One Youth Dance ticks all the 'Big Society' boxes so why doesn't it receive public funding?
The dance company is run by young people for those who can't access conventional classes.
Richard Garner has been Education Editor of The Independent for 12 years and writing about the subject for 34 years. Before becoming a journalist, he worked as a disc jockey in London pubs and clubs and for a hospital radio station. His main hobbies are cricket (watching these days) and theatre. On his days off, he is most likelt to be found at Lord’s or the King’s Head Theatre Club.
Thursday 07 June 2012
It has just gone 11am on a Saturday morning and it is the first really bright summer's Saturday of 2012. Critics of today's younger generation would have you believe most teenagers would either still be in bed or roaming the streets and up to no good in some form or other.
Around 20 teenagers, though, are gathered in the Islington Arts Factory – practising for a show they are doing the following week and generally honing their dancing skills.
That's not the end of the matter. The One Youth Dance company is run by young people for young people, with young people giving up their time for nothing to pass on their skills to the enthusiastic teenagers gathered in this arts factory just opposite Holloway prison (where presumably some of the stereotypes of the other vision of today's young languish).
One Youth Dance was the brainchild of 18-year-old Joanna Shaw while she was on the second year of a dance course at a college in Southend. She gave up the course to run the company and enlisted the help of a childhood friend, 16-year-old Lydia Dufur, who was anxious to improve her choreography skills and is, in fact, now teaching the rest of the troupe.
"I had the idea during my second year at dance college," says Joanna. "Initially it was just me and three or more of my friends. The first thing was how were we going to get ourselves known, so we spent the whole summer planning and advertising the group. Our main aims are to ensure all young people from whatever backgrounds can enjoy dance and to raise the standards of dance."
Joanna adds: "Many of those who have come to us would not be able to afford to go to a conventional dance school – and so may not be able to take part in dance classes outside of school. Also, taking a GCSE in dancing is not real dancing – that's my feeling, I'm sorry."
Joanna and her friends eventually found a helpful ally who printed around 10,000 leaflets advertising the new troupe and secured cheap(ish) accommodation in a number of halls, which enabled them to set up. "It's not brilliant," she says, "but it's all right and we can practise."
The One Youth Dance Group is seizing on the new-found popularity of dance amongst today's younger generation – thanks largely to TV shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and talent shows such as Britain's Got Talent.
Around 40 youngsters pitched up for its first auditions and 12 were taken on with the troupe. They came from all across London and the Home Counties.
Alice Wells, aged 15, makes the trek from Haslemere near Guildford in Surrey every weekend to take part. "I was coming up for an audition for a TV show and me and my mum got to London early for it," she says. "We saw an advert for it and it sounded just the thing. There's not much in the way of dancing opportunities around where I live and I had wanted to do a GCSE in dance at school – but it got cancelled because there was not enough interest in it. It has helped me a lot – with stamina and training. I really want to become a professional dancer. We come up here every Saturday, and Sundays, too, sometimes, but it's worth it. They push you here."
The One Youth Dance group, though, is still forced to lead a hand-to-mouth existence, which means it has to charge a nominal fee of £3 per session, although Joanna is quick to point out that she runs a bursary scheme for those who cannot afford it. "I can't let anybody be turned away because they can't afford it," she says. "I just can't."
The group has won financial support from the Prince's Trust (Prince Charles's charity funds a range of activities that help give youngsters the skills they need for employment and also arts ventures). However, that does not cover the rent or paying those who run it for their time and effort. Joanna has another job to bring in some money.
Since its launch, the One Youth Dance group has gained widespread recognition – getting to the semi-finals of a dance competition staged at London's Royal Festival Hall, amongst other achievements. It put on its own Christmas spectacular and also participated in an international inter-city dance competition. It is taking to the boards again tomorrow.
One of the stars of its Christmas show was 17-year-old Ishaka Kalkoh. "It was a free audition and so I decided I would come along," he says. "It was open to everybody, even if you had a disability or hadn't danced before. The teachers here don't give up on you even though you've had no experience before."
Ishaka is already starting out as an actor and has taken part in a production of Fame, the famous 1980s musical about a New York school of the performing arts. He believes learning dance will give him another string to his bow when he seeks to go professional after leaving college in south London – where he is currently studying for AS-levels.
Ishaka is one of a number who have joined the troupe from south-east London as word of it has spread. Danny Gee, aged 17, is hoping for a sporting career but believes dancing is improving his general fitness levels and making him more supple.
Andre Sanchez, a third member of this south London group, was encouraged to sign up by his friends "because I was always dancing at school". "I'm Spanish so I was dancing salsa and the rumba," he says, "but this has widened my horizons. We do things like ballet and hip-hop."
Fifteen-year-old Chanelle Anthony believes the skills she has learnt at One Youth Dance Factory have been a positive boon in auditioning for a place at the BRIT school for the performing arts in Croydon, south London – where she plans to go after completing her secondary school education.
The troupe has already increased in number and now has around 19 dancers signed up. Joanna would like to expand even further. "I'd like to have two troupes – the other one for slightly younger, lower-level dancers," she says. "When I first started, I wanted a group for beginners but that kind of fizzled out. I'd like to try it again."
Since quitting her dance course, Joanna has become more interested in the teaching side of dancing. She would love her role to become full-time and be able to earn a living from it. "If this could be my job, that would be my dream world," she says.
The history of the One Youth Dance group is all about a community getting together and setting up its own activities for the betterment of all the people in that community.
At a time when more than a million young people aged between 16 and 25 are unemployed and we hear criticism in some circles that this group is work-shy and reluctant to knuckle down to doing what they have to do to improve their skills, a venture like One Youth Dance would appear to be all the more praiseworthy.
It would seem to tick all the boxes for Prime Minister David Cameron's "Big Society", but so far only the Prince's Trust has laudably come to its rescue and provided it with finance.
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