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Animated Edition - Winter 2005
This dancing thing
Dylan Quinn describes some of his recent work in Northern Ireland with young men for whom the 'one size fits all' education system has failed and ponders what it is about dance that helps them succeed
I hadn't worked with Royston Muldoon since my days at Ulster Youth Dance as a teenager, now here I was being asked to deliver a series of projects in Northern Ireland with him. In some ways it felt like the completing of some imaginary circle.

I delivered the first project in 2003 and the second in 2004. The projects were part of a three year plan organised by Dance United, of which Royston is a director. Over the coming pages I will take you on the journey that became the performance of 'Up with the Gods' and in year two 'Better is Peace'.

Dance United is well known for it's work with members of the community who do not ordinarily get the opportunity to partake in dance activities. 'Up with the Gods' (delivered in Newtonabbey) and ' Better is Peace' (delivered in Belfast) were part of Dance United's 'Building Bridges' programme, where young people excluded from mainstream education because of either learning or behavioural difficulties get the opportunity to work together on a creative arts project.

In 2003, we first worked in Rosstulla School for young people with Special Educational Needs (SEN), and in Newtonabbey Educational Guidance Centre (NEGC). The latter centre is seriously under resourced and is situated on the outskirts of Belfast. It's aim is to facilitate young people back into mainstream education. The centre itself is not in the best condition but the staff are determined to provide the best for the young people. They were keen to undertake the project, so much so, that the head teacher and one other member of staff, committed themselves to dancing, alongside the young men and ultimately to perform with them.

From the moment we arrived it became clear that we were not going to easily convince the young men to take part in the project, but we were fortunate that four of them had some basic interest or were at least intrigued. Gary, Brendan, John and Lee agreed with a bit of reassurance and encouragement, to do the first workshop. The staff proved invaluable in reassuring the guys. However, more importantly, we had Joe and Alison on our side. Joe and Alison are two young adults who had undertaken a previous project with Dance United and were now working as Volunteers. They had been through exactly the same educational system as the four young men and were able to relate with them in a way that we could not. This proved invaluable in keeping the group together and also demonstrating to the young men taking part what they could achieve if they committed themselves.

As a workshop leader it was fascinating to see how the relationships between staff and pupils developed over the period of the project. The staff identified the guys not so much as having behavioral difficulties, which is the normal label given to such young men, rather, as young men who for one reason or another found it difficult to fit into the mainstream system. This raised and continues to raise a number of questions as to how we provide learning experiences for those of us who are not built for the 'one size fits all' education system. In committing themselves and their students, the staff at the NEGC felt that although they understood little about the outcomes, there was a great deal of potential for their young men to benefit from taking part in the project. They felt we could provide these young guys with something that the system was not providing for them.

On beginning the first project we worked with Rostulla in the morning and NEGC in the afternoon. The workshops were very directed and Royston led the choreography. I worked along with Nicola Curry, another NI base Dance Artist, to provide the guys with the physical skills and confidence to find their way through this experience.

Over the course of the four weeks, we had more walkouts than I have ever had from previous projects. The physicality of the piece was demanding. At one point we had lost everyone and had to retreat to the Head's office to await the outcome. Then out of the blue, three of the guys came marching up the corridor and took up their places in the hall to start the workshop. What prompted the change of heart we still have no idea, but it didn't really matter we had our performers back and promptly got back to work.

By week three, both groups had their own unique pieces of dance; it was time to bring them together, to create a combined group piece. This was always going to be a challenge. As with all projects, you have no idea how the groups will respond to each other. However, on bringing the two groups together, we got to see a whole new side of the NEGC young men. They took to their role as 'older boys' extremely well and at one point we found that Gary, who at times found it difficult to focus his attention, had gathered all of the younger performers in a dressing room to take them through a series of stretches and games to take their minds of the performance and get them focused.

Unfortunately, we had lost Lee by this stage. However, on the day of the performance, he arrived at the Theatre wanting to help out in any way he could, so we organised for him to control the music. The performance itself was a huge success. Parents were amazed at the ability of their children as were school staff. The young people had developed a tremendous sense of pride in what they had achieved and what they had been part of.

To begin with the staff at NEGC had no real idea as to the outcome of the project and placed their trust entirely in Dance United. They committed themselves physically and mentally to the process and in doing so helped create a strong bond with the dancers. As an 'outsider' it was clear to see that the guys had a great deal of respect for the two members of staff taking part in the project. When it came to the performance and the nerves set in or when individuals felt tired it was extremely helpful for the staff members to step forward and say, "look if a big old guy like me can do it what are you whinging about".

