We touch, we dance | Interview with Second Hand Dance

Words by Hannah Draper.

Young children form the landscape and set for We Touch, We Play, We Dance, a piece made for early years audiences by disabled-led dance company, Second Hand Dance which I saw on May 12th as part of Imaginate and Edinburgh International Children’s Festival 2022. Watching the performance, four dancers move between, over and around the small children who tumble, run, sit and lie across the stage. Interactions are built slowly, starting on the floor where the dancers offer touch to one another in the form of tapping backs, arms or legs and where high fives and hugs are exchanged, before extending these invitations to the young audience members. Movements are offered for people to copy and join in with, before the children are led back to the cushions surrounding the stage, for the dancers to build to a crescendo of joyful flying and sliding across the space.

I spoke to Second Hand Dance’s Artistic Director Rosie Heafford about the piece’s creation, the joys and hardships of working in dance for early years audiences, and her hopes for changes in the industry.

Hannah: Firstly, could you talk a little bit about your journey and career in dance?

Rosie: I trained at Laban after loving dancing as a teenager and finding what contemporary dance was. Quite early on I wanted to choreograph and to shape artistic things rather than be in them. I definitely lost a little bit of confidence whilst I was at Laban around choreography, so sort of had that mixed few years when I was first out of college. I did an MA in at Goldsmiths in Critical and Creative Analysis, which was sort of whatever I wanted it to be. It was about art theory in a wider context than just dance. After I moved back home with my parents near London and started to look for opportunities of where I could put dance. At that time, the libraries had just come under Arts Council. So, I did quite a lot of work in libraries to start with and then slowly saw more early years dance and family work and visited Imaginate back in 2014, and just fell in love with that sort of visual theatre for younger audiences. And since then, have been working under the company name of Second Hand Dance. I don’t call us a company that makes work for young audiences, because I think that the adults are so important in that experience too. But I do really love watching toddlers and really young audiences discover art and be in relationship with it. I think that’s where a passion lies.

Hannah: What was missing from the dance world when you started Second Hand Dance?

I don’t know that I ever planned to sort of fill a gap in that way. There is, there was, a big lack of dance performance for early years, while there’s a lot of participatory or workshop experiences. And I think I wasn’t seeing much in the UK, but I was seeing really great dance for young people in the rest of the world at children’s festivals. I think more different people making dance work for early years is needed. 

I think there’s a lot of fear with artists about making work for children or a lot of preconceptions. On an industry level we’re treated very differently; the value of the work is very different than adult work. Our fee level for performing is much lower than an adult work would receive. And the conditions that we have to work under – we’re doing two shows a day that would never be expected for an adult audience. It’s tricky as we mostly perform at weekends because that’s when families will go and see the theatre and that makes it harder to make good conditions for dancers as you can’t quite give them a whole week’s work. We’re working alongside PYA England and Assitje for pushing for better conditions in early years work.

I hope more people make work for this age group and find the love of it because it is so joyful. It shouldn’t be about reward, but it is highly rewarding to take just get one look from a child or one hug. And those shows where a child walks towards a dancer to offer a hug. It just fills you with joy. And I think that culturally we don’t believe in children enough. So, constantly having a dialogue with them throughout the creative process is really important, because that will surprise you rather than assuming what children will want to see, you know?

Hannah: And what is it about dance that you think works particularly well with early years children?

Rosie: In some ways, it’s why we made this show. Our babies come out dancing and moving and they don’t verbalise straight away; they’re in a very present body landscape. That’s how they encounter the world through touch and through movement. Dance somehow meets them where they are with their experience and can start making connections with other parts of the world for them. There’s something very beautiful about a really small child watching a dancer and realising that they can communicate through movement in that way, because not everyone is so in their bodies.

Hannah: Was that was the motivation for exploring touch before the pandemic?

Rosie: It was partly a response to making shows with a lot of props or themes that were perhaps more recognised by children. Instead, I wanted to explore just using dance and physicality as the primary thing for an audience, and that crossed into contact improvisation exploration. In discussing that idea, with nursery staff and early years practitioners, I started to hear about no touch policies that were in schools which is there to protect teachers. People said you’d never be able to do that in a school, you couldn’t bring four strange dancers in to touch and dance with kids. Even in the nursery environment, staff are having to give primary care and change nappies and under this no touch policy and the staff felt really weird. So that started to inform thinking about how can we make touch playful again, how can it stop being this feared? And dance was a really good way of doing that. 

