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Animated Edition - Spring 2008
You know it when you see it!
Sue Davies reflects on the importance of quality in community dance from a local authority perspective
Working in the arts and local government for over 20 years, I reckon I should have the experience and knowledge to recognise quality and excellence but when I'm asked to put into words it's not so easy.

Managing an arts venue (The Brindley in Runcorn) and a team of four art-form specialist development officers, it is imperative that we all share the same ethos and values about quality and excellence in terms of programming and development work. This then guides the choice of freelance artists we employ to deliver classes, projects and performances.

So what characteristics and values do we look for in practitioners to deliver community dance? Firstly, that they are creative people with the ability to communicate well and want to engage with people, are skilled, innovative, ideally experienced, passionate and have the desire to achieve excellence in their work. Oh yes, they should also be adaptable, committed and reliable - no good being excellent if you don't turn up on time!

From a local authority perspective, a community dance artist will often be required to deliver a desired outcome, as the focus for the work may be tailored to personal health and social education, disability, young people, or education agendas. In these settings, quality in the process of delivery is just as important as the perceived outcomes.

The ability to understand and engage with dance work on a social and emotional level means that we need to enter into a partnership with the community dance worker. We need to ensure that the brief for the work is compatible with the practitioner's ability and plays to their strengths, as the outcomes and aims of the project may be multi-layered.

Horses for courses then? Ruth Bates, Halton's Dance Development Officer has the job of finding quality dance practitioners with the professional specialism for any given situation. "I need to find someone with the skills to deliver the relevant dance style, linked to the age group and ability and be assured that the participants will be comfortable working with them. The difference between me a community centre manager (looking for a dance teacher) is that they will go to the Yellow Pages". We have better networks.

Nurture - if you're excellent we want to work with you.

It a pleasure to work with and help nurture quality community dance practitioners. We respect and value them, not just as deliverers of dance but also innovative dance artists. It is part of our brief to nurture emerging artists, supporting the development of their own artistic work and in becoming a sustainable creative business.

At The Brindley, Ruth and I have, for the last three years, worked in partnership with Jo Rhodes (Founder and Director of Arcane Dance) to support the development of her company, extend her experience and find the most appropriate work opportunities for Jo to build her business. We chose to invest our limited time and resources in this particular dance artist because for us she embodied all the characteristics we are looking for. Jo is a great advocate of quality work and isn't afraid of taking people out of their comfort zone, in order to raise their game "I think teachers should feel comfortable but slightly out of their depth as this ensures quality and that they care."

Jo, when asked what she values about her relationship with the Local Authority said;

"I welcome the mentoring advice, support and honesty. I now have the knowledge of how my work fits in context and the market place. Working in partnership on shared targets is really refreshing; you can often feel lonely in your practice. This support provides me with links to the community, Primary Care Trusts, organisations and schools and pilot projects, which enable learning for the future. I haven't just learnt about the company and myself but about how to work as part of a community."  As providers of services for the public, we strive to find quality community dance workers but what do we do when those values are not adhered to? Often numbers will fall in classes and any feedback from participants, who also recognise excellence and quality when they engage with it, will be passed onto the dance practitioner. We may choose to end the contract or we may try to better match their skills with work that they have the capacity to deliver.

So how is quality and excellence instilled and developed in emerging community dance practitioners? What training, mentoring and support is available and how do they manage the transition from training to delivery? Jo's response to these questions - "I left University knowing a bit about technique and movement. I had developed self-awareness, discipline and determination. However, I knew nothing about how to practice as an artist or freelancer and I had to acquire a lot of skills VERY quickly. I was lucky in that I had good mentors around me who kept me on track".

Here in Halton, we care passionately that our community's experience and engagement with community dance is of a high quality. In partnership with excellent community dance practitioners, we can raise people's expectations and aspirations of dance and dancing, widen access, develop skills and create enjoyment for many people! We know what we want and what we are looking for, quality and excellence, why should we settle for less?

Written with Ruth Bates, Dance Development Officer, Halton Borough Council

contact Sue Davies, Cultural Services Manager, Halton Borough Council, on 0151 906 3729 or sue.davies@halton.gov.uk / visit www.thebrindley.org.uk

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Animated: Spring 2008