What does it take to be a community dance practitioner? Time, energy, enthusiasm for your practice, motivation to lead and learn, the ability to communicate and connect with your participants, sensitivity and creativity when delivering your best work for your communities, to name just a few elements. Now throw in the concept of a pandemic, and all of these, plus more, are pushed into overdrive.
I spoke to four local Hertfordshire dance practitioners who work with BEEE Creative and who have been the driving force for their communities, with inspiring grace and creative agility. In this series of blogs, each shares the behind the scenes of their practice over the last year and a half while offering an insight into their experiences of working – sensitively and compassionately – in the ever-changing climate of 2020-2021. I hope those reading these blogs can join me in celebrating these artists, as well as the devotion and dedication they have to their practice and communities.
Following our previous two blogs in the series on Laura Horn & Rebecca Benford, we are introducing Louise White. Louise is Director of Dacorum Community Dance, specialising in dancing with older adults to improve health and wellbeing. She has been delivering dance projects across Dacorum since 2015 and loves getting people dancing!
How would you describe your dance practice and how do you like to work with community groups?
I’ve always thought of my practice as quite light touch, fun and about encouraging people to dance and move more; to be more active. I’ve never been a choreographer; I don’t really see myself in that vein, so it’s really about engaging people in dance wherever possible!
Has this changed in the last year, due to the pandemic? If so, how?
I think engaging people and staying active has become more important. If you’re feeling a bit down in the dumps, get up off the sofa and dance! Wake Up and Dance! is a real example of how much better you can feel just after 10 minutes of moving!
I don’t think my approach has changed but I have honed it. I feel more comfortable in the whole spectrum. I never had a chance to reflect on what other dance artists do; it was kind of a mystery, but being able to watch others deliver, I can see where I fit in.
What was your initial reaction to the pandemic and the impact it would have on your work throughout 2020?
I feel guilty saying it, but part of me was relieved to just stop for a minute. I’d been delivering a lot and was exhausted. You give so much of yourself, I was relieved it was physically going to stop, with no pressure to have to say yes to everything like I always do.
I also thought it was a short term thing like a lot of us, so I was preparing to have to take a break for a bit. I’m not an IT person so I didn’t even consider that I would teach online. And then as time rolled on, it started to dawn on me the enormity of it, that it was going to be life changing actually. I had to really push myself and make the leap to do the whole Zoom thing – the wonderful Annie (Smith) does all the social media for Dacorum Community Dance because she’s great at it. But stepping back was really helpful because when I did go online to teach, I found plenty of support, it was all laid out, with lots of webinars and examples of how to get started, and lots of lessons learnt already.
To set up my online classes I did a quick call with my mum on Zoom initially, and even went to participants’ houses to talk them through it, from over the hedge! Our dancers really wanted to get on to Zoom, but were unsure, so I could reassure them that I’d managed it from scratch. It seems silly now thinking back to it, but it was such a big step at the time.
From adapting over the last year, what ways of working would you like to keep in your practice?
The technology side of it, definitely. I’ve got a lady who has moved to Bath since the pandemic and technology has meant she’s still doing our class! We’re also moving from The Old Town Hall to Active Dacorum Hub, which has been converted into a dance studio with a streaming service too! I’ll be able to do the class live with participants, but also have the option to stream from there if I need to.
Working from home has allowed me to lead a class and then get on with some admin straight after, whereas before I was out all the time. I would get home and still have plenty to do so being at home has been easier on that front.
I’ve got closer to my participants too; the vulnerability of everyone in their own lives in this situation. We have all become more supportive of each other, we have lots of WhatsApp groups so we are only a message away. So the line between work and home has become more blurred but I am sure this is the same for many people in their jobs now.
We are all supportive of each other through this strange time. I obviously feel more detached from our dancers who chose not to join us on Zoom, but even then, I see them quite a lot because we live close to each other. I hope those people will fall back in to place when we’re allowed to get back to normal.
From adapting over the last year, what ways of working are you looking forward to leaving behind in your practice?
I’m generally a really positive person, so I try not to find anything negative in anything. Obviously this is a scary situation, our health and livelihoods at risk, all of us across the world. So I want to get rid of that feeling, a sort of doom hanging around.
