Our collective mental health and wellbeing is deteriorating year on year. Study after study seems to conclude the same thing: the Covid-19 pandemic worsened our mental health. And this has been especially the case for young people. 

Before the pandemic, one in nine children and young people in the UK (aged from six to 16) were affected by a mental health condition. By October 2020, eight months after the virus was first detected in Britain, this figure became one in six children – which might represent several young dancers in a classroom or studio. And during the lockdowns, each will have spent prolonged periods of time in isolation and experiencing loneliness. 

‘There’s far more anxiety present and a lot of pressure on pupils,’ says Tim Arthur, CEO of the RAD. ‘I think it’s a generational trauma that has happened, particularly with younger people through the lockdowns. Society has just tried to move on as if it hasn’t happened, but a lot of our teachers have been telling me that the children that they see as students in their dance classes are bringing mental health problems into the studio with them.’ 

‘It was very traumatic’… Francesca Harper. Photo: Nir Arieli

For Francesca Harper, Artistic Director of Ailey II (the second company of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York), acknowledging and validating the traumatic lived experiences of her students was an important first step. ‘I couldn’t even imagine what they were going through,’ she says. ‘They were at the height of their training. To be given this opportunity and to not be able to train, perform and live this dream that they’ve been aspiring toward to for so long was very traumatic.’ Ailey II were on hiatus for 18 months. Over this time, teaching and learning completely stopped, leaving the students anxious about their future careers. 

‘Society has just tried to move on’… Tim Arthur. Photo: Spiros Politis for Dance Gazette

‘RAD teachers tell me that their students bring mental health problems into the studio’

Tim Arthur

News reports described schools and academic institutions reporting higher levels of stress among pupils than in pre-pandemic years. Alarming numbers of students contacted helplines about anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. New mental health conditions appeared but young people with previous mental health conditions were also relapsing.

For dancers, prior to the pandemic, injuries were the most common trigger for depression. Yet many injured dancers would readily consult physical therapists and osteopaths but neglect mental health support. Support was widely considered an individual responsibility, delivered outside dance companies and organisations. Add in the pressures of the current cost of living crisis, and the need for mental health and wellbeing literacy and advocacy has never been higher.

‘I think we are at the part of the journey which is a learning phase,’ Arthur says. ‘As with anything connected to mental health, it’s a constantly developing and evolving area, and quite a new area for the RAD to focus on.’

Pressure and stress… GöteborgsOperans Danskompani in Skid. Photo: Mats Bäcker

Since taking up his post in 2022, Arthur has prioritised mental health and wellbeing of students and teachers alike, driven by his own training in psychotherapy. Working collaboratively across the RAD to develop new resources, a webinar was held earlier this year in partnership with Young Minds UK charity to support adults in understanding children and young people’s mental health in order to promote safe, supportive and positive outcomes. 

‘There’s a marked difference since the pandemic,’ says Joanne Ward. The Principal of the RAD Dance School has noticed a significant rise in anxiety in teachers and pupils alike. ‘It’s across the board,’ she adds. ‘From young pre-schoolers who spent the first couple of years of their lives in covid times so when they get into the studio there’s separation anxiety, right through to advanced level students.’ These changes add to the struggles young people face. ‘I get a lot of issues from eating disorders and self-harming,’ adds ballet teacher Ruth Henry. ‘I have to talk to safeguarding a lot more deeply than ever before.’

The RAD Dance School has robust processes in place. As soon as a concern is raised, teachers fill out forms, followed up by safeguarding officials. ‘In one term, I probably fill out three or four forms, which is quite a lot,’ says Henry. From there, safeguarding teams work with students to understand the issues and provide support. 

Joanne Ward. Photo: Katie Lister
Ruth Henry. Photo: Kirsty H Yeung

Contemporary dance teacher Laura Heywood has supported several students through this process. ‘I’m not in the safeguarding team but I do get feedback on what is happening with the student,’ she says. ‘We’re also asked if we want to continue being a support for that student if we can emotionally handle it.’ This process feels intuitive and supportive, she says, but there is an understanding across the RAD that more can be done. 

A clear starting point for Heywood is mental health first-aid training for teachers which ‘would be amazing for everyone because there’s only so much that you can individually take on without it starting to cause your own anxieties.’ The RAD teachers have become each other’s support systems, with added support from a safeguarding manager. From this space of care, they’ve been better equipped to care for the changes in their students.

