Perspectives on the value of art and culture
The art of changing lives Sarah Crompton on dance and the work of DAZL
A modest office in a community centre on the outskirts of Leeds is an unlikely setting for a ground-breaking dance project. Yet it is here that Dance Action Zone Leeds is based; a community organisation reaching the kind of people that other outreach groups cannot reach. Founded 15 years ago, the primary aim of DAZL – as it is better known – was to improve the health of youngsters whose weekly exercise was near zero. But it has blossomed into something more ambitious; a cross between a social good and an artistic endeavour that raises questions – and offers some answers – about how and why we invest in the arts. Its current director, Ian Rodley, was among its first intake – a boy from the Belle Isle area who barged his way into an initiative primarily aimed at teenage girls. “I just wanted to dance from the age of about 10,” he says, laughing. “I came from a family where everybody was obsessed with rugby, and it was always, ‘Oh, our Ian is a little bit different.’ When I started coming here, I discovered I loved working with people.” After taking a performing arts training and social science degree, Rodley returned to his roots, assuming the directorship five years ago. Under his leadership, DAZL has now reached 7,500 young people, aged between three and 25, of whom 3,600 were classed as inactive (that is, doing less than five hours of physical activity a week). Around 2,500 a week now regularly attend DAZL classes. “These young people have some of the poorest health and suffer the widest inequalities, so dance is a brilliant tool for us to get them hooked on exercise,” Rodley explains.
‘ These young people have some
of the poorest health and suffer the widest inequalities, so dance is a brilliant tool for us to get them hooked on exercise’
DAZL runs classes in schools, and from that base has built a network of community classes. It also has competitive – and hugely successful – youth groups that take part in street dance and cheer dance competitions; it has boys’ groups, groups for mums and groups for dads. It is living proof of the power of dance to improve lives. “I really do see it as a means out of social deprivation,” says Rodley. “It’s quite practical, and will change your life and improve both your physical and mental health. Get dancing, you’re going to feel good, that’s what I say.” DAZL’s principle funder is Leeds City Council Public Health, which provides £87,000 a year. Other grants bring the total to £150,000 – a modest amount given the project’s reach. Its strength as a model for social prescribing springs from its closeness to the people it serves; teachers and volunteers have often come up through its ranks and act as mentors for those starting out. “It helps you cope with life on the streets,” says dance leader Amy Smith, who started dancing with DAZL 11 years ago. “You see the kids go on a journey – this gives them life skills as well as getting them moving.” Rodley says: “If you can give a dance performance in front of hundreds of people at one of our galas, you can give a presentation to a room full of people at college. It’s a performance. And it’s all about confidence.” Messages about eating well, giving up smoking and the importance of exercise are part of the agenda; but being healthy and having fun go hand in hand, so the enjoyment of dance is the principal focus. For Rodley, DAZL is an arts project that delivers health outcomes.
‘ You see the kids go on
a journey — this gives them life skills as well as getting them moving.’
His emphasis on the artistic elements of dance and creative expression has led to the development of close links with the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, Northern Ballet and Phoenix Dance Theatre, and the most committed students work with these companies. Rodley also arranges trips to see dance companies like Phoenix, opening up a new aesthetic world. Last year, Arts Council England supported a project with Phoenix and the film-maker Wayne Sable that was livestreamed to 2,400 people. “There is a class barrier in dance. We are naïve if we don’t recognise that,” says Rodley. “And I suppose when you are from an area like this, it is a bit tougher. So not only do you have to educate the young people, it is educating their parents and families as well. Once they have seen contemporary dance, it’s like, ‘Oh, I get it now’.” More than 50 former DAZL students have gone to university to study dance. Others are on CAT (Centre for Advanced Training in Dance) schemes or advanced training programmes for the conservatoires in the region. Many are following careers as professional dancers in the commercial and hip-hop dance sectors. Still more come back to DAZL as volunteers and teachers. DAZL is building a bridge between community dance and the broader contemporary dance world. But, if the social and cultural value of the DAZL project is easy to see, can it still produce the choreographers and dancers of the future? Will it contribute to the aesthetics of the artform? As someone who loves dance, and who has followed it and written about it for many years, this matters. I see the benefits of dance as a social tool. It’s fun, inclusive and healthy, and research shows that it has cognitive as well as physical benefits. When I learn that the DAZL staff chipped in their own money to make sure that children in care can join in their half-term classes, I am inspired. When I watch youngsters on half-term turn up for dance class and work with discipline and flair, I am moved.
