Mean Feet Dance’s One Step Forward pilot project offered creative dance tasters, short courses and performance opportunities to mental health service users in Somerset. Viv Gordon talks about the project

A photo of The Wells Group © PHOTO Liz Pearson

One of the main aims of the One Step Forward programme is to pull together my 10 years of experience working with mental health groups into a consistent and sustainable provision. In my work with adults, older people, women with post-natal depression, addicts in recovery and homeless people, I have been privileged to witness the great impact that dance can have on wellbeing. Dancing together reduces isolation and stigma, builds confidence and self esteem, harnesses the benefits of physical activity and creativity for self-awareness and expression and gives voice to marginalised populations.

The pilot projects were funded by Somerset Skills and Learning (2010) and Awards for All (2011) and involved over 200 people. They were developed in consultation with stakeholders including the Somerset Partnership NHS, Somerset Primary Care Trust, Rethink (national mental health charity), Turning Point (UK health and social care organisation), local branches of MIND and other small independent organisations. Through this consultation we were able to link to national initiatives such as ‘Time to Change’ (combating mental health discrimination) and the drive to promote physical activity as part of the recovery process based on a growing understanding of the mind-body connection. We aligned with the ‘social contact’ ethos, working in the community (as opposed to in mental health settings) with the aim of achieving more community integration for people with mental health needs.

This work is challenging – our target group is vulnerable and the very definition of ‘hard-to-reach’. The challenges are exacerbated by the shifting landscape of mental health services facing the impact of massive cuts: the desire for integrated activities is not necessarily backed up with resources to help people to access them. Our most successful groups in Wells, Yeovil and Bridgwater benefitted from the support of Rethink, South Somerset MIND and New Directions (Bridgwater MIND) respectively, whose staff accompanied their service users or helped arrange transport. Other support came from St Andrew's Ward in Wells and Willow Ward in Bridgwater; both dedicated staff to help people attend.

Inspired by our participants’ aspiration to perform and share their work, we celebrated the end of the second pilot with a public event at Bridgwater Arts Centre in Oct 2011. Three groups devised and performed short pieces: one based on a Bangladeshi song about joy and freedom that a participant had brought to a session; one looking at the turning year through the seasons; and one based on a poem which takes a narrative journey from a closed, isolated state to an open, connected state – a metaphor for recovery and an experience the participants reflected they achieved while dancing together.

In response to a feedback survey, 100% of participants felt that dance was helping them feel better about themselves, more confident and more able to interact with other people. One participant commented “Dance gives us a chance to express our thoughts and feelings”. Another said: “This is when I become myself and can put aside my worries”. The feedback from our project partners is equally encouraging, recognising dance as: “a positive tool towards our clients' recovery and management of their mental health” and “a real asset to our clients' mental wellbeing”. This response demonstrates real potential for sustainable dance and mental health provision in Somerset, and we are looking towards the future at ways of growing the work through courses, advocacy and training.

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The original version of this revised article was published in the Winter 2011 edition of Animated magazine and is reproduced by permission of Foundation for Community Dance. All Rights Reserved. See for more information.

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