The UK development organisation and membership
body for community and participatory dance
You are here:> Home > Blogs & Voices > Coming of age?
Coming of age?
Date posted: 18 June 2021
A personal perspective from dance practitioner Heidi Wilson on the development of dance with people living with Parkinson’s in Wales through the Wales Wide Training Programme.

A Brief Introduction

The story of dance with people living with Parkinson’s in Wales is inextricably linked with the Wales Wide Training Programme (WWTP). Like sisters, the two are growing up together, finding a voice and a sense of identity. Perhaps now in their late teens, looking ahead to future possibilities, aspirations and directions. Nearing a time for bold decisions, expanded horizons and grand adventures. This national journey also reflects a personal one. Dance with people living with Parkinson’s has become central to my practice, a site where my identity as a community dance artist has found a home. Where the values that drive who I am and what I do become visible and clear. Whilst it may seem obvious, every question I now ask about practice development is framed from the perspective of participants living with Parkinson’s. Those people ‘in the room’ who share this adventure from their position as experts in Parkinson’s. I am there to meet their experience through offering dance as a shared dialogue over many years of fellowship.

Part 1: Learning

As with any meaningful professional development, my own journey in learning to become secure in leading dance with people living with Parkinson’s has been a piecing together of many experiences. These have come from different people and places. I have been working in community dance since 1991 when I had the great fortune to start my career with Equal Arts on what was then called the Gateshead Elderly Arts Programme being mentored by Sue Roberts and Penny Greenland. Two years with Suffolk Dance being nurtured by Scilla Dyke was followed by twenty years with Dawns Powys Dance where I learnt how important being embedded in a community is to my practice. Since 2013 I have also worked part time at Cardiff Metropolitain University alongside Geraldine Hurl. I mention only a few of the inspirational people from whom I have learnt my craft. 2014 is perhaps when my learning in dance with people living with Parkinson’s really took off. I began co-leading Strictly Parkinson’s with my colleague and friend Rosie Hazell who had been invited to start the group by Steff Streat who has Parkinson’s. She had read about someone called David Leventhal who led Dance for PD in New York and wondered if we could give it a go in Powys. Strictly Parkinson’s is still going and Steff and the rest of the members, along with dancers with Parkinson’s in Pontypool, continue to be my very best mentors.

Lesson number one: find the right people to resource your learning, people who will reveal what is important, inform, challenge, nurture, invest, show an interest, spend time, respond and talk.

At this point, Rosie and I felt under-resourced in this new context and set out to find CPD opportunities. Much of this came from People Dancing including Dance for Parkinson’s summer schools taught by a range of inspirational tutors, and the seminal international conference at the Wales Millenium Centre in Cardiff in 2014 and then at the Tramway in Glasgow in 2017. ENB also hosted their two-day Dance for Parkinson’s training with NDCWales in 2015 leading to the establishment of their hub with leaders Yvette Halfhide and Helen Woods.

At the same time, WWTP began to emerge and embraced dance for people living with Parkinson’s within the programme. The training and development offer from WWTP has evolved to include a menu of learning interactions as requested by the members. Whilst this includes ‘taught’ courses as a central element, participants can also follow up and embed their learning through Bursary Awards, Best Practice Forums, Practitioner Exchanges and Organisational Exchanges. I feel lucky to have taken up all of these enriching opportunities. Those relating specifically to dance with people living with Parkinson’s include a Bursary Award to spend time with Dr Sophia Hulbert (Parkinson’s Dance Science) at PDSW and a Practitioner Exchange with Ali Allen, freelance practitioner based in Swansea.

Lesson number two: seek out relevant learning experiences in a range of forms, find the time.

As well as WWTP bringing relevant, high quality, accessible and affordable CPD to Wales, the programme has also looked to Wales-based practitioners to design and lead much of it. This has provided opportunities for me to consolidate and share my own learning and growing understanding of dance with people living with Parkinson’s. This has included contributing to CPD events which have grown in scale - a one-hour workshop in 2016, a full day in 2017, a 2-day course in 2019. I have also had the great privilege to have three dance practitioners use WWTP Bursary Awards to spend time with me, Francine Hills, Linzi Rumph and Angharad Jones.