‘ If you are creating a small piece
of work that a small number of people are going to see, it doesn’t fit that well with me’
But should it be a universal model? Dance needs to grow artistically. Some choreographers want to explore territory that currently has limited appeal; does that make their work or their ideas less valuable? History teaches us otherwise – groundbreaking work has often been disliked by audiences initially. When public bodies look at a limited pot of resources and decide how to spend it wisely, community engagement – bringing art to the widest possible group of people – is an attractive option. But should we be asking for the same broadly inclusive approach from all dance companies and all choreographers, or would it be better to ask different organisations to focus on their individual strengths, which might be aesthetic rather than community focused? Opinions differ across the dance sector. Michael Nunn, founder and co-artistic director of BalletBoyz, in Kingston Upon Thames, is clear that accepting public money places an obligation to produce work with quantifiable public benefit. “If you are creating a small piece of work that a small number of people are going to see, it doesn’t fit that well with me,” he says. Equally, he feels that counting how many people view a particular work is a cumbersome way of calibrating its contribution. “Measuring reach is far more difficult and subtle than that,” he suggests. To that end BalletBoyz are increasingly using The Talent – the young all-male company recruited by Nunn and his BalletBoyz co-founder and co-artistic director Billy Trevitt – to work on projects in schools and with disadvantaged adults. They are in the process of refining an online programme of dance teaching for use in schools, called MoovBank; a second programme for young people with special needs is also in the pipeline.
Nunn and Trevitt have always been believers in popularising dance. BalletBoyz has balanced an instinct for bringing in a wide audience with commissions that are challenging and innovative. But Nunn acknowledges that there is a case to argue for the brilliant individual choreographer, who has less measurable interest in outreach but whose ideas will in time enrich and transform dance – the successors to the likes of Frederick Ashton, Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham. “Finance shouldn’t be a barrier to making work,” says Nunn. “So if there is some talented choreographer out there, they can always come to me. The company can do the social engagement for them, and they can make their work.” One solution might be to ask all larger companies supported by public funds to do work that is both adventurous and popular. But this might potentially flatten the aesthetic approach, with all of them focusing on those things that they know work. Another answer would be to match funding with differing expectations – to allocate for the public good and for broad entertainment, but also to ensure that we continue to fund artists who walk a more difficult and experimental path, to sustain them and let them develop their ideas. Personally, from the perspective of a critic and dance-lover, I’d favour a model that allowed companies and choreographers to play more to their artistic strengths – but which also, and separately, backed bottomup community organisations such as DAZL, rather than parachuting in social engagement from above.
‘ There is a case to argue for the
brilliant individual choreographer, who has less measurable interest in outreach but whose ideas will in time enrich and transform dance’
Jan Burkhardt, who founded DAZL in 2000, and who has 30 years experience in community dance, agrees. “There are people who are pushing the boundaries of art and we need that to happen,” she says. In the past, working for a regional arts board, she experienced what she felt was an inflexible policy that mismatched art and audiences. She recalls working on a disadvantaged council estate, where there was no access to a single dance session for residents, and being asked to develop an avant-garde piece about horses. Times have moved on. But that gap between accessible dance and more experimental work remains a challenge. “You have to let people develop their palate,” says Jan. “We should be real about where people are. Unless there is a journey, they will never reach the end destination. “If you are going to encourage the avant-garde, just get on and do it. Don’t expect it to appeal to everyone. They aren’t going to make that jump. But they might make it gradually.” At DAZL, Ian Rodley carries on encouraging each individual to take what they need from dance. “The only way to break down barriers is through working closely with the communities so they feel like you are one of them,” he says. “Nothing is going to happen instantly. And it is not a one size fits all. You have to build up the relationship and then say, ‘What about this, what about that?’” Sarah Crompton is a freelance arts correspondent and author with a passion for dance. She writes for The Guardian, The Sunday Times and Vogue among other publications and is joint chief theatre critic for Whatsonstage. She has appeared on Saturday Review and Front Row on BBC Radio 4. Her book Sadlers Wells: Dance House is published by Oberon.
‘ There are people
who are pushing the boundaries of art and we need that to happen,’
Sarah Crompton on dance and the work of DAZL