The UK development organisation and membership
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Animated Edition - Autumn 2006
The Academy
Dance United works in the criminal justice system. Artistic Director, Tara Herbert, sets out her vision for a new dance academy that aims to give a future to young people who offend
I left school at sixteen with one 'O' level. My hormones had kicked in and I had changed almost overnight from a sensible young girl to a senseless teenager. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and lacked the confidence to know how to find out. I wasn't alone. Many of my school friends were doing drugs but somehow I had managed to stay clear of them. Luckily, my sister realised that I was struggling and found me an 'O' level dance course. It was enough to get me to knuckle down and for a year I persevered still not really knowing where I was going. Then something extraordinary happened that transformed my life. I met the great William Louther (1).

Bill was a man you either loved or hated. Luckily for me I loved him and his work. From the very first day he treated me like a professional dancer even though I had only done a year of dance with a PE teacher. It was hard and I learned fast. I had to because I was taking part in classes that were way above my level. Within a year Bill allowed me to work with his dance company, and six months later I was accepted at the Ballet Rambert School. By the time I auditioned my confidence was such that it did not even cross my mind that I might not be accepted. Dance, and an inspiring teacher, had turned my life around and given it direction.

Now, as the Artistic Director of Dance United, which works with young offenders and other often marginalised people, I draw on this experience every day, and the conviction that dance has the power to transform peoples' lives. It informs every aspect of my work and the work of the company. My success as a young person was built on a simple model of hard work, individual support, discipline and challenge, but most of all, on seeing the true potential in people. Dance United was founded on this approach. We see the people we work with as dancers rather than children, criminals or dropouts. Essentially, these are people who need inspiration and the space to succeed and who would not normally have access to professional dance theatre or training. And we demand of them exactly what we would demand of any professional dancers. Why should our standards not be of the highest?

The company began working with women and young male offenders in UK prisons and community settings nearly six years ago, initially delivering one-off intensive performance projects of three to four weeks duration. The high standard of work and the commitment and professionalism of the performers has been unwavering. Sometimes we bring in college students who are training in dance to perform alongside the inmates. Invariably, invited audiences, who have been given evaluation questionnaires, have been unable to decide who are the dancers and who are the prisoners.

Dance is an art form that operates largely on a non-spoken level. It's also a discipline that demands teamwork, technical ability, problem solving, reflection, creativity, emotional experience, trust and even kindness. We don't need to talk about it - but it happens anyway. We've found this to be a particularly powerful tool in our criminal justice work where so much remedial activity is normally undertaken at the conscious, spoken level. That said, we are not in the 'therapy' business, but we do know through our research and practice that if we work with participants in an honest, open and professional way, then significant positive changes can happen in people's lives. Recently, one participant at HMP Holloway said she had 'never felt this way before'. This is by no means the first time this kind of comment has been made during a project. So what is it that makes some of the participants feel this way? Is it being treated as a dancer rather than as a prisoner? Is it the high expectations of the delivery team? Is it the constant demand for the dancers to deliver their best and not settle for less? Is it the relationships that are created without words? Is it the opportunity for the dancers to re-create themselves and show a side that most people normally never see? Or is it as simple as an outside team of artists driving forward a creative process and not being interested in the crime committed by the prisoners but in the potential of the people they are working with? Whatever the reason the pattern remains; participants in a variety of settings are being inspired to give their all and put themselves on the line in front of what can be the most unforgiving of audiences.

Our short, intensive projects make significant demands on a prison. They require intensive and sustained access to performers (i.e. prisoners) and take over the prison gym for rehearsal then transformation (with the installation of sound and lighting and raked seating) into a studio theatre. Given the quality of the outcome, these demands could just about be tolerated by the regime once a year. When we explored working in prisons on a more sustained basis (such as weekly classes), the support we had enjoyed on the intensive work faltered. We discovered that longer-term work could not be so easily accommodated and our initial pilot projects met insurmountable barriers. It seemed we were asking the impossible - to have a suitable physical space on a regular basis, and to have prisoners released from other activities on a consistent basis. We needed to find or create the circumstances that would allow us to deliver longer-term work and evaluate its impact. And we longed for the opportunity to create a more collaborative way of working with our criminal justice partners.

