Addressing the effects of a changing built and social environment through dance
London Thames Gateway is undergoing major regeneration and social change. A partnership of dance companies and councils formed to help build a sense of place and identity in the Gateway area and improve the health and wellbeing of its residents through dance. ‘Dancing the Gateway', an 18-month pilot programme, increased the wellbeing and physical confidence of participants and contributed to social inclusion.
People live, grow, learn, work and age in a range of environments, and their lives are affected by residential communities, neighbourhoods and relational communities and social structures. Changes in these environments and communities impact on the people who experience them.
The Thames Gateway is Europe's largest regeneration site. It includes part of east London known as London Thames Gateway. London Thames Gateway has experienced transformation to a post-industrial economy and construction on an enormous scale, including the development of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics site. The rapid pace of change has brought both significant displacement and major investment to the area.
London Thames Gateway Dance Partnership (LTGDP) is a coalition of:
- four leading dance organisations
- the five Gateway London Boroughs
- the five Olympic Boroughs.
It aims to foster a sense of place and identify in transformational social and urban regeneration through participation in dance.
‘Dancing the Gateway' was an 18 month pilot programme coordinated by LTGDP. Eight projects gave participants opportunities to experience high quality dance either as a new way of engaging with their changing built and social environment or as a creative and enjoyable form of physical activity. Each project addressed local needs identified by council arts teams. They included:
- ‘Moving Words', a language and movement course for female adults who speak English as a second language
- Woolwich Polytechnic Boys Dance Project, a series of dance and music workshops and performances by young men exploring their feelings about the area
- ‘Nu Groovz', a programme of dance workshops for children and young people at risk of obesity.
Who was involved?
‘Dancing the Gateway' involved:
- all four LTGDP dance organisations (Chisenhale Dance Space, East London Dance, Greenwich Dance and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance)
- six of the ten partner London Boroughs (Barking and Dagenham, Bexley, Greenwich, Hackney, Havering, Lewisham, Newham, Redbridge, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest).
The LTGDP Coordinator held initial discussions with the councils, coordinated the programme and managed the evaluation.
The programme was funded by an Arts Council England grant of £56,900 and contributions from each participating council. It cost £103,700.
The problem and how it was tackled
Promoting social inclusion
Tower Hamlets is one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the country, where around 110 different languages are spoken. A lack of English language skills is a barrier to inclusion and participation in the local community among Bangladeshi and Somali women in particular. Supporting residents from migrant backgrounds to learn English so they can make friends, feel integrated and seek employment is a priority for the Council and its partners .
Chisenhale Dance Space taught female adult English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students using creative movement, dance and theatrical exercises. The ‘Moving Words' project ran for a year, with a different group of women each term. Participants were mainly Bangladeshi, with some Colombian, Angolan, Brazilian, Korean and Somali women. The project aimed to improve language and social skills as well as increase physical activity.
Sessions combined movement and language exercises to build participants' English vocabulary and grammar, as well as their communication and movement skills. Participants were encouraged to develop their own routines and movements to express themselves. For example, they developed a short sequence to introduce themselves, performing their name and where they come from in movements that drew on cultural traditions from their place of origin.
Participants in ‘Moving Words' grew more at ease with each other, less inhibited about the movement and language exercises, and more confident physically.
Encouraging self-expression and a sense of belonging
Woolwich has experienced significant development and is often associated with negative aspects of youth culture such as gang violence.
Greenwich Dance worked with a group of boys and a teacher from Woolwich Polytechnic School to create a dance piece exploring participants' feelings about where they live. A series of 15 dance and music workshops culminated in six performances in local schools and venues.
Many of the participants took part to improve their communication and social skills. The workshops introduced the boys to a style of dancing called krumping, characterised by free, expressive, exaggerated and highly energetic moves. This enabled participants to express themselves and provided an outlet for the stress and tension they face in their everyday lives.
Participants transferred skills developed through the programme, such as communication, teamwork and self-discipline, to other aspects of their lives:
"I learnt how to communicate with people, like now I know that you shouldn't just worry about yourself, you have to work in unison innit? And so while you are helping others you are helping yourself. This will help me with other stuff in the school, and I can use those skills."
Being part of the school's dance company also gave participants a positive sense of identify and belonging, while the performances challenged stereotypes of themselves as young black urban youth and helped shift perceptions among their audiences.
Encouraging young people to adopt healthy lifestyles
Children living in Lewisham have low levels of physical activity and high levels of obesity at Year 6.
‘Nu Groovz' was a dance programme for seven to 14-year-olds, targeted at those who were physically inactive and overweight or at risk of obesity. It aimed to improve physical fitness, self-esteem and confidence. Laban ran 55 weekly dance workshops at a local leisure centre and their own studios. Sessions included creative dance, taught sequences and movement vocabulary, from contemporary to street dance styles. End of term informal performances at both sites provided opportunities to share and celebrate achievement with families and friends.
Participants in ‘Nu Groovz' developed:
- physical confidence
- enthusiasm and engagement with physical activity
- the ability to work together in a group.
Parents have noticed a marked change in their children's behaviour, weight loss and confidence. The children themselves have also noticed a difference:
"In school I couldn't focus and I was always tired and aching everywhere. Now I'm not tired anymore and I learn more because I can focus."
Outcomes and impact
The Centre for Urban and Community Research (CUCR) at Goldsmiths, University of London evaluated ‘Dancing the Gateway'. CUCR used the Creative Impact Evaluation Toolkit it had developed for evaluating arts-based social inclusion projects. Laban's Dance Science team supplemented the findings by testing the fitness of girls taking part in ‘Nu Groovz'.
The projects that focused on dance as a creative and enjoyable form of physical activity helped increase the wellbeing and physical confidence of participants by:
- developing their physical confidence and ability to use their physicality creatively with others
- helping them to find their voice and express themselves
- enhancing their creativity.
Some projects also achieved direct health benefits, including increased suppleness, cardiovascular fitness, stamina and poise. Girls tested by Laban's Dance Science team showed improvements in balance, flexibility and power.
Projects that focused on dance as a new way of engaging participants with their changing built and social environment contributed to social inclusion by:
- providing opportunities to celebrate the identity of public spaces
- actively engaging participants in making and performing live cultural products rather than simply watching
- bringing together people in and across communities to perform.
Critical success factors to take the work further
Adaptability and flexibility to create projects that met different and changing needs was crucial. The 10 councils involved had different priorities, the wide range of individuals taking part had varying needs and some projects were tied to physical regeneration projects with movable timescales.
Time was taken over designing projects that would work well. Projects were deliberately experimental and often started with speculative discussions between councils and dance agencies about how dance could help address local needs. Some projects started later than planned but had greater impact as a result.
What could have been done better?
Changes in the delivery of projects to meet the different needs and timescales of the many partners involved had an adverse impact on the evaluation.
Dance activity in London Thames Gateway has continued beyond the duration of the pilot projects. For example:
- Chisenhale Dance Space continues to run weekly ‘Moving Words' sessions in Tower Hamlets. Their popularity has increased through word of mouth and personal recommendations, particularly among Bengali women
- Boys from Woolwich Polytechnic School went on to perform at national events in London and Birmingham. The school now employs a dance teacher as part of its PE department and receives ongoing support from Greenwich Dance
- ‘Nu Groovz' still runs at the leisure centre, with some of the original participants and new members. A parallel project has been set up elsewhere in Lewisham targeting inactive adults as well as young people.
Rachel Gibson, Coordinator (2007-2010) London Thames Gateway Dance Partnership Email: firstname.lastname@example.org