Dance United NI

The Belfast-based dance company reach out to children and adults of all ages and backgrounds. Click Play Audio for a podcast with artistic director Mags Byrne

On June 11, a group of primary school children will take to the stage of the Ulster Hall. They will perform a new dance piece called The Wren, based on the famous folktale The Wren and the Eagle and incorporating elements from the ancient traditions of mumming, the wren boys and the straw boys. Music will be by the internationally acclaimed band Kíla.

The performance will be a curtain raiser to an important conference taking place the following day in the same venue and organised by Dance United NI. Its purpose is to disseminate and share the findings of REACH.In Out, a three-year primary schools dance and creative arts programme, which has been evaluated by child psychologist, Dr Orla Muldoon from the University of Limerick, arts consultant Lizzie Devlin and Ken Armstrong from the Nerve Centre’s Studio On.

Dance United NI's Reach.In Out project 2006-2009'We believe that what will be discussed at this conference can significantly contribute to the debate about the important role of the arts in the development of children and young people,' says Dance United NI's artistic director, Mags Byrne. 'It will provide evidence on how such creative programmes can assist governments to deliver on important policy objectives.'

It may all sound a tad earnest, but the reality of the day-to-day work of Dance United NI is a very far cry from worthy do-gooding. For instance, when a 20-year old from a hardline estate in north Belfast tells you that his first encounter with the company took him out of 'a very bad place', you have to sit up and listen.

Andy says that after being recruited by Dance United NI, his life was turned around. Having completed his final year of schooling via an EOTAS (Education Other Than at School) scheme, his very first contact with the world of dance was through the company’s ‘Building Bridges’ project, which brought together teenagers from two EOTAS groups and children with moderate learning difficulties.

The group devised and performed a piece for an audience at the Courtyard Theatre in Ballyearl. Afterwards, Andy was bitten by the bug. He has since performed in London, Hamburg and Berlin, with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor Sir Simon Rattle, who inspired him with his passion and love of his art.

'I was at the bottom of the pile,' he admits, with disarming honesty. 'I didn’t know where my life was going. I was hanging out with the wrong crowd, missing school, getting into bother. Many days, I couldn’t even manage to get out of bed. Now I’m proud to say that I’m a dancer.'

Andy is one of many people whose view of life has been transformed through direct contact with this busy Belfast-based company, which runs programmes for people who, for a variety of reasons, find themselves excluded from mainstream society.

Artistic director Mags Byrne is a professional dancer and choreographer, who has lived and worked for Over The Halfpenny Bridge projectmany years in Northern Ireland. Back in the late 1980s, she and fellow dancer Mary Brady performed together as Footwork Dance Company and were at the vanguard of the revival of the dance scene.

Another influential name from that time is the world-famous choreographer and animateur, Scotsman Royston Maldoom. His highly respected artistic philosophy is built upon his unshakeable conviction that dance is for everyone, regardless of age, physical shape and ability, social background or education.

Maldoom used to be a familiar figure during his days as the driving force behind the much-missed Ulster Youth Dance movement and now brings that vision to the work of Dance Umbrella in London. He has used dance to contribute to raising achievement and expectations, particularly for young boys, and his educational outreach programme with Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic was documented in the movie Rhythm is It!, which won the German Lola Movie Award for best documentary film.

Byrne and Maldoom spent several years in Ethiopia, running hugely successful dance programmes with street and working children. The young people they met and worked with left a lasting impression on them.

'These were kids who, in material terms, literally had nothing,' explains Byrne. 'Yet they were so generous of spirit and so willing to give of themselves. We wanted to share the experiences we’d gained in Ethiopia and explore dance as a tool for development with marginalised people in our own communities. Hence, Dance United was set up across the water and Dance United NI here.

'We work through the medium of contemporary dance and deliver a wide range of workshops and projects with people of all ages and abilities. By focusing on non-issue based work, we set out to introduce dance and the creative arts to people who might not otherwise have the opportunity to take part in them.

'Our long-term aim is to facilitate personal and social development, community connections and integration. Performance is an integral part of the process and I’m proud to say that all our projects are delivered to the highest professional standards.'

Dance United NIThe response from participants and the packed audience at Over the Halfpenny Bridge, Dance United NI's big night of performance at St. George’s Market in Belfast in April 2009 would certainly bear out her words. Children from Elmgrove Primary School in east Belfast joined together with elderly people from neighbouring Greenville Court and Elmgrove Manor in a three-month project, culminating in this memorable night of celebration.

Writer Ruth Carr, Rastafarian poet Levi Tafari, print maker Robin Cordiner, musicians Nikki Such, Patrick and Bronagh Davey and Irish, Greek and Indian dancers worked with the children and their older counterparts in discovering new ways of looking at themes of cultural diversity, memory and the Irish Famine.

'I am staggered by the range and the quality of what has been produced this evening,' said school principal David Hutchinson. 'The children have acquired so many new skills by working with this terrific company and, through them, all of our minds have been opened.'

And the valuable work of Dance United NI is perhaps best summed up by one of the professional artists working on REACH.In Out: 'There was an overwhelming feeling from the children of how much they were enjoying the opportunities this project had given them. Plus a general sense of well-being, through being part of a special creative process which most of them would never have had access to, due to social and environmental factors.'

Jane Coyle