I get frustrated dancing in my lounge. I want to push the walls away and leap about. That’s why I like to go in the garden for Wake Up and Dance!, so I can feel a bit free. Teaching on Zoom is great because it’s allowed us all to keep in contact, but it’s really limiting – you want to be in a room with people, you want to speak to them, you want to see them, you want space, you want them to be able to dance and work together. But at the same time, it’s something, and we can all be safe doing it. So I’m kind of mixed about it all. The one thing I will not miss is dancing on my carpet though; I feel like I’ve worn a hole in it.
Tell me a little more about a particular project you are proud of from 2020.
Last summer, when we’d been in lockdown for a couple of months, Annie and I realised this was going to be a long haul. So we put a funding application in to our local council for Let’s Dance at Home. It was a big project that focused on keeping our dancers really engaged, not just with the weekly classes, but with an extended offer. Part of that has been our masterclass series, an idea we had, to invite industry professionals to work with us. One masterclass was led by local West End star Clare Hasle, the lead in 42nd Street, we were also joined by Charlotte Gooch, ZooNation and Simona Scotto. It’s been really exciting and all of them would like to work with us again. It’s been a two-way opportunity.
Then there’s Doorstep Duets which evolved from conversations with Paul Smethurst, resident artist for Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, who did the Nutcracker masterclass for us at Christmas, which was gorgeous. We then became a partner in their Doorstep Duets, a community based project which brought wonderful performances to Dacorum’s gardens, streets, schools, care homes and Gadebridge Park.
We’re also working with Akram Khan Dance Company, who will deliver a masterclass for us – the company are interested in working with older dancers. But, the passion always comes from what we can offer this group of dancers who are very keen to be dancing. It’s not a case of wanting to work with big names, it comes from me thinking about my dancers engaging with different styles, knowing about different choreographers and companies, experiencing something that may have been shut off to them. I also recognised how disappointed the dancers were that they hadn’t been able to go to see the shows they’d booked, or been able to access dance in the same way because of lockdown, and so we tried to create a way to fix that situation and to bring some joy.
What is your reaction to the pandemic now, and the expected impact an easing of lockdown will have on your work in 2021?
I’m going to remain realistic. I don’t think this is going away at all, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a couple of years more. So I think there’ll be a ‘hybrid blend’ approach for a while. The thing with us dance artists, is we don’t stop when faced with something like a pandemic; we think about how we can make it work.
Going forwards I’m optimistic; I think this time has shone a light on the way people work, and I think it’s opened doors for so many different conversations.
Is there a hope, dream or goal you’re working towards in your practice for the future? If so, what?
I want to continue what we are doing. Annie and I just want to make sure our Dacorum Community Dance projects are happening, and fulfil the dance needs of people in our community.
I’d be happy if other organisations wanted to support us or partner with us on projects, we loved working with New Adventures.
I’m really pleased we’ve managed to push the arts agenda in Dacorum. I think we’ve been really successful working in partnership with the council, and they do see what we’re doing, appreciate it, and are keen to support us – hopefully paving the way for more arts projects in Dacorum.
Is there any support that could be offered to help you reach your future goals, or connect you to other dance practitioners in Hertfordshire?
The Let’s Dance at Home projecthas shown what can be achieved by working together with other dance companies. I want to shine a light on the impact grass roots arts organisations can have on their communities, and the hard work they put in often with little or no funding. Partnering with larger organisations who have the funding / bigger platforms to shout from, but may not have access to local participants / audiences, and working collaboratively to deliver high quality provision is the way forward and a way of supporting those grass roots projects.
We are very lucky in Hertfordshire to work closely and be supported by BEEE Creative, who draw dance practitioners together and help support dance artists and high quality work. We will continue to keep partnership working at the heart of Dacorum Community Dance.
Hearing from Louise, it seems the initial panic of a pandemic brings more questions than answers at first, taking all you’ve worked on in tHearing from Louise, it seems the initial panic of a pandemic brings more questions than answers at first, taking all you’ve worked on in to a whirlwind of unknowns. But adversity can only create a hurdle so high to block your progressive path, and when a dance practitioner is faced with one, they often have the natural instinct to jump, or crawl under it if need be, finding their way around or through it. All dance artists in the series have faced unknowns, challenges and adaptations galore, but remain positive that all experiences can offer opportunities.
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Photograph courtesy of Simon Richardson