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Animated Edition - Autumn 2008
Marriage on the rocks?
Carol Brown, Artistic Director of TAN Dance, on why she has kept her 'love affair' with community dance alive
I have been involved with community dance for nearly 30 years. Did I begin working in the sector as a job or did I view it as a career? For me it has been both but really it is more like a love affair. An unexpected marriage - not the partner I had in mind.

The community dance movement in Wales began in Cardiff and I discovered it while it was still in its infancy. What I learned there seemed to be launching me into a career in dance as a teacher and choreographer and occasional performer. A professional career in the performing arts had always been my dream, and it was happening, but changes in my personal circumstances necessitated a stable income and so I looked for a 'job'. The job was Dance Animateur for West Glamorgan and over the past 22 years I grew the post into a community dance organisation currently with three offices, six office staff and a team of around 20 part-time tutors.
The job had become a career. Most of what I had wished for myself as a professional artist was possible and so much more besides. Apart from all the rewarding moments that anyone who is involved in community dance has experience of, I learned to be a manager and the director of a company and charity as well as a myriad of other skills needed to keep an arts organisation afloat and successful.

Having been around so long and also just finishing my two years as Chair of Community Dance Wales I have a pretty broad overview of the sector here. Do the community dance workers in Wales think they have a job or a career? I can't speak for all of them but I know that there is much insecurity and that, despite believing in the work, many people are struggling to stay in the sector and lead the kind of lives that they would like.

Few make a good living in comparison to other sectors. One of the few moments when I felt like leaving this unexpected (but ultimately very happy) marriage was when I saw a TV item in the 1990s about gas showroom assistants and realised they earned the same as me - only they went home at a decent hour, had pension schemes and didn't have to raise funds for their own pay. Despite our consistently good track record of delivering local and national government agendas as well as some wonderful art we are not in an improving situation. We have learned to be political and to advocate persuasively for our value both artistically and socially yet despite a very positive outcome to the Welsh Assembly Government review of dance in Wales the community dance sector currently feels increasingly vulnerable as money gets tighter. We prove ourselves time and time again but it doesn't make us safe because what we do is still not valued enough.

The kind of client groups we work with couldn't pay for the service we give. By our very nature we are a public service and public services need subsidy. We are also art and art has needed subsidy since ancient Greece. During a recent company review we looked at forming a commercial arm but so far our few pilot projects have taken up too much time away from our real mission, for too little return. We do have transferable skills and transferable product but to do well in the commercial world you have to be competitive and devote time and money to making your mark. It is sad that successful and respected community dance organisations have to look at ways of becoming financially stable that takes them away from their core purpose.
I, and my staff, waste thousands of pounds of public money every year chasing funds to stay afloat and deliver our programmes in the community. Revenue funding doesn't allow for adequate staffing, realistic pay levels and the delivery of a programme for the community, so money has to be sought elsewhere. Over the past few years I have noticed an alarming decrease in the percentage of awards from the trusts and foundations we apply to with some only able to give to 6-10% of applicants in each round. This means that 90% of applicants are wasting their time. Many of them are well written applications for excellent projects giving 'jobs' to many community dance workers.

If there were a paradigm shift in the way arts is funded we would be better able to move from short term jobs to careers with proper career paths. This may sound like cloud cuckoo land but if I wasn't the kind of person who thinks that anything is possible I wouldn't have stayed in this sector so long!

As there is little job security, few possibilities for 'promotion' and pay increases and the work is hard and challenging maybe we shouldn't be wondering if it's a job or a career; maybe the right word is vocation. There used to be a perception about nurses' pay that inferred that because their career was a vocation decent salaries weren't that important to them. That myth has been exploded. Who's going to explode ours? How many research projects and papers have to be written extolling and proving the value of community arts and their importance in society before adequately funding us becomes a statutory obligation for local and national government?

I am now a pensioner. Still dancing, but certainly an elder of community dance. I do feel a certain amount of burnout after so many years of fighting against the odds but despite all the difficulties it has been a wonderful career. It just needs to be made easier for us to do what we do so well and assurance that we can continue to do it.

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Animated: Autumn 2008