Dance changes troubled youths into achievers

High expectations are a key part of training at Dance United. The young offenders they help are encouraged to believe they can do better, but the path is tough. Rowenna Davis reports

Again. From the top with confidence, with energy, the instructor barks to the group of young dancers.

This is the Academy: the flagship project of Dance United. Like any other professional dance organisation, the hours are long, the routines are demanding and the expectations are high. The only difference is that these dancers aren’t your average performance artists: they’re all young offenders, or those at risk of offending.

Under the Academy’s current community programme, participants are required to train six hours a day, five days a week for 12 weeks. At the end of that time, they are asked to perform to audiences of up to 200 people.

Questions have been raised about whether the young participants – who are often failing to hold down classes at school or stay out of crime – are capable of completing such a demanding programme. But according to Andrew Coggins, the organisation’s artistic director, high expectations are a key part of the programme’s success.

“You have to assume that every young person is capable of something remarkable,” he says. “If you don’t make high demands, they’ll never deliver. Their own sense of failure is so strong that they have to rely on your presumption that they can do it until they believe it for themselves.”

Daryl, one of the Academy’s graduates, was, according to the local Youth Offending Team in Bradford, left physically transformed by the experience. He gained confidence, cared more about his health and nutrition and came across as more articulate.

“You do one good session here and you ache because you know you’ve achieved something,” he explains. “After a few weeks you start noticing your body getting healthier; your muscles tone up and you can feel them growing. It makes me think that there is something I can do – something I can enjoy.”

Dance United works on the assumption that the best way to build self-improvement is not to focus on it directly. Instead, you should focus on performing art, and let qualities like confidence, fitness and self-control emerge as by-products.

“We say to the young people ‘You are here to dance, and to dance to a high standard’. Then we let the art form do its work. We’re not here to fix them – that’s for the social workers,” says Coggins.

Before they arrive at the Academy, the dance instructors are told nothing about the personal histories or criminal records of the young people they will be working with. They are encouraged to see the young participants as dancers, and are discouraged from playing any kind of mentoring role.

According to Helen Linsell, director and dance instructor at the Academy, the benefits of such an approach are tangible: “Of course they progress as dancers, but whatÕs brilliant is to see their characters changing. They deal with things in a calmer way rather than shouting; they are forced to solve problems in a team and work with people they might not normally talk to.”

The Academy might aim to treat their users as professionals, but it’s difficult to stop problems with drugs, alcohol and chaotic families seeping into the studio. “Sometimes the young people turn up here and they haven’t been to bed until 4am – you have to get them into the studio and get a decent piece of work out of them,” says Linsell.

She says the hardest part of her role is getting the young people to believe in themselves. “We’re dealing with young people who don’t believe they can do anything. They have a range of different behaviours to cover that up. If they have a bad day, they might want to quit the whole project. They kick off, storm out or refuse to cooperate – at the core of this is a lack of belief in themselves.”

Convincing other people to believe in Dance United is also a challenge. “We are still having to justify ourselves to people all the time,” says Linsell. At present, Dance United is funded by local authorities, and works closely with YOTs. But the organisation’s intensive programmes are expensive to run, and sustained funding commitments are hard to come by.

The results however, seem to justify the investment. Many of the young people Dance United works with have never completed anything in their lives, but 80% finish the entire Academy programme. Although few go on to dance professionally, many of them return to mainstream education or training. This transformation, from troublemaker to performer, is worth keeping in the spotlight.

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