Lesson number three: take the opportunity to become a teacher, leader, coach, mentor you learn so much from this rich exchange. Learning is always a two-way process.

WWTP provides an additional space for discussion where we can share and interrogate our practice in a safe and supportive environment. This comes in the form of Best Practice Forums which begin with a presentation or provocation leading to discussion and debate. This has been important for the development of dance with people living with Parkinson’s in Wales. For me, it has provided a space to share research findings and to gather rich data from in-depth and expert discussions. It has led to specific strategy meetings to discover and advance a united vision for dance with people living with Parkinson's in Wales.

Lesson number four: keep thinking, keep talking, keep sharing ideas and never assume you have all the answers. By working together, we might get it right for everyone.

Part 2: A Significant Event

How do we teach empathy? How do we support someone to read the room and recognise the smallest indications of discomfort and respond with humanity? How do we learn to nurture a dancing environment which is full of love and laughter, a place of safety and refuge? What does it take? Are we up to this? Am I up to this?

20th June 2019: Premier Inn, Pentwyn. Me, nervous, excited, finding it hard to believe that after all this time, endless organisation, administration, planning, working with so many wonderful people, tomorrow it starts. Introduction to Dance for Parkinson’s, People Dancing’s two-day course re-considered for our Welsh context. Only experienced community dance artists are taking part. Twenty have received Bursary awards from WWTP/ DfPPUK to attend at significantly reduced cost. We are investing in their prior knowledge and their potential to become excellent dance leaders in this specialist area of practice. Pioneers, Pilgrim Mothers who will help make it happen - the aspiration that anyone in Wales who is living with Parkinson’s will have the opportunity to access a bespoke dance class should they so wish. It still feels like an impossibility, so large a task, so many obstacles. One step at a time has got us this far. My session plans swim before my eyes, I keep being side-tracked by ‘the list’. Did I remember to …? Has the parking been reserved? Will the bus turn up outside Pontypool Tesco? Will the dancers from Builth Wells make it on time and not too exhausted from the long journey to join in? Will the food be OK? Are there enough sturdy chairs in the studio?

A knock on the door. It’s Kiki. A much-needed hug, then she saves me from myself over a picnic supper of sandwiches with wine in plastic cups and a deep valuable conversation about this phenomenon of dancing with Parkinson’s. One of several that we fall into whenever the opportunity arises.

21st June 2019, 7.30am: Cardiff Metropolitan University, Cyncoed Campus. The night staff are just leaving, and Tracey is already there! She’s probably been there all night. She has been in the engine room throughout the inception and realisation of this course. She is capable of an astonishingly high level of organisation and galvanising support from everyone needed. The catering staff at Cardiff Met still ask after her, even two years later, ‘How’s Trace? When’s she coming back with all those lovely people?’ One member of staff changed her shift so she could be on that weekend....

Part 3: Where are we now?

Just on the cusp of exciting new developments, conceived of by participants who attended the two-day course and supported by WWTP Seed Funding, we were plunged with the rest of the world into the global pandemic. Despite this, some work has developed and opportunities to engage in national conversations have continued. A new online class, Dance4Parkinson’s, began in March 2020 with Angharad Jones in her role with Theatr Clwyd. This has continued throughout lockdown with a loyal community of dancers enjoying these beautiful and sensitively guided classes. An extraordinary achievement given the circumstances.

The future is looking promising and WWTP will play a vital role in guiding us through and beyond the pandemic as we seek to meet out our vision of a high-quality dance class which is responsive to local conditions within reach of all those living with Parkinson’s in Wales.

The WWTP would like to acknowledge the huge support given by People Dancing in helping the two-day course to happen and offering a discounted rate for the online training. Also, we would like to mention the Oakdale Trust and Gwendoline and Margaret Davies Charitable Trust who provided bursary funding and seed funds to support six pilot projects with bursary recipients.