Dance workshops, courses and events in Somerset have allowed over 400 people with mental health issues to ‘escape their troubled minds’. Viv Gordon discusses their impact.

Image of performers in One Step Forward

One Step Forward, Mean Feet’s dance and mental health programme is in its fourth phase since starting in 2010. The programme fills a gap by providing dance activity aimed at people with mental health needs outside a dance therapy context. It is an artist-led programme which, like much arts activity, has significant therapeutic outcomes. Yet, our focus is art, supporting participants to gain artistic skills, knowledge and voice and culturally enfranchising people on the margins of society. We address the space left in disability dance which, while doing incredible work, overlooks the largest cause of disability in the UK: the invisible one − mental (ill) health.

I am a dancer with lifelong mental health issues. I have post-traumatic stress disorder from a highly disordered childhood. I have struggled with addiction, dissociative and compulsive behaviours, anxiety and depression, and through it all I have danced. Dance has been an escape from my troubled mind and somewhere I can be in control as well as able to express my deepest feelings, find out about myself and let go. It has enabled me to connect with myself and others and lift myself up out of my past and become a creative agent in my future.

What started as a personal crusade to ‘share’ something that benefited me has quickly grown into a campaign for a home within the dance ecology for me and others like me. We (who don’t fit in) need places where we can fit in, that recognise our needs and challenges and that believe in and invest in us as artists. The One Step Forward project is becoming such a place. Over the last four years we have delivered workshops, courses and events across Somerset reaching over 400 people with mental health needs. This summer, participants from three groups will come together to make a short dance piece on the theme of recovery that will tour five arts and community festivals.

We are aware that in order to grow the programme we have to talk the language of both the arts and health sectors

We are the first programme of our kind and scale in the UK. Alongside the artistic programme, we are committed to an ongoing process of reflective practice, user involvement, impact assessment, research and dissemination. We are aware that in order to grow the programme we have to talk the language of both the arts and health sectors. Our impact review (2013) carried out by independent evaluator Eloise Malone provides evidence of significant outcomes against indicators in both camps. We measured participants’ feelings of social connectedness, sense of motivation and purpose and physical activity levels. These are areas highlighted in the Department of Health’s paper ‘No Health Without Mental Health’ (2011). We also measured the participants’ sense of creativity, voice and technical skills. The report maps these outcomes against national arts and mental health policy.

We are continuing this cross-sector conversation in our current programme by working with two consultants. One is exploring our artistic vision and helping us develop a ‘theory of change’ by looking at relevant examples cross-artform as well as lessons we can learn from integrated dance and concepts such as Outsider Art. The other is a health sector commissioning expert who is supporting us to form relationships with health-sector partners and translate our sometimes touchy-feely arts-speak into solid evidence-based practice.

Some of the best advocacy for our work comes from the in-depth interviews carried out by Eloise during her review. This is what Carol, one of our participants, said: “I wasn’t allowed to dance when I was a child as my family couldn’t afford it. My friend did do dancing; she had costumes and did shows. But I didn’t. I never felt creative before. I heard positive stories about people with bipolar who have a creative outlet and I never felt that before. One Step Forward does that for me. I’ve seen people of all ages and all sorts of struggles forget about pain and fear, and get caught up in the joy of dance. I see people feeling safe and happy…playing. Depression is a fight and a struggle. I’ve become a bigger and bolder person through this. Having spent years paralysed by fear and not going out and not talking, this has made me want to come. I’ve developed confidence and people skills. I’ve never been to the ballet. I’d love to go. I’ve been to a few things at the theatre in this past year. I never have been before. I wasn’t interested in the arts before because I was consumed by my poor mental health. It was my world. You fight, and you come out the other side, and then you can open up to the beauty and joy of life. This has opened up a whole new world of possibilities.”

Viv Gordon is the Founder and Artistic Director of Mean Feet Dance and the One Step Forward Programme.

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Image of Viv Gordon