The UK development organisation and membership
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Animated Edition - Summer 2005
Peer pleasure
East London Dance programme manager Polly Risbridger takes a Leap of Faith over older people dancing
Leap of Faith is a dance and performance group for people aged fifty and over that is run by East London Dance. Its members have been dancing together for about five years, with new recruits joining most terms. Throughout that time they've worked with a range of artists and choreographers, including Ann Dickie, Jasmine Pasch, Jamie Watton and Lisa Kendall. It's a very diverse group of people, aged between 52 and 91, with a variety of backgrounds and interests.

There is Esther, who has just finished a course in counselling at the age of 64, and Ken and Frank, whose great shared passion in life is Jamaican Quadrille dancing (and the occasional glass of rum). Rose jokes with me about her stories of late nights and younger men. Ely, an ex-circus performer, travels across London for over an hour to be a part of the group. Julian, the oldest member at 91, is up on his feet and grooving away as soon as he hears a tune.

What I find exceptional about all of them is their overwhelming desire to stay fit and active and have a bit of fun in the process.

In April 2004 the group started working with dance artist Cheryl McChesney. Together they embarked on Dancing Days, a new project with a two-fold reward. For a start, it gave Leap of Faith an opportunity to progress in its dance and performance skills. Just as importantly, it offered members the chance to become directly involved in the delivery of outreach workshops for their less mobile peers.

Funded by the Newham Healthy Living Network for older people and their carers, Dancing Days was developed by East London Dance and Stratford Circus' Arts in Health programme. The project targeted frail over-60s living in sheltered housing schemes and nursing homes in Newham. Two centres were identified: Daken House, a nursing home housing 42 residents who are all diagnosed with a combination of dementia and other physical illnesses; and Kendon House, a sheltered housing scheme whose more active residents live independently. We were keen to make strong links between Dancing Days and Leap of Faith. Among the main goals of this project were an improvement of the health and well-being, both physically and socially, of all of the older people involved; an accentuation of the role of Leap of Faith as peer motivators; and the celebration and sharing of work by older people's dance groups from across London.

Dancing Days kicked off with a performance at the homes by Leap of Faith, accompanied by an introductory workshop. As a follow-up, each centre took part in weekly workshops. These were delivered by Cheryl and Leap of Faith member Tom Clark, with support from three or four other group members who changed every week. After twelve weeks the project culminated with an event at Stratford Circus for older people and their friends and family. The day showcased performances by older people's dance groups including Leap of Faith, the Lilian Baylis over-60s group Company of Elders, Hammersmith and Fulham's inter-generational group mad.g, East London Dance Integrated Company, as well as the screening of a film by Robert Hylton and Curtis James that was commissioned by Royal Festival Hall Education. Post-performance there was music from a live swing band and, armed with free rum punch and nibbles, the audience was invited to take to the stage and dance.

The Dancing Days showcase lured a whole new audience to Stratford Circus. People who've lived in the area for years were surprised to discover that this venue and cultural centre existed, and delighted to experience an event specifically programmed for them. The sense of community was overwhelming, with people spotting friends they recognised from the borough but hadn't seen for years. It was also very successful at bringing together mature dance groups London-wide to share experiences and see each other's work.

What has been the health impact of the project? An evaluation report, written by Rachel Fell on behalf of the Arts in Health programme, documents the following outcomes for workshop participants:

  • Increased physical and mental self awareness and pro-active behaviour - participants becamenoticeably more aware of their own bodies and safety needs, directing care staff when they needed a rest
  • Improved muscle strength - as a lady from Kendon House said, 'I will miss the exercise. It gets your bum and muscles working. The next day I felt my muscles stretched, but working!'
  • Stimulated mind and memory - the workshops were based on reminiscences about the 1930s and '40s. As Leigh, at Kendon House, remarked, 'Listening to the music reminded me of playing Glenn Miller years ago. It made me want to get up and dance. It's nice to keep the brain alive.'
  • Increased mobility and balance/decreased risk of falling - residents with dementia at Daken House find it hard to recover from falls, as cognitive difficulties render them unable to complete physiotherapy treatment. Dance and movement offer an effective alternative, improving mobility and helping to prevent falls.