For ballet teacher Raquel Ashton, this has meant reimagining her teaching approach. ‘I decided to train as a Heartmath coach, EFT/TFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques/Thought Field Therapy) therapist and meditation teacher to bring these modalities into the classroom,’ she says, and has already used some of the breathing techniques with students at another workplace. ‘Over several weeks I noticed a change in how they were thinking and feeling. They seemed more present in class, with sharper concentration skills and effective application of corrections. We reconnected with the emotions that inspired them to want to learn to dance and this brought joy and artistry into their work.’

‘Being open, expanding, evolving, and educating ourselves is a way to support and address the issues as they come,’ concludes Heywood. ‘As long as we evolve with the times.’

Laura Heywood. Photo: Nigel Beard
Raquel Ashton. Photo: James-Hudson

These questions are equally pressing for professional dancers. At Ailey II, new approaches to the teaching curriculum were needed to create dynamic environments that could adapt to the new realities of students and dancers unable to practise what they loved for over a year. ‘We brought in a wellbeing coach for a yoga and mindfulness series,’ Harper says. ‘We had students bring out their notebooks and journal so that they could also develop their own practices to provide outlets and create safety practices for themselves.’ 

For all their benefits, these approaches can be short-term or short-lived – and even harm as much as they heal. Mindfulness and psychiatric treatment, for example, can individualise mental illness, telling us the causes of suffering are inside, for us to silently examine in isolation, without pausing to examine how social determinants – such as low income, poor housing, adequate access to healthcare and political laws – negatively impact our wellbeing.

GöteborgsOperans Danskompani in Skid. Photo: Mats Bäcker

‘We brought in a wellbeing coach and had students develop their own safety practices’ 

Francesca Harper

Then there’s the role of the teacher. Teachers aren’t counsellors or psychotherapists. They’re overworked, short-staffed, and underpaid with rising costs. Yet, Harper and her colleagues, Arthur and RAD teachers across the globe have all had to take on these vocational roles in order to properly care for their traumatised and increasingly anxious students. 

For the RAD, this involves acting on their greater awareness of the impact of mental health in child development, drawing on lessons learnt from the pandemic. ‘We have a responsibility, particularly in the mental health area, to appropriately create safe spaces,’ Arthur says. ‘The relationship between physical health, mental health, movement and trauma is really powerful. Which is why we’re talking to several experts in trauma about how we can develop dance programmes to help people with that.’

Harper too has introduced changes to the way Ailey II operates. ‘I think the mission behind Ailey is really to provide wellness, to prioritise our culture and to be community driven,’ she says. ‘We have met the dancers with higher salaries. We have a “Minding the Gap” programme with therapists that work with our dancers, having conversations with them and giving them open space to discuss their anxiety around the pandemic and the pressures of being a professional artist. So, they [dancers] have a safe space outside of us and the teacher-student hierarchy.’ 

Liselott Berg. Photo: Tilo Stengel

‘People were crying. It helped to show that they weren’t alone’

Liselott Berg

Over in Sweden, GöteborgsOperans Danskompani have buildt a robust programme focused on preventative measures of care. ‘The Sustainable Dancer’, created by Liselott Berg, the company’s administrative manager, has been operating since 2017 to ensure professional dancers can have long-lasting careers. Its holistic approach encompasses mindset, physicality, recovery and nutrition. 

‘It was difficult during the pandemic,’ Berg says. ‘We hold auditions for each work we do here, so pressure and stress are built-in factors. Even before the pandemic, we saw that we needed to make complementary resources [for mental health] and to offer support.’ The dancer Duncan C Schultz had joined GöteborgsOperans at the inception of the programme, and quickly saw its value and positive impact.

Duncan C Schultz. Photo: Sören Håkanlind

‘When we started, we had a physical trainer,’ he says. ‘I understand the importance of the physical aspect. But on the other side, mental health and emotional health of the body aren’t so often focused on in the dance world. So, throughout this process of building this programme, we have expanded that in the last years to include mental coaching and emotional support.’

The company worked closely with experienced coaches Tomas Enhager and Anna Wilson, who were able to compile unique profiles of dancers’ physical, mental and psychosocial health to offer tools dancers could use to discover things they needed to address or whether they needed someone to talk to. ‘There were people crying and it was very personal,’ Berg says. ‘I think it helped during the pandemic, to show that they weren’t alone.’

Ailey II in Francesca Harper’s Freedom Series. Photo: Erin Baiano

‘I did experience it myself,’ Schultz adds. ‘The question of “what is the importance of the artist when the art form can’t be shared?”’ Now that the company is again rehearsing and touring, the programme stands as an empowering tool to navigate difficult situations. ‘It was definitely a teaching experience of communication for us,’ Schultz adds. ‘To be able to speak the needs of the body, of the mind, to bond stronger as a group and be more supportive with no pressure if we need rest.’