In the making of the video evaulation of the project, it transpired that one of the group Brendan, who had shown great ability throughout the project had actually started it with no intention of performing. As it developed and as he felt involved in something that was his as much as anyone else's, he made the choice to do the performance. I personally found this very interesting - Brendan had gone through this process in his own head and had never shared it with anyone else. This confirmed for me how sometimes we don't need know everything about 'what's going on' or how committed someone is. Sometimes it is worth trusting in the process and making sure that you help create something that the young people can and will want to feel part of.

On completion of the project, the staff were amazed at the manner in which the young men worked together, focused their attention and how physically in control of them selves they could be. They also commented about how they related to younger dancers from Rostulla demonstrating a level of maturity that didn't often shine through.

Follow-up work was something that we had talked about and a range of options were discussed. Once all the details had been finalised the four young men Joe, Gary, Brendan and John traveled across the region to visit my part of Northern Ireland and take part in a residential weekend, exploring a variety of creative approaches to dance. This provided them with the opportunity to create their own material, a task that they found much more challenging than the familiar directed approach.

A good relationship had been built up over the course of the first project and was followed through to the next stage. We were keen to see how we could continue this link into the next project. This opportunity did come, but it was to be more challenging than ever.

In 2004 the Belfast Educational Resource Centre was better equiped and had many more young people passing through its doors. The place appeared to me at times to be in total bedlam when we first arrived. Over the course of the first week, we had an ever-changing cast of young people joining us. Some had a genuine interest, whilst some had no interest other than to disrupt and create havoc.

By the beginning of the project's second week, Keith and Jane had committed to the project. Keith was from a strong loyalist background and struggled physically with some of the movement, but had set his mind on completing the project, no matter what some of his peers had to say. In fact, after the first weekend, he had printed up fifty posters to stick around the centre, telling people to come and take part in the exciting dance project.

Over the course of the project, I struggled to try and understand what kept Keith interested. He was under pressure from his peers and was at times struggling physically with the challenges the project set him, but he just kept coming. It might seem strange to try and concern myself with this, as perhaps I should have just been happy that he was there. However it was important for me, I felt, to ask why, to gain a clearer understanding of what engages young people such as Keith, in dance.

This questioning led me to explore why I had joined my local youth dance group at 15 (which was incidentally run by Mags Byrne one of Royston's co directors of Dance United and project manager of this project). I had (and still do) really enjoyed moving and felt very much at home in the process of creating, learning and performing dance. It gives me a real sense of being me.

This thought process has been very useful in trying to access the benefits of bringing dance to these young people. During the evaluation of the first project one of the young dancers from the Rostulla school mentioned how he felt that he was flying at points in the dance. He felt unique and yet part of the broader picture. In questioning, the answer I think I was looking for was not one I was going to be able to put my finger on precisely. It was something that I had to feel, I realised I had felt 'this' when I joined the youth dance group and that this must be what Keith was feeling.

Unfortunately however, Keith's mother was to unwittingly put a spanner in the works. A family holiday had been booked for the last week of the project and after two weeks of very hard work he was forced to step out. This seemed the perfect opportunity to bring Gary, John, Brendan and a new young man Philp back in. We went to the NEGC and offered the boys an opportunity to come aboard. We explained that they would only have two weeks participation rather than five, and that they had to learn a great deal of the material that was already set. Also after only one week we would have to begin the combined piece with Cedar Lodge Special School group.

The revised project all started on the Monday and over the coming two weeks we worked as hard as any professional dance company. The piece entitled 'Better is Peace' explored the role of young people in the movement for peace in Columbia and encompassed a great deal of slow, controlled and emotive movement, not the easiest to undertake. They worked on technically difficult movement, within a high-pressure situation and came through with flying colours.

On the final day they performed to over 300 people and received a rapturous response. These young men proved not only that they had the talent and ability to undertake a challenging dance project, they also could come in late in the day and remain focused on the task at hand and come up with the goods.

Dance United are currently planning a third project in another education board area and again hope to work with the young men and women who we have been fortunate to meet along the way. We hope that they will have the opportunity to share their skills with a new group of dancers. The next stage is to look at how we can help nurture young people like Joe, John, Brendan, Alison, Jane who may have an interest in dance and the Performing Arts, but don't necessarily fit into the mainstream education system and its expectations.

Dylan Quinn is an independent dance artist based in Northern Ireland - email

The young people's names have been changed.

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Animated: Winter 2005