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Animated, Spring 1998. Katy Dymoke uncovers Yorkshire's secret weapon... Dance Division - a bold new initiative which aims to bring 360,000 males, face to face with dance - dispelling myths and prejudice conclusively
How do you change the perception of dance in the eyes of young men and boys and challenge the predominant assumption that dance is about graceful self expression and an art form that attaches itself more conventionally to the female gender? The 64 million dollar question which has been the focus of national debate and concern for many years. Dance Division is a bold new initiative which aims to address this imbalance - to dispel prejudice and establish firm foundations for the future by joining forces with the high flying success of soccer: "There's much we can learn from footballers and footballers from dancers - at all levels - especially how we can challenge the image of men dancing in the eyes of the general public. It's a monumental job, akin to the way football turned its hooligan image of the 1980s into a much sought after pursuit in the 1990s," says Mileva Drljaca, Regional Dance Officer for Yorkshire and Humberside Arts.

Set in four Yorkshire towns and in collaboration with four key arts organisations in the region - Sheffield and Rotherham Dance Project, Kirklees Dance Development Scheme in Huddersfield, Corridor Arts in Barnsley and Dance for Life in Bradford, all share a priority to proactively increase the involvement of boys and young men in dance, enabling young people to recognise the effect of dance training not only in terms of agility, fitness and co-ordination but aesthetically too.

Drljaca has conducted extensive research into ways in which to reach boys - investigating the similarities between dance and other physical activities that are the male domain. Gyms and football clubs provide a ready made male dominated market in which there is an emphasis on skills, good practice and physical control. Through extensive dialogue with club managers and coaches she ascertained that the forms of exercise favoured in these environ-ments are predominantly skills specific, aerobic (emphasising sustained activity) and strength building. Dance based work would complement this, offering an opportunity for variation, a wider range of body movement work and would contribute to injury prevention, improved agility, flexibility, balance and co-ordination.

Research also highlighted that statistically less than one per cent of the total number of males within the ten to 15 age group from each of the four towns participated in dance projects - that constitutes just eight to 20 per cent of the population. Participation also tends to be 'short lived'. For example, in Kirklees, boys dance clubs in schools have been relatively successful, aided by actively seeking out male teachers to act as role models, but long-term activity is minimal.

However, in the world of football it is quite a different story - where a focused campaign to challenge the image of the game as an activity - participation and spectator numbers are flourishing across social backgrounds, with 25 per cent of Premier League players of African and Caribbean origin. Football clubs attract boys from the age of eight and possess a track record of successfully sustaining interest through to the 16 to 18 age group and Modern Apprenticeship Schemes. Peter Casken, Academy Director of Barnsley Football Club, believes implicitly that: "It is particularly important to incorporate the relevant elements of dance training techniques into football programmes from an early age if we are to see the full benefit to these youngsters when they are adults."

Dance Division has identified a number of key ways to work with the football clubs that will be of mutual benefit. A barometer for the project has been Training Days, involving a number of clubs, set up by Drljaca to initiate interest in the idea of incorporating a dance perspective into their training. Two have already taken place in collaboration with Dance UK, looking at the effect and process of warming up and cooling down, with professional dancers working alongside footballers and trainers, with extremely positive results. Certainly the players themselves recognise the attributes of participating in dance as John Hendrie, a first team player for Barnsley endorses: "Dance certainly helps with your co-ordination, makes you more supple, and hopefully, helps prevent injury"

In fact, Dave Richardson, Director of Youth of The Football Association, attended the second training day and as a result, is setting up an opportunity for the projects instigators - the dance leaders to give a presentation to the 20 Premier League clubs. This will be a unique chance to influence the footballers' practice long-term and on a national scale. A sentiment echoed by Danny Wilson, Manager of Barnsley Football Club, who believes, "close liaison has shown that our two worlds can work to mutual benefit. We intend to consolidate the excellent start at all levels." A third day is scheduled for 14 May 1998.

During the project Team Coaches, and Physiotherapists have been invited to participate in sessions in order to consider the benefits that dance work can have for injury prevention and improved performance. A further 96 Physical Education teachers from schools from the four districts will be involved in the same way. Perhaps most significantly, the football ground, or a site near by will be the base for weekly sessions for young footballers, club members and for the premiering of a short promotional video that will be shown three times during a match to a staggering 60,000 people.

It is envisaged that the benefits to dance will be the gradual shifting in perception of dance activity and ultimately the realisation of the projects clear goals which are to 'inspire and attract boys and young men into dance and retain their interest'. According to Drljaca they "anticipate that 360,000 people (95 per cent of them male) over a six week period will come face to face with dance at the four football clubs involved in this project. If that doesn't do anything to challenge stereotypes of who dances and what dance can be, then I'm not sure what will!"

A number of new employment opportunities have also arisen with the recent appointment of choreographer Pamela Johnson (currently of Phoenix Dance Company) and eight dance practitioners, to deliver the project and create the film, a documentary video and performances. It is intended to establish eight dance groups for boys and young men, two in each of the towns represented by the arts organisations. In addition, some 20 Modern Apprentices will be involved from each of the four football clubs to create the film and documentary video and, will act both as peer group and positive role models for Phase Three of the project. Whilst some of the boys and young men may start out seeing dance only as a means to improve their sporting skills, it is envisaged that through the weekly sessions they will begin to explore more than just the physical attributes and become involved in other dance activities provided by the arts organisations such as community projects, classes and eventually, perhaps even perform in local venues and theatres.

There is no doubt that the funding opportunity of the Arts for Everyone programme has been a catalyst for the realisation of the project. The scale of the organisation and involvement of people from two very different fields enabled them to be successful with their bid. And the creative ideas on which the project is founded clearly express the experience and commitment of the people and agencies concerned. Modern Apprentices will be invited to sit on steering committees and to be involved in the planning and monitoring process in the hope that the shaping, development and fruits of the project, will be in the hands of the participants and an authentic representation of their active contributions. By drawing parallels between dance and football and thereby creating a demand for dance activities for boys and young men, Dance Division will offer a model for future practice in the development of 'dance for all' on a regional basis with national impact and significance. It would seem to be right on course ... watch this space.

Katy Dymoke, Director, Touchdown and freelance writer. Dance Division is co-ordinated by Verity Clarke in conjunction with Nick Howdle of Corridor Arts, Barnsley; Errol Barrows of Kirklees Dance Development; Cathy Middieton of Dance for Life, Bradford and Matt Hutchinson of the Sheffield and Rotherham Dance Project. Contact Verity Clarke on +44 (0)114 233461.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001