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Dance thrives on physical contact and live audiences, so how can the country’s largest youth dance festival move to an online format? Cameron Ball explains.

image of a pair of hands taking a photo on a mobile phone of a dancer in mid air - the phone has the U.Dance 2020 logo in the foreground

The dance industry is going through immensely trying times, so it’s more important than ever that we consider the needs of the next generation of dancers and dance leaders. How do we reach them, inspire them and educate them when, for a time, the traditional structures have been taken away?

A key remit of One Dance UK is to create dance opportunities for young people, so we have moved our flagship youth dance event, the U.Dance National Youth Dance Festival, online this year. The energy of sharing a studio space and the buzz of a live audience is hard to imitate, so inevitable compromises have to be made when access is via video conference or social media stream. But this jolt into a new format has some benefits and has revealed some ways to work technology into future events, which will be retained once the industry rebuilds.

The stage was set

U.Dance has a proud history. More than 5,000 young dancers take part in performances and workshops at events nationwide each year. Groups are selected to represent each region at the U.Dance National Festival, held each summer, with its networking events, industry information, workshops with leading professionals and performances on the biggest stages. Previous festivals have been held at London’s Southbank Centre, the Birmingham Hippodrome and The Lowry, Salford. U.Dance alumni have gone on to perform in leading companies and West End shows, or develop careers in dance management and education, while others have simply experienced the thrill of performing and furthered their appreciation for dance.

The 2020 plan was for hundreds of young dancers to assemble in Glasgow in mid-July for a festival with a uniquely Scottish flavour. Theatres were booked, studio schedules were finessed, accommodation was arranged, even ceilidhs were prepared. With an unforeseen pandemic jeté-ing into all of our lives, the regional U.Dance events (normally held in March-April) were paused, the national festival postponed by a full year, and the carefully-laid plans were shelved.

We had to find a way to deliver the national festival, with it being the focal point of a year’s worth of regional events, and so, as the world moved to videoconferencing for work, education and dance tuition, an online dance festival was created: U.Dance Digital 2020.

Staying agile: a step change in direction

Out of the ruins came new opportunities. Hosting an event online is liberating from a programming perspective and makes it a truly national event. U.Dance Digital 2020 comprises 30 online sessions across three days from 17-19 July. We have programmed masterclasses with dancers from the country’s biggest companies, industry panels, informal career info Q&As, invited applications for online dance showcases, and scheduled watch parties of exclusive dance entertainment.

There should be no barriers (cost, geography, disability) to accessing U.Dance platforms. When we assembled our plans for the new online format, this ethos of inclusivity formed a key part of our decision making. The audience is 11-19 year olds (up to 25 with a disability), and the entire event is accessed for free, thanks to Arts Council England funding and other event supporters. We are essentially bringing the festival to them, and are working with partners to maximise accessibility. With an event of this size, particularly involving children and young people, we have been particularly vigilant about physical safety and online safety, so there is detailed guidance for participants, session leaders, and parents and carers.

An ensemble effort

The lineup of professionals is diverse in many ways, including geographical representation from Scottish Dance Theatre to ACE dance and music (based in Birmingham), and from artists with The Royal Ballet and leading West End shows to NDCWales.

Many major youth dance events have been cancelled this year, including conventions, competitions and showcases, so there is an opportunity to reach those who may not have engaged with U.Dance before. This will increase awareness and application numbers in future years, and allow us to provide expert dance knowledge and inspiration to more young people than ever. We had over 1,000 registrations in the first two days of the programme being announced.

Three lessons for future repertoire

When things return to some semblance of normal, it is not just working practices that will be adapted. Large events like U.Dance will have an increased online element and today’s lockdown technologies will no doubt inform our work, with certain changes:
1) Using videoconference for a sense of occasion
Special events like this need to stand out amidst the barrage of social media information. To make it feel like attending U.Dance is a personal experience, we have avoided the format of everything being streamed for free on social media, even though a lot of the promotion was led on these platforms. Most sessions are held on private videoconferences, so participants have to directly ‘opt in’ to each session, improving levels of engagement, and allowing for smoother data capture.

2) Having a digital element to the dance masterclasses and income generation
Technology has broken down barriers of time and distance, and with a few simple preparations we can increase engagement in the event and share knowledge and skills with more young dancers. In future years, we will be looking to stream the live classes and performances from the national festival. This year, we are providing donation links for those who would like to make a contribution, which is another way of using tech to combat the loss of box office income.

3) Inviting more digital applications.
We have opened up digital applications for online showcasing and have had a huge response. It shows how adaptable our young people are around creativity and technology, and is a low-cost addition to the event. Working in a mixture of in-person and online formats is the new normal for young people - from schoolwork to socialising to dance competitions - and should be harnessed and nurtured in future.

This is unknown territory for many of us in dance, but we are hopeful U.Dance Digital 2020 will continue the festival’s legacy of inspiration and education. Theatres and dance studios may be closed today, but we must all work to encourage the passion and aspiration of young people who will create our art and grace our stages in years to come.

Cameron Ball is Festival Manager of U.Dance National Youth Dance Festival, run by the sector support organisation for dance, One Dance UK.

U.Dance Digital 2020 takes place 17-19 July 2020. All young dancers are invited to take part. Further information: www.udancedigital.org.

Link to Author(s): 
Cameron Ball