Get Scotland Dancing to get nation on its feet

The Commonwealth Ceilidh will span the globe. Picture: Rob McDougall
The Commonwealth Ceilidh will span the globe. Picture: Rob McDougall
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A nationwide project aims to have the whole of Scotland dancing this summer, says Kelly Apter

If, as the late soul legend James Brown suggested, “the one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing”, then Scotland should be on course for a trouble-free summer.

A nationwide project dedicated to inspiring and encouraging all of us to get off our sofas and into a dance class is under way, and I for one am getting on board. Funded by the National Lottery to the tune of £1.5 million, Get Scotland Dancing has been beavering away behind the scenes since 2011 – and has now has unveiled a programme of summer activity to tie in with the culture programme of Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games.

Simplistic though Brown’s quote may be, the impact of dance participation shouldn’t be underestimated. TV cook and Hairy Biker Dave Myers started his stint on Strictly Come Dancing last year with a “bad back and dodgy knees”. His posture corrected during rehearsals and the 56-year-old left the show professing “my backache has gone and my knees are great”.

Obviously dance isn’t a cure-all for everyone, but as James Allenby, Get Scotland Dancing’s project manager, says, it ticks a lot of boxes.

“Dance can enrich people’s lives in many different ways,” he says. “It’s fun, it’s creative and has incredible benefits, not just in terms of your physical health but also your mental well-being.

“You can do it to keep fit, to meet new people, because you want to be a performer, or simply to make yourself happy. And it’s completely accessible – however much you might protest that you can’t do it – it’s open to anyone at any age and at all levels.”

One of the many strands to the project is the Get Dancin’ initiative, through which venues across the country are offering free dance classes in a range of styles. Some of those walking through the door are trying dance for the first time, but most are rediscovering it after many years away.

“Previously, dance was seen as something very clearly associated with children and young people,” says Allenby, “and all the TV programmes have reawakened adults to it. A lot of them danced when they were children – but life gets in the way, and for different reasons they stopped doing the things that made them feel carefree.”

I’ll hold my hand up to that one. Having danced everything from ballet to ballroom until my mid-20s, life did indeed get in the way and it all stopped. Walking into Edinburgh’s Dance Base last autumn to try out their “Bollylicious” class, humiliation was well up my list of expectations. Six months later, I’m loving the high that comes from getting it right – and, like everyone else in the class, laughing at the times when it all falls apart. “You can have some apprehensions about going to a dance class,” says Allenby. “It’s a reasonably public environment, you’ll possibly get sweaty and you’re probably going to do the wrong thing. So it’s about getting people through the door for that first time, because once they’re in there, they see that everybody gets it wrong sometimes. And the feeling they come out with is what makes them really want to go back and do it again.”

Encouraging regular participation is the bedrock of the whole Get Scotland Dancing project, and part of that is demonstrating just how enjoyable dance can be. Since nothing says “fun” quite like a large-scale outdoor spectacle, there are plenty of those planned for this summer.

With 1920s style “ragtime picnics” in the gardens of country houses, “dance trails” designed to surprise and delight passers-by in unusual locations, and “dance-along movies” on big outdoor screens, the ways to engage people are many and varied. Conscious that a one-size-fits-all approach might not work, however, Allenby has been working closely with six dance “hubs” across the country in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Stirling.

“They have all been funded to make programmes of work, responding to the opportunities and needs in their particular area,” explains Allenby. “And everybody has devised their own thing to make it really unique.”

But it’s not just Scotland that the project wants to get dancing – it’s the rest of the world. Starting in New Zealand at 7.30pm on 21 June, the Commonwealth Ceilidh will slowly travel around the globe, passing through Scotland at 7.30pm GMT and ending in Hawaii 24 hours after it started – a global adventure made possible by the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society, which has 500 groups in more than 120 countries.

“The Commonwealth Ceilidh is designed to celebrate and show off our Scottish culture and heritage,” says Allenby, “and to bring some of the more traditional dances to the forefront which are sometimes neglected.”

With ceilidhs planned for Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow, plus many more in venues around the world, the event will feature 12 existing dances and three specially commissioned ones, instructions and music for which can be downloaded from the Get Scotland Dancing website.

But in terms of size and scale, the Big Dance Pledge is the jewel in Get Scotland Dancing’s crown. Taking place on 16 May, at 1pm and 7pm, it’s a chance for anybody, anywhere, to perform a four-minute routine and know they’re part of a global dance wave.

“It’s been choreographed with people of all ages in mind,” says Catherine Cassidy of Scottish Ballet, who created the Pledge. “And so far, over 25,000 people have signed up to do it.”

Cassidy and her team created a short film demonstrating the Pledge movements (interpretations of which are also welcome) featuring children, older people, and a wheelchair user amongst others.

“We wanted to reach out to the wider population and say actually, dance is for everyone,” says Cassidy. “And if you look at the film, you can see them all dancing together and how easy it is.”

Less public facing, but crucial for the future of dance in this country, Get Scotland Dancing has also funded development officer posts, youth mentoring schemes, a major new work for Aberdeen International Youth Festival, Scotland’s first international inclusive dance festival and the Commonwealth Youth Dance Festival.

For those working in the six hubs, the connections made between dance centres, theatre venues and local authorities have paid dividends.

“It’s been really exciting,” says Emma Young of Dance House in Glasgow. “And for us it’s all about reaching out to new participants and spreading the joy that is dance. Because for many people, who are looking for a physical activity but can’t find the right fit, dance offers so many different aspects. So we want to help them join in and see how much they can benefit from it.”

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