Neurodiversity, Performance, and Dance: In Conversation with Natasha Britton, Dance Practice Director of Magpie Dance

| Azad Sharma

We’ve recently been hearing a lot about ‘the art of co-production’ and have published some articles on ‘co-production in the arts’ as a result. Art is a powerful tool to bring people together, to provide creative opportunities, and to empower individuals in their own lives. We we’re really excited to connect with Magpie Dance, a charity that has been providing Dance lessons to people with learning disabilities since 1985. Based in Bromley, London, Magpie Dance use a combination of workshops, performances, lessons, and incredibly diverse outreach work to positively impact the lives of many individuals and families. Here is a short video they gives an overview of their work: 

We wanted to learn more about Magpie Dance, what performances they’re planning this year, how they’ve grown as an organisation, and find out how they work with people with learning disabilities in such a fantastic and artistic way. Whilst the therapeutic benefits of ‘dance and movement therapy’ are well documented, it was a breath of fresh air to see an organisation so committed to training dancers of a variety of ages and abilities, encouraging professional dancers to be more inclusive, and to provide a learning development path for all who come through their door. We spoke to Natasha Britton, Dance Practice Director at Magpie Dance about neurodiversity, performance, and an inclusive dance practice. 

Tell us about yourself, your work, and Magpie Dance

I oversee the quality across the organisation and address training courses, and outreach offers that Magpie deliver. I’ve been working for Magpie Dance for 16 years. 

Magpie Dance is a dance charity for people with learning disabilities. We work using dance to engage, inspire, and empower the people we work with.  Our work focuses on the power of the arts to enrich peoples’ lives.  

I came in initially as the Assistant Director of the youth group. At that point there wasn’t a youth programme and they appointed myself and a colleague of mine to start one youth group a week and develop the programme. We now have eight weekly youth groups. Our programme in general has also expanded from ten classes a week, two years ago, to 15 classes a week as of this September. We also run Easter and Summer schools, outreach work in schools and day centres. We also deliver professional training to teachers, dance professionals and to people in different work environments looking at inclusivity.

Who has been your greatest inspiration or influence?

It would be Avril Hitman who was the Founder & Former Artistic Director of Magpie Dance 34 years ago now. Magpie Dance originally started as one class, once a week in a day centre. Avril secured funding and grew the team into an inspiring organisation. Avril retired two years ago. She was a mentor and a role model to me and has inspired hundreds if not thousands more people along the way. 

Could you tell us more about the role of performance in Magpie Dance’s work?

Performance is a really important part of Magpie Dance. We work to improve peoples’ skills in our dance sessions but then also create opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist. We have ‘end of term sharings’ in every single class which is where parents, families, carers can come and watch what we’ve created. We also have large-scale performances approximately every two years but we’re trying to make that happen yearly. We also undertake mini-tours of work. For example our adult choreographers at the moment are working on repeating a tour of a production that we created at the end of last year called Hidden Impact. They recently performed extracts of Hidden Impact at the Royal Opera House and are hoping to return to perform again in November. And we perform at various pop-up venues, like the Glades shopping centre, for example, or as part of a disability awareness festival or event. Live music plays an important part in our work. The musicians are part of our team and have a very specific way of working with us as they play in response to what they see as well as play to inspire. 

What is the biggest production that Magpie Dance has done and could you tell us the story behind it?

The pinnacle event was in December 2018. It was for our Hidden Impact production. We linked with Dr. Lee Humber from Ruskin College in Oxford. Dr Humber was working with a self-advocacy group called My Life My Choice and they’d come across some research which indicated that people with learning disabilities had been part of the war efforts in World War One. We were interested in uncovering more about those stories. Until that point there had been nothing about it in either books or museums which indicated that people with learning disabilities were part of the war effort. The other side of what we wanted to work towards was uncovering the history of World War One –and history in general, really– for people with learning disabilities as there’s a lack of opportunities for people with learning disabilities to access heritage. 

The result was the researcher found individual stories of people who back then would have been relabelled by doctors as ‘useful imbeciles’ which is the terminology that was used at the time. It’s difficult to hear. But these people were on the front line. We wanted to uncover this history and ensure that people’s stories are told. We worked with our dancers to look at the story of World War One and included that difficult subject matter in the story. We created a whole company production in December (2018) and it had dancers from our junior classes –aged eight– all the way through to our adult participants. It was a full length production, performed to a packed theatre and it was live streamed and watched live by hundreds of people. Lots of audience members were in tears after the performance. I’m always pleased when we’ve managed to challenge the audience especially when it comes to people’s preconceptions about what people with learning disabilities can achieve or understand. 

In addition to the performance, we created an exhibition which pulled together the ideas and the research which our dancers had engaged with throughout the process. The exhibition featured a sequence of panels which were displayed in the foyer of the performance venue. Since then the exhibition has also done a tour of different venues including a number of libraries in the Bromley area where we are based. 

There were two more aspects to this project as well. A documentary film was created about the whole process and that’s on YouTube. And there is also an digital exhibition which has just been launched. It’s the first time we’ve done a project that’s so multi-faceted. 

We’ve also heard about the Ambassador Project. Could you tell us a bit more?

The Ambassador Project is fed by our peer-mentor scheme. We noticed that we had certain dancers who as well as attending sessions for their own development, were also interested in supporting others. So we began a peer mentor scheme which is a series of three modules that the dancer will study across three terms over a year. The criteria for the peer-mentor scheme is taken from the first two modules of our Inclusive Dance Practice Training programme which is the training for professional dancers to come and learn how to work inclusively. 

Peer-mentors start with looking at being a role model, being positive, inspiring others, and they progress onto one-to-one support so they’re guiding someone they’re working with. They’re able to change how they’re working depending on an individual’s needs. That progresses into supporting groups. The lead in the sessions they support will mark them each week and give them feedback to help them improve. Once they’ve finished the peer-mentor course, in the past, we didn’t have a progression path from that. But we were aware that we needed something, that this was a stepping stone and extremely valuable. 

Last year we began the Ambassador Project to enable graduates from the peer-mentor course to share their skills and experiences across our classes and we offer the opportunity to become an Ambassador to all graduates from the peer-mentor course. We have a total of 13 Ambassadors currently. 10 are over the age of 25 and they support us in junior or youth sessions. The three under 25 help us at events, fairs, or disability awareness festivals. They might also help us deliver workshops at schools and colleges. We were just at Nash College  on Monday 15thJuly and had two of our Ambassadors leading the cool-downs after helping us with a workshop. Also, we’ve just had our youngest ever Ambassador graduate who is 16 years old. 

As an organisation which works with people with learning disabilities it is really important to us that as we grow we have a neurodiverse team ourselves. We see the Ambassador programme as a stepping stone towards that so that wherever we go we’re representing the people we work with. 

To find out more and for ways you can get involved and support Magpie Dance, please visit their website www.magpiedance.org.uk or watch the Hidden Impact performance here.

Photos and Videos by Magpie Dance

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