Find out more about Ascension Dance's online youth sessions and weekly lockdown challenges
As part of our wide-ranging talent development work, Coventry-based Ascension Dance are one of our long-term partner companies at the Belgrade. Run by Ashley Jordan (AJ) and Ben Morley, Ascension Dance had been steadily expanding its youth dance offering in the lead-up to the lockdown, with participant numbers continually growing, and its newest group, Rise, having only been running since January.
But despite facing this massive disruption at such a critical time in their development as a company, Ben and AJ have been doing an amazing job of keeping up the momentum they had begun to build over the last few months, maintaining contact with their regular participants through Zoom, as well as delivering some really well-received weekly creative challenges.
For our second Saturday Shout Out this week, we spoke to AJ to find out more about their lockdown offering, and what they’ve learned so far.
“We actually only started doing our first youth sessions about a year ago. Previously we’d run a few one-off workshops during half-term, but people had really enjoyed them and encouraged us to make it more regular. We started with two groups called Apex and Vertex – both boys’ groups because that’s how me and Ben got into dance. Over the last few months those have grow from about 8 in one group and 3 in the other, to 12 in the older group and about 16 in the younger one.
“Later, people were asking us about girls’ sessions, so we first opened an older group called Saw, and then in January, we started a younger girls’ group called Rise. In total, before lockdown, we were working with about 34 young people every week, and that was growing as people got to know us better.
“After lockdown, we were able to take our workshops online pretty quickly. It’s taken a while for everyone to adjust to the new environment, because obviously our young people are all working to different schedules now, so I think initially we had about half the number of participants as before. But as people have started to get into their own rhythms, we’ve had more people dropping in and out when they can.”
All of the workshops they’ve been running online are completely free to attend, and anyone interested in taking part can find all the information and fill out a form on the Ascension Dance website.
“Part of the reason we’re offering the workshops for free is so that people can be flexible. We know the situation is changing all the time and we don’t want to charge somebody for ten sessions if they’re only going to be able to do five. We also don’t want people to be put off coming by feeling like they can’t join in at all if they can’t be there every week.
“It was really important to us to make the work as accessible as possible, as a way of supporting the community and giving young people a way of connecting with dance and expression – especially the kids we normally work with in schools, where sessions would usually be paid for through the school system.”
As with everyone in the performing arts sector, they’ve had to learn quickly, figuring out how best to use the technology available to them and discovering what kinds of activities work best in a socially distanced set-up.
“We haven’t really massively promoted the online sessions because, we weren’t sure how long we’d be able to deliver them for or even what they might look like. Initially it was really more about finding ways of keeping up a connection with the people we were already working with, making sure our young people had an opportunity to see us and communicate with us and still had a way of accessing dance and expression. We’ve had some really nice messages thanking us for doing that, just for being active and trying to offer something.”
“We’ve tried to keep the sessions as balanced as possible, but what we’ve found has worked best so far is giving people opportunities to be creative. When you’re using a platform like Zoom, it’s really hard to prescribe a particular phrase or to try to teach people exact steps so that everyone’s doing the same thing in unison.
“It’s much more fun and engaging to allow people to adapt it to their own environment and make them the choreographers. Particularly with the younger participants – giving them the licence to create their own movement in a room where they’d normally be eating or watching TV, and thinking about ways they can use their sofas and chairs and things around them – that’s been the most exciting thing.”
In addition to their regular youth sessions, Ascension have been opening their work up to the public through their Create It, Share It project. Every Monday at 12pm, they’ve been issuing creative challenges on social media, which could be anything from learning a specific phrase or using a particular piece of music, to coming up with your own ideas based on a particular theme or subject.
Anyone who wants to get involved can make a short film of their response and share it with Ascension by Thursday evening. Then at 6pm on Friday, they’ll get to see a montage video, featuring clips from all the submissions, which will be shared on Ascension’s website and social media channels. They’ve had great responses so far, with around 10-15 people taking part each week. Their latest challenge – to create a rainbow-themed dance as a thank you to key workers – proved particularly popular, and was shared a little earlier than usual to coincide with the clapping at 8pm on Thursday.
“I really thought the engagement with Create It, Share It would decrease as the weeks went on, but actually what we’ve found is that people are sending more now because they’re becoming more confident,” says AJ. “We had a new person join in this week for the NHS one, who said they weren’t sure about joining in before, but they really wanted to be part of this one because the NHS had helped them, so she got involved with her one-year-old.
“We also had a message from one of our parents whose son did it in the first week, who said at that point she just didn’t have the confidence to join in herself. But this week he asked her if she wanted to have a go, and she decided to try it this week, which is great. The nice thing about it is that there’s no pressure – people can pick and choose which challenges they want to try, they can join in with family. We’ve even had dogs in some of them!
“I also think it’s really nice that through the montage videos, everyone gets a chance to see all of the other people who are connected with Ascension, because I feel like often the different things we do can stay very separate. So the young people in one group don’t get to see the people in any of the other groups, or don’t get to see our other dancers or leaders. But this has been a great way of making everybody feel like they’re part of something bigger.”
“I feel like that’s true of the arts scene in Coventry generally – you know somebody in one context and then you meet them again in another and you almost feel like you’re best mates with someone as soon as you know them. We’ve been really pleasantly surprised to see some of our friends and partners having a go at our Create It, Share It challenges, as well as our participants.
“Another way we’ve been connecting our dancers is through a video where we got nine dancers to create a dance piece in isolation, where one person starts the dance and finishes in a certain position, and the next person will continue it from that position, until you end up with one long phrase.”