Care staff at Daken House report that they've been inspired and invigorated by the project themselves, and are using its ideas to continue working with residents. As the manager noted if staff don't provide physical activity for the residents 'then they stop communicating and become disoriented. They stop making choices and spiral downward from there.' There have also been social benefits as a result of participating in the project. When we first met with Alys Daines, manager at the Newham Healthy Living Network, one of her biggest concerns was residents living in isolation in sheltered housing schemes and not interacting with others. This project tried to address these issues by focusing on social interaction and peer motivation.

The approach and outcomes between the two residential centres varied. At Daken House, where the participants' cognitive abilities were low, the workshops were a multi-sensory experience. Leaders and care staff worked on a one-to-one basis with residents, using touch and props to explore texture, as well as music. Leap of Faith was key in developing a group dynamic at these workshops. The members' energy and vitality lifted the mood in the room immediately. Carers noted that non-verbal communication enabled the dance artists to instantly engage with residents, particularly those who were normally quiet and withdrawn.

At Kendon House a different tack was taken. The challenge for Cheryl, as the dance artist, was to find ways to spark interest in the workshops. At first the residents were extremely reluctant to join in. Leap of Faith was there to motivate and inspire. Again, group member Tom Clark played an important part in supporting Cheryl. As assistant artist he was able to relate to the residents in a different way than Cheryl, using a brand of humour she wouldn't have been able to get away with. It helped that he was closer in age to the residents, but also that he'd grown up and lived in East London his whole life. In fact, he knew some of the residents from years ago.

Leap of Faith really rose to the challenge of acting as peer motivators during all of Dancing Days. As a Kendon House participant said, 'We had a laugh mixing with people. That's the only time we've got to mix together.' In truth, some members of our group found it hard going into a nursing home setting. They saw the deterioration that can happen in old age, making them consider what could be in store for them.

Such sobering experiences, in tandem with the chance Dancing Days afforded of meeting other older people's dance groups, sharpened Leap of Faith's pride in all it has achieved. They've been exposed to new challenges and made significant progress in their dance, performance and leadership skills. They received a rapturous reception following their own performance at Stratford Circus, and have continued to thrive since.

'I'm constantly amazed at their dedication and commitment,' Cheryl says, 'and their fresh approach to dance. It's shown me what's possible as an older person. It was quite challenging working on Dancing Days, particularly in Daken House where I had to pare movement down to its simplest form. Working with Leap of Faith on this project was an absolute inspiration. It allowed me to draw on their skills and develop a very different working style compared to a normal teacher/participant relationship. It really highlighted how active and healthy they are.'

So what's in store for Leap of Faith? East London Dance has recently received three-year funding as part of the Newham Healthy Living Network's bid to the Department of Health's 'Invest to Save' fund. This new project, called Smiling More Often, aims to 'co-ordinate local resources to add value to the delivery of government priorities of promoting physical and mental health in older people.' We've developed a larger-scale Dancing Days project that will be one strand of Smiling More Often. It will enable us to appoint a part-time dance practitioner who will work specifically with older people in Newham, developing and strengthening partnerships with local agencies and referral services. Again we'll tap into the collective energy of Leap of Faith to support delivery and enhance the participants' experience of the project.

The Smiling More Often project must demonstrate how it 'can reduce dependence on the NHS, and contribute to reductions in health spending through reducing GP consultations, prescription of anti-depressants, hospital admissions, and social isolation.' This throws up much room for debate about evaluation methods that, in this case, will be developed by the Newham Healthy Living Network. Here at East London Dance we want to learn from the health sector about developing our monitoring and evaluative methods. We're keen to explore how this project will help us develop our slightly anecdotal evaluations to a more rigorous analysis of data, giving us material with which to argue the importance of arts in health.

The members of Leap of Faith, meanwhile, are becoming local celebrities with coverage in newspapers, invites to perform across London, features on BBC London News, guest appearances in Basement Jaxx's latest video and interviews on the radio. The group will continue meeting every week. I'll continue to seek out exciting and challenging performance opportunities and projects for them to become involved with. And I've promised myself that wherever my life takes me, I'll keep on dancing so I can be as fit and healthy as Julian when I'm 91!

East London Dance is launching Smiling More Often with a showcase event celebrating older people dancing on Friday 15 July 05 at Stratford Circus, London. For more information about ELD or this project call 020 8279 1050 or email office@eastlondondance.org

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Animated: Summer 2005