From these deliberations came the impetus for The Academy, a dance led rehabilitation programme devised especially for young people on Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programmes (ISSP). These community sentences are for persistent offenders between the ages of 15 to 18 who would otherwise find themselves serving a custodial sentence. Many of the young people we work with have failed in school and expect to fail at The Academy. But through dance we are trying to create the circumstances by which these young people begin to see themselves as achievers and succeed. The project is being delivered in partnership with the Bradford Youth Offending Team (Bradford YOT) and Nacro (crime reduction charity). This action research project aims to establish the means by which long-term, intensive dance-led work can be sustained and evaluated; how it can be rolled-out on a sustainable basis; and how it can attract the larger part of its funding from statutory sources.

From our previous experience, we identified six key factors that were central to the design of The Academy. First, there had to be a clear methodology and approach to teaching that yielded to no one - with clear, non-negotiable standards and boundaries. Furthermore, participants would need to attend on a five-day a week basis for twelve weeks.

Second, we needed a dedicated dance space equipped to meet professional teaching and training requirements, a space that participants could feel was theirs.

Third, we needed to assemble an integrated, consistent, delivery team comprising both dance and criminal justice staff who would share common goals and have clear, defined responsibilities.

Fourth, we needed to design an embedded curriculum to meet the statutory Education, Training and Employment needs of young participants, particularly as they would be with us on a full-time basis. This would allow us to deliver accredited courses for transferable skills 'by stealth'. This curriculum needed to be built into the dance teaching programme but never moved out of the context of professional dance training. It extends beyond conventional dance training to encompass a range of dance-related subjects including nutrition for dancers, drumming, cooking, dance photography, capoiera, choreography and, of course, dance technique. This training programme has been validated by Trinity College.

Fifth, we had to have adequate funding as action research is expensive.

Finally, we had to be able to train more dance artists in this way of working.

Dance United is at a crucial stage in the development of The Academy. Most of the key elements are in place including a team of dance artists with strong experience and excellent communication skills. Our most pressing need now is to find more dance artists so that we can expand the pool of practitioners we will need if we are to roll out the work beyond the action research project. This is not as straightforward a task as it sounds. When we held the initial interviews we found that although there were some very good teachers, not all of them demonstrated care for individuals in a class. Much of their teaching material was interesting but very often it lacked spark and inspiration. Maybe, in the artificial set-up of the interview and audition process, it was hard to create what we were looking for, but Dance United will not select artists in this way in the future. Instead we intend to run our own training courses with dance artists we want to develop, and others that are specifically interested in the Dance United methodology. They will be the future of Dance United when the time comes to roll out this work and a range of other Dance United projects.

In honour and memory of that inspirational man who had such a positive effect not just on me but on many other young dancers and creators, The Academy is naming its new dance studio after William Louther. It was because of his enormous drive, passion and belief in the true potential of the people in front of him that I have become the person and artist that I wanted to be. Dance United is now looking for artists who believe, as Bill did, in the true power of dance and in the potential of every single person that they meet.

Tara Hertbert is Artistic Dircetor of Dance United, contact

1. William Louther - modern dancer - Obituary taken from Dance Magazine, August, 1998

William Louther, 56, a major American modem dancer, died of cancer in London on May 7, 1998. Louther performed in Broadway musicals and with many American modem dance companies, including those of Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, and Donald McKayle. He was a charter member of London Contemporary Dance Theatre and also performed in London in the McKayle stage show Black New World. He directed Israel's Batsheva Dance Company from 1972 to 1974 and the Welsh Dance Theatre from 1974 to 1976. He created the London based Dance and Theatre Corporation. A native New Yorker, Louther trained at the High School for the Performing Arts and at the Juilliard School. His last performance was in May 1997 with Galina Panova in Riga, Latvia, performing his own choreography.

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Animated: Autumn 2006