum leap to being employable as a community dance worker. A head teacher from a school where she has just started introducing dance, wrote: 'Lauriel is a breath of fresh air in school. She has developed excellent relationships with staff and children. She has gone out of her way to learn names and uses many positive behavioural strategies to gain trust, respect and positive dance attitudes.'

So what is so special about the apprentice scheme? How is it different to a dance leader's course or a degree, other than in length? Well, it is totally focussed on the individual: there are seldom more than two apprentices at any one time so they have our very best attention. Training within an active community dance organisation has to be the most relevant training they can get. They experience community dance in practice dance day in, day out, with a wide range of groups in almost every possible setting, enabling them to find the groups they are best working with and where their particular skills lie. They learn that each group is different and requires a different approach, even if those groups are two primary schools next door to each other. They experience the ups and downs of finding the best ways that participants can achieve through dance. They progress as and when they are ready, though we do push them hard and there is an ongoing support structure even when they finish the year.

One of the most interesting and more recent developments has been the support for the apprentices from the bank of contacts who use our services: head teachers and teachers, day centre managers, carers, physiotherapists etc. They not only offer detailed feedback but also provide short placements in their own centres. Our apprentices then get a broader experience of the groups they will work with operating in their own surroundings. For example, they might spend a day in a special school work-shadowing a teacher, or time in a day care centre working alongside the carers. Apprentices find this invaluable: they learn the importance of getting 'under the skin' of the centres where we work and the participants with whom we work.

Apprentices join us full-time for a year though they can join us part time over a longer period depending on circumstances and need. There are three stages to their development.

To start with they work-shadow. Apprentices have a full timetable - about 5 sessions daily across both cities - to include a wide range of client groups. At this stage they simply have to be there, join in fully, get their energy levels raised, build their stamina and get used to going from session to session, such as from a primary school to an elderly group to a special school to a youth dance group. They learn that each group expects the best and they have to give a hundred per cent even if it is the last session of the day. They have weekly meetings with Tracey who discusses every session in detail. They meet and talk with the contacts in the various venues and get to know the participants, understand the context in which each group operates and what the expectations are. They may begin to lead small parts of sessions supported by their leader.

When they are ready to move forward, each apprentice will discuss which kind of groups they believe they could work with best and where their interests lie. Their timetable is adapted accordingly. It is still a full schedule but more specifically honed to their individual skills. The weekly meetings continue, as do the developing relationships with the key contacts for each group. As and when they are ready they will lead longer sections of sessions, still under the guidance of the dance leader. Feedback is thorough and absolutely detailed, covering the moment of arrival at a venue, to a group entering the room, to registers and health and safety issues to suitability of content, group management, music, pace, language, dress, manner - every small detail that can make or break a session. Back at Rubicon they will look at wider organisational issues such as programming and all its different aspects, funding, setting up and managing partnerships.

At the third stage, leadership time will increase until apprentices are leading full sessions. They get direct feedback from some of the groups (through a series of guided questions) and from the contacts - who have clear expectations. At this stage, all the activity still takes place with comprehensive guidance from Tracey and the dance leaders. Apprentices will assist in any performance schedules from programming the event right through to the end result. They will also help with the regular programming, particularly with Cardiff Dance and Newport Dance. They attend management committee meetings and are invited to contribute to all wider issue discussions. The additional training days, as already mentioned, will be set up in schools and relevant centres as and when appropriate.

Some apprentices are ready to take on their own sessions before the end of their year. Some may need longer, particularly if they are with us on a part time basis. Once they are ready we will bring them onto the programme or help them set up sessions of their own as freelance leaders. Generally we encourage them to lead short-term projects to start with; the long-term commitments generally require more experience, though that isn't always the case. The support from Rubicon doesn't stop: someone will visit their sessions, get feedback from the contacts and still meet with them regularly to discuss their progress and still in minute detail. Text messaging is invaluable. As everyone is always on the go and timetables are all different it is generally impossible to phone and check how a session went, but through text messages, an apprentice (now freelance community dance practitioner) can give and get an immediate response. It can be really lonely going out and about on your own, and if something goes well or even not so well, it's important to be able to share it as soon as possible with someone who understands the elation, or the panic and can respond as necessary.

The Rubicon ex-apprentices become very much an integral part of the organization, which apart from simply being part of a team includes continuing professional development specifically geared to their needs. This could be a day at Pineapple in London, or a visit to a similar programme with another dance organization, whatever is exciting, challenging and, above all, absolutely up to date. Being a community dance practitioner in today's culture is no easy option. It's a highly skilled, demanding profession and our practitioners need all the support we can offer.

Ruth Till is the Director of Rubican Dance in Cardiff contact 029 2043 6330 / visit

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Animated: Winter 2006