The dramaturgy of the show is about introducing each of the dancers showing them touching and then we start modelling different types of touch and invite this to the audience. So, it’s a very simple, simple structure that just invites some playfulness around dance and touch. 

And consent is a really big thing. It was never about imposing our touch. It was always about how can we negotiate consent non verbally. And during the creation process, the #metoo movement had just come up, so there was much more conversation around that in the adult world but still a lot of fear around it with children. So yeah, we’ve had some interesting sort of global things happening whilst making and performing this show, which give it a slightly different context and with the pandemic we’ve seen shifts between tentativeness back in February, to now where it’s almost swung the other way and there’s just hunger to be moving, and excitement about watching someone or being with someone dancing.

Headshot of Rosie by Paula Deegan.

Hannah: How, do you work with the dancers to practice managing the atmosphere and interactions with young audience?

Rosie: We worked with children in nurseries right from day one in the Research and Development stage in 2017, and I don’t think we would have made the same show if we hadn’t. It was a bit of a new methodology for me, which I’ve now completely fallen in love with. It’s really important when making work for a young audience to have contact with children to develop the dancers’ sensitivity, and even though we have new dancers now, that sensitivity has passed on between them.

We also know methodologies to bring an audience back if they’ve veered in a different direction. I don’t think we could have done that unless we practiced dancing with children every day. We haven’t made something and then shared it with them. They’ve been instrumental in developing the ideas. Most of the tools that we have in the show have been offered by a child at some point, or been instigated by childhood. I think it’s pretty special. 

Hannah: Was the DJ involved from the beginning to use music to manage the atmosphere of a room full of young children?

Rosie: I mean in the R&D, that was me, and I would roughly curate a playlist the night before. But from 2019, we had a DJ and they were part of the process from the beginning, because there’s so much communication between the dancers and the DJ. 

And now, more than before COVID, we need a Deputy Director in the space. Because there’s so much going on and so many interactions, this outside person is needs to make calls on things that are subtle and shifting and to see whether a baby’s just having a grisly day, or if the lighting is too much, or if music is needed to refocus them. So that we can adapt as we go. There’s this whole sub level of social engineering that is more heightened than it was in 2019. And is it parents’ responsibility? Is it our responsibility? When does it impact the show? When does it impact other audiences? 

Hannah: What are your key considerations when thinking about making performance accessible?

Rosie: Knowing that an audience needs the choice of sitting on benches or cushions. And now I feel like we could do more to make more comfortable seating for anyone that needs it. I’m excited about the possibility of bringing a vibro floor into the performance so that anyone that can’t hear the music can feel the music. Over the pandemic we were making films and explored audio description in film made by children for children and used BSL or captions, but now it’s live work again so it’s not language that needs translating. We do have a lot of audiences with neurodiversity, but children with profound and multiple learning disabilities aren’t able to come and see the show, because we haven’t quite got the facilities. 

We also visited special educational needs school and did two weeks at Great Ormond Street Hospital with long-stay patients. There’s been a lot of little adaptions where you can highly individualise the score. But we’ve not been able to do the work to be able to bring those audiences into the theatre context – we’ve been going to them. 

But there’s also the pressure parents are under if they’re getting three year olds to the theatre. My preference is always to hold the show so that everyone’s arrived and we can go in together and people don’t feel stressed. I’d like to try a version of the show that’s more installation based; something that allows you to come in and out as you wish. 

We talk to the audience beforehand and we allow people to feed. You shouldn’t have to give permission for people to feed babies, whether that’s breast, bottle or snacks or anything, but it’s needed. So just trying to take away the stress of going to the theatre.

Hannah: What would you like to see and are you excited about for dance in the next few years?

Rosie: Oh, gosh, I just don’t even feel like I know what the next few years are gonna hold. It feels like we’re in this strange twilight zone of COVID, not COVID? What’s the government asking us to do? What are we trying to do? Will there be any funding next year? 

I hope that people are still making work. And my biggest hope is that that work for early years and young audiences is valued and that the industry sees it for the beautiful work that it that it can be, so that dancers want to be involved. There isn’t, in any of the dance houses that I know of, even a module on making work for, for children. If you’re really valuing improvised gorgeous avant-garde work, you can do that for children, that works for children, it doesn’t have to be a CBeebies version of dance. So, I think there’s some perception changes that would be good as an industry.

You can see We Touch, We Play, We Dance at the dates below:

27-28 May | Folkestone Quarterhouse
10.30am and 2pm
Tickets £5 child/ £6 adult/£20 2 adults, 2 children