In the quiet of the new year, as we begin our third ‘lockdown’, freelance dance artist Izzy Brittain sat down to reflect upon this extraordinary, challenging and transformative year. Over the course of this year, Izzy has worked closely with us to reimagine and deliver the Dance On programme, helping to keep our community of older dancers moving and connected despite restrictions. Dance On is a programme of weekly classes for the over 55s; it is funded by Sport England and delivered across Leeds, Bradford and Doncaster.
I have been privileged to work on the Dance On programme led by Yorkshire Dance since its early days in 2018. A year ago, the programme was thriving, delivering fun, creative weekly dance sessions to hundreds of over 55s in the heart of their own communities across Leeds and Bradford. Little did we know of the transformations and unexpected challenges that awaited us in 2020.
Phew. What a ride! It has been … a lot. A big, often beautiful, and very steep learning curve. There is no escaping the fact that it has been incredibly tough - particularly for our older dancers, many of whom belong to the demographic at higher risk from the effects of COVID-19 and who were already at prior increased risk of isolation.
Having been lucky enough to rediscover dance by happy accident, I trained as a mature student at an older age than most. Many wonderful humans helped me along the way, and I have not forgotten this. Today I am a community artist who is extremely passionate about access, participation and representation.
I know that programmes like Dance On have a very real and positive impact upon the lives of participants, combating isolation, improving health and wellbeing and challenging stereotypes by providing access to new, inspiring dance experiences. I also know that we are social animals, so what is dance if not communities dancing?
When the pandemic arrived, it became clear that continuing my work with communities would present a huge challenge, but I felt positive and proactive. I believe that the COVID-19 emergency only emphasises the importance of this work.
I was deeply concerned, not only for the participants, or even for the potential loss of my work, but also in the loss of the unique interactions and meaning I find in the work that I do. I wondered, how might we dance the solution together during an era of social distancing, when close physical contact and mixing indoors is forbidden?
It soon became apparent that Zoom and online classes would be a lifeline throughout this period, but there was concern over whether it would be possible to reach the demographic we work with in this way, since many lack digital access. Despite this, before long participants were (metaphorically) hammering at my door to request online sessions.
This is a touching testament to the work that we do. Where there is a will there is a way, as they say, and hard times really do require furious dancing! We set to work, learning that a little ingenuity, a lot of determination and a sprinkling of trial-and-error tech support goes a long way. Soon, we had enough participants to sustain not one, but three, weekly Zoom sessions.
Alongside weekly classes we also began a monthly programme of masterclasses led by a diverse range of guest artists. The hugely popular Masterclasses cover a wide variety of dances, including Breakdance, Ghanaian dances, Bollywood, Burlesque and Vogue. Our older dancers have had the opportunity to enjoy new styles from artists further afield through this innovative offering.
We are currently in our third lockdown, aware that the journey is far from over, I am nevertheless filled with gratitude when I consider how far we have come. There have been so many special moments.
From social distance dancing outdoors in the summer sunshine with the ladies of OPAL, to online Voguing with the fierce and fabulous Darren Pritchard, it's been a year of finding new ways to keep our communities moving and connected.
I am immensely proud of all we’ve achieved, but it's the small, magic moments that I hold particularly close. These are the moments we feared would not easily translate to the screen. So much of community dance is in the physical proximity of warm bodies breathing, moving and smiling together.
A shift of weight, a flick of the wrist, the pressure of hot palms pressed together – touch, trust and physical closeness are the tools of our trade as community dance practitioners. We read the language of the body to help participants develop greater awareness, confidence and ease in their bodies. All of this exists in real, three-dimensional life and can never be replaced.
Even so, one of the lovely surprises of this time is the discovery that distance can open up space for something new to emerge. Recently, during a creative mirroring exercise exploring symbols of care in an online class, I experienced one of these highly sought after, difficult to conjure ‘magic moments’.
As the whole group moved as one, I felt how present, together and connected we were, despite the digital distance. I remembered how, at one time, some participants would not have relished this task, with its blurry parameters and lack of proscribed movement. In distance it seems some dancers have found a new freedom.
Through dancing in their own living rooms, conservatories, kitchens and bedrooms, I have observed participants really let loose, enjoying the kind of wild dances of abandon that I wish for every human!
Lightness and silliness have always been an integral part of my artistic practice. Facilitating or experiencing moments of collective joy is life-affirming. This year it has taken centre stage.
There are moments when the whole Zoom room collapses into giggles because I have asked them to do something ridiculous - and yet - they do it. Which ultimately means that we have done it, together. We have built an online community.
Many of the participants have never met each other or me in person, as they are drawn from classes across the city and beyond, but we have developed trust and formed connections nevertheless.
Yes, it’s not the same as being in the room together, but we are learning new skills for the future and expanding our conception of what’s possible all the time. There is beauty in this. The forging of these new, hybrid, virtual communities is something to be celebrated.
I will always remember one phone call to a participant's partner who had recently gained digital access and was overjoyed to hear that we could help them get on Zoom to dance with us. Or the thank you email from a participant who said, 'Please tell Izzy how much we enjoyed the class today. We danced but we also laughed and sang - very therapeutic'.
During these times, I believe that this is what we all need more of; some light relief and a connection to our own bodies and each other. I feel extremely grateful to have been able to spend this year facilitating such experiences.