Illustration by Buttercrumble
When I think back to my days as a greasy-skinned youth growing up in the suburbs of Lincolnshire, I often wish I could have been part of a community of young people that allowed me to blossom freely. I wish I could have been taken under a wing other than that of the tawny owl leader of our local Brownies group, who scorned my Bart Simpson t-shirt, and couldn’t understand the discomfort I felt in being made to wear that lurid brown skirt. Maybe if I’d found such an environment I’d have been a confident, happy and healthy teen far earlier. Luckily, Leeds’ young people have a plethora of community groups at hand to help steer them away from other negative influences.
In a city where 23% of under 16s live in poverty and 4 out of 10 feel that they aren’t part of society, Leeds’ youth are at risk of falling off society’s radar. This is where West Yorkshire’s not-for-profit charities step in, and help to improve the health and wellbeing of disadvantaged and vulnerable young people by providing opportunities and nurturing communities. Running since 2000, DAZL – Dance Action Zone Leeds – is a charity organisation that aims to get children moving, and provides them the vibrant peacock wing of founder Ian Rodley to nestle under.
?Ian passionately explains that “the charity was initially set up in order to get young girls physically active. We recognised that dance is something they’d engage with and participate in.” Now that DAZL has grown, it is for all young people, particularly those from areas of deprivation. “We give them something worthwhile to do that is within their community. I still feel like one of the girls though!”
?What makes this project particularly special is its support for those who may feel as if they have been written off. Like the role model that many of the students may lack, DAZL acts as a guiding force to the youth, promoting higher education and fostering empowerment. Through running events, galas, shows and volunteering schemes for community sessions, the students are also able to give back to the people and places that helped them flower. In this sense, the organisation embodies a certain cyclicality, which sees them become cornerstones of the community from whence they came, acting as peer leaders for the next generation of young dancers. DAZL champions young people’s achievements.
?This is made evident when Ian tells me the story of Vicky Mawson’s passion and ambition, that he says is just one of thousands that illustrates the impact that DAZL has on its students. After beginning as a young dance leader, Vicky is now one of DAZL’s most valued and respected dance development officers. After coming through DAZL’s model, Vicky went on to university to study dance. She now contributes to what the organisation artistically showcases, and is shaping the way DAZL is run at its very core. Vicky has created a culture of strength for the young people she now inspires and is motivating youngsters to follow in her footsteps. “She was 13 when I met her,” exclaims Ian, “and now she wants my job!”
?The organisation is one that is both embedded in culture and that responds to youth culture. For Ian, DAZL is all about harnessing creatively what is popular at the time. It is about really listening to what young people want, letting them have a voice and responding to their needs. DAZL have a team conducting grassroots research and visiting schools all over Leeds to discover this. It also has community dance practitioners that listen to trends and work out where the gaps are, ensuring that their young students never miss out on the opportunity to take part in dance training and high art dance. Furthermore, DAZL seeks to break down cultural barriers through entrenching culture into its choreography. “Everybody dances,” Ian says, “so when we do Bollywood or African dancing, for example, we bridge a gap that may exist between students of different backgrounds.”
Although I can’t help but feel that, DAZL or no DAZL, Ian would be pirouetting his way through the streets of West Yorkshire encouraging all the young people he could find to improve their physical and mental health via the medium of dance, one thing is for certain: this organisation is far away from the dusty and disconnected world of youth activity that many of us grew up with and is one that is effectively run by its peers, for its peers. DAZL provides an accessible community within communities, and introduces a sense of belonging and well-being into the hectic lives of this city’s youth. “You dance because you are having a good time,” Ian concludes. “That in itself makes you feel good, and that improves your health.”