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Animated Edition - Winter 2005
Shifting the balance of power?
POTENTIAL is the Foundation for Community Dance's programme of work focused on dance and disabled people, which includes a co-mentoring scheme for disabled and non-disabled dancers. Emily Horwood, development officer, tells us more
Our overall aim for POTENTIAL is to improve the access to and quality of opportunity for disabled people who wish to engage with dance either as a recreational activity or as a professional career. Following extensive research three key areas of development were identified in order to improve opportunities for disabled people wishing to dance. These are: information & communication, professional development and profile-raising.

The plan to run a pilot Co-Mentoring Scheme as part of the professional development strand of the programme was already in place before I came into post in April 2004. Whilst there were certain 'definites' already decided upon - it was to be a co-mentoring, not a mentoring scheme; it was for disabled and non-disabled dancers working in partnerships; it would run from September 2004 until February 2005 - actually how it would work and what 'the scheme' would look like still had to be devised.

We had to define what we meant by co-mentoring. Eventually we used the following definition: co-mentoring is a collaborative way of learning. It moves away from the traditional relationship of mentor (teacher) and mentee (learner) to become an equal exchange between two practitioners. Both individuals develop through a dialogue of ideas, questions and thoughts, thereby gaining, as well as offering, knowledge, skills and experience.

The co-mentoring relationship creates a 'safe' environment for exploration in order to encourage risk taking and allow for failings, as well as successes, to be reflected upon. There has to be shared respect for each other's work and level of experience. This is important so that solutions can be found together as partners go through a process of enquiry in an open and honest way. The Co-Mentoring experience is one through which people gain confidence in owning, exploring and expressing opinions and implies a one to one, non-judgemental relationship.

It was important to stress to those involved that this was a learning opportunity on both sides. We wanted to dispel the assumption that it would be the disabled person doing all the learning, that they were the disadvantaged one in the relationship, although they are unlikely to have had access to the same kinds of professional training opportunities throughout their dance career as their non-disabled partners. It also took the pressure off the non-disabled person from having to know all the answers. Both parties have professional development needs which can be addressed together.

This pilot scheme will test whether co-mentoring is an effective mechanism for professional development and a beneficial way of sharing knowledge and experience between disabled and non-disabled practitioners. It is anticipated that the partners will have something to learn from each other, as the relationship offers a one to one understanding of how people deal with difference, especially when working in dance. We have tried to ensure that support is in place for each individual to feel they have something to offer as well as something to learn. Whilst individuals and partnerships will set their own aims, overall we hope to encourage reflective practice with each Co-Mentee gaining increased confidence and understanding as a result of having worked intensively with another dancer. It is hoped that to some extent this positive approach will have moved the disabled dancers into a 'position of power' which will outlast the co-mentoring timeframe.

The group of dancers involved in the pilot scheme are all at varying points in their career development from emerging to very experienced; they also vary in age, life experience and personality. Whilst some may be very confident in their knowledge and ability most also have insecurities and this can be very exposing way of learning. It would also be naïve to ignore the fact that some people might not have worked with disabled people before and may feel slightly anxious about this. If any working relationship of this nature is to be successful then the power balance has to be right. This can be difficult to achieve when the two people involved have worked together before in a very different capacity; dancer and choreographer, dancer and workshop leader or indeed dancer and dancer friend!

For all these reasons it was crucial to bring everyone together for an induction day for the scheme, in order to establish a common understanding of what those involved were about to embark on. We had to ensure that the working relationships got off to a good start. It was necessary to draft a framework within which the scheme would operate: a document clarifying the rationale, methodology and process, providing a consistent structure which could be tested during the pilot phase. Discussions with organisations with experience of managing mentoring schemes - Full Circle Arts, Arts Training Central, Magpie Dance Company, Writernet, Tin Productions - were all extremely helpful. Those I spoke with were very supportive and willing to share their learning and I was grateful for their practical advice and input. Detailed information on current co-mentoring schemes, however, was hard to come by and I found little of use.

It became clear from discussions with colleagues that in order for the scheme to work there needed to be some support structures in place. It was these additional measures, rather than the framework itself, which made the scheme specifically suitable for disabled dancers. Following the advice of those we consulted we carried out an 'Access Audit' in advance of the induction day so we could consider everyone's access and support needs when planning the day. We set up an 'access support costs' budget separate to the expenses budget so that costs necessary to a dancer's participation did not reduce the budget available for the experience itself. We also ensured the induction day included an element of Disability Equality Training (DET) for everyone taking part.

We engaged Sue Williams and Sarah Scott, experienced disabled arts consultants, to advise us in developing the scheme and planning the Induction Day, which they facilitated. They have remained involved with the scheme with Sarah also taking on a support role for the Co-Mentees so that there is a neutral 'third party' on hand, who doesn't have a vested interest in the scheme being a success.

The emphasis of the co-mentoring agreement - or plan - focuses on the negotiation agreed between the partners. This is document that is drawn up together and which informs the working relationship. This process requires a level of both assertiveness and sensitivity on each side. Again it is dangerous to assume who in the pair will be making more demands or who may be shy in voicing their ambitions. In her support role Sarah Scott attended this important first meeting to assist the individuals and pairs to focus and articulate their goals and how, as a partnership, they hoped to achieve them.

A Co-Mentoring relationship should last for a significant and sustained period of time in order for the relationship to have time to grow and develop, but this particular scheme is time-limited and the partners needed to decide how to best use this time together. Each individual had to spend some time considering what it is they wanted to know, learn and have by the end of the co-mentoring timeframe and how this fits into their longer-term professional development. How they worked together was to be agreed between the individuals involved. They had to consider how and where they would like to meet, how many sessions they would meet for and what they wanted to achieve in each session. The aims of the experience had to be achievable within the allotted timeframe.

There are six partnerships of disabled and non-disabled dance artists involved in this pilot. The dancers are based either professionally or domestically in the South West, West Midlands, London and Liverpool and we worked in partnership with Dance South West and East London Dance to match some of the pairs taking part. The dancers working together are; Marc Brew & Tom Sapsford, Sally Edwards & Andrea Buckley, Aislinn Lewis & Elisa Sullivan, Tom Clark & Ann Dickie, Michael King & Liam Steel, Michael Mitchell & Sue Smith.

Each partnership is documenting the experience together as well as individually and we will be producing case studies about their experiences to distribute during the Summer. We hope that this along with the framework & support documents will serve as a practical toolkit for others wanting to run their own co-mentoring scheme.

Currently there are very few professional development opportunities for disabled dance artists operating outside of disabled/integrated dance companies. We hope that this will prove to be a successful model for professional development for disabled and non-disabled dance artists which other dance organisations may adopt in the future.

We will be bringing everyone together again in March, six months on from the Induction for an evaluation day. We won't know until then whether we have fully achieved our aims with this pilot and of course it will be interesting to know, in the future, whether there has been a longer-term impact on the artists involved. It is hoped that the shared outcome for all co-mentees will be a greater confidence in creating and accessing opportunities to lead, or to have control of deciding their role in, dance related projects; perhaps offering, or requesting, a shift in the balance of power.

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Animated: Winter 2005