With indoor activities currently curtailed, we speak to Michelle Hainsworth of Community Dance Isle of Wight about her 'Dance on the Grass' sessions . . .

A lot of Michelle’s dancers are in the vulnerable category (over 70) and therefore had to self-isolate for many weeks. She kept in touch with participants and created pre-recorded sessions with technical exercises they had previously done in class. Some of the groups were set the task of creating a short dance inspired by places in their homes and gardens, which Michelle edited into a film.

After 12 weeks, Michelle emailed her groups asking if they'd like more pre-recorded sessions, some Zoom classes or classes outdoors. Overwhelmingly they voted for outdoor classes, they missed dancing as a group and needed to see each other . . . . 

So Michelle visited parks, playing fields and the grounds of a church, carried out risk assessments and sent guidance out to participants regarding how the classes would be run, what they should wear, what they should bring with them.

Here are the various things that Michelle considered:

  • Do I need permission to dance on the land?
  • Is the ground flat(ish)? 
  • Can we separate ourselves from members of the public?
  • Can the dancers be spread out and not facing each other?
  • Is there a toilet nearby?
  • Is the space easy to get to? 

The biggest barrier Michelle faced is that some participants are reluctant to use public transport, so she took the classes to them - choosing 4 venues around the Isle of Wight and taking it in turns to hold classes in these different places. 

Michelle had on average 10 participants in each space, as they felt do-able and safe. She did a contemporary dance warm-up, although had to limit feet exercises as people wear trainers or canvas shoes outside. 

For the creative section, participants used their surroundings for inspiration - for example during one session participants said what they could see (e.g. the sea, clouds, trees, churches) and created a movement to represent that. 

Michelle found it was important to keep groups small because otherwise it was difficult to have your voice heard with more people as they are so spread out. She scanned the space before the class to check for litter, glass etc but told participants that ultimately they need to check out their own space.   

During six weeks, Michelle only had to cancel three lessons - one for rain and two because it was too hot to dance safely. Participants knew to expect a text if she had to cancel.

One of the regular classes always started with seated exercises, so Michelle took along some plastic garden chairs (which she disinfects before each session) and some people brought their own. 

Michelle said: “With the average age being 80 in these classes it took a lot of soul-searching about whether I should really be encouraging the elderly back to class.  However, I’m so glad I did.  Some are so pale, having been outside so little.  Some move much more cautiously and have lost some mobility.  After an hour outside there is lots of laughter, everyone is walking straighter and I am inundated with thanks. 

One day I took a class at the churchyard and it teemed with rain.  I asked people if they wanted to abandon the class and have tea in the cafe instead, but everyone wanted to carry on and they danced in rain macs and hats. It was hysterical! 

Participants from all groups are very much enjoying outdoor sessions.  They love being outside.  They say they feel 'uplifted', 'liberated' and 'joyous'.

Like most freelancers on the Isle of Wight, we are being thwarted by community and church halls continuing to remain closed for the foreseeable future. It's all very sad. It's a balancing act between keeping people virus-free but also needing to keep people's mental and physical health in shape over the winter."