This is fundamental to Harper’s vision of Ailey II, where all the dancers are supported to ‘be advocates for themselves and have that resilience. It’s not only being a dancer, but being humanitarian and vocal advocates.’ Ultimately, it’s about creating programmes, resources, and environments where dancers feel safe and, within that safety, using dance to creatively grow and be nourished. 


Tim Arthur discussing mental health within the dance world with Steven McRae (RAD Ambassador and Royal Ballet Principal)


Isaac Ouro-Gnao is a Togolese-British multidisciplinary artist and freelance journalist.

Emily Nash is a Bristol-based illustrator and designer. emilynashillustration.com


The eco-system of social media sees the creation of thousands of apps each month. The iOS app store, for example, hosted over 31,000 app launches in February alone. The marketplace therefore includes competition for attention, maturation and integration into as many lives as possible. Formerly called Musical.ly, TikTok – an app, owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, that allows users to create and share short-form videos – shed its original title in 2018. Widening its proposition beyond lip-synced music and audio clips and ousting competitors like Instagram and Snapchat, it was the most downloaded form of a social media application in 2022. It now serves as a primary search server, entertainment hub and crutch for millions of global consumers.

In music, TikTok has significantly shifted the way in which promotional campaigns operate, particularly in western-facing climates. Songs such as Miguel’s Sure Thing, Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God) and Say So by Doja Cat have seen a boost in sales or the emergence of a hit due to the platform’s challenge culture – where creators challenge followers to perform a particular song or dance, and which took off during the enforced isolation of pandemic lockdowns.

TikTok gave new life to Miguel’s song Sure Thing
A 37-year-old song by Kate Bush also reached new fans via TikTok

We also see a relationship between music and dance entrenching itself, reinforcing the age-old connection between the two mediums and embracing choreography in new ways. Haley Sharpe’s original routine to Say So helped make it a juggernaut success because of the viral dance compilations that followed and incorporated hers across early 2020. Singles by Megan Thee Stallion, Roddy Ricch and Cardi B met similar success, receiving dance challenges of their own. Hip-hop and pop, in particular, attract dance challenges that directly relate to the national (and international) chart-level success of singles.

Dance remains central to TikTok. In April, for example, a Sierra Leonean soldier shared a video balancing the joy of the art form with her duties in the military. Young children dancing to songs tend to trend also: Canadian media outlet Much Music recently shared a visual of an infant nailing a sporadic dance to Lil Uzi Vert’s Jersey club anthem Just Wanna Rock. The emotional pull of dance translates into escapism, as well as artists’ campaign rollouts.

TikTok is still in its relative infancy: it entices consumers through a myriad of ways and entry points that are only growing. From cooking, to travel vlogs or dance crazes, the use of the platform is so nuanced and specific that each and every ‘For You’ page completely varies in what it serves up to the individual. In this context, building a platform and consistent audience, not to mention striking a piece of content that might go viral, proves difficult. 

Members of the Royal Academy of Dance’s social team reiterate this message. Their steady 21,800 follower base on TikTok has taken nearly two years to nurture – and the team still don’t have a bonafide blueprint for nailing the tumultuous TikTok algorithm. Niamh Carey-Furness, Digital Communications Assistant at the RAD, outlines the difficulties in attempting to recreate the connection felt in their most viral TikTok, which depicts children looking through a window at older RAD dancers.

‘The RAD clip was a complete accident. We thought it was cute, but never expected it to go so viral’

Niamh Carey-Furness
Niamh Carey-Furness

‘[The clip] was a complete accident,’ she says. ‘We posted it because we thought it was cute, but we never expected it to go so viral for us. Do we have an insight or strategy? We’re experimenting. We are trying to see what people want to see and to define the emotional hook, because that visual did a lot.’

Many brands are in a similarly grey area with their relationship with TikTok’s algorithm. Adidas’ TikTok account, for example, boasts over four million followers; one recent visual amassed 331.5k views but another posted shortly after it just 20.3k views. Brands vie for attention on the app, yet unlike more reliable sources of social marketing campaigns like Instagram or Facebook, TikTok still exists in a tricky domain.

Hannah Martin – member of Birmingham Royal Ballet, content creator and former medallist in the RAD’s Genée International Ballet Competition – has close to 5,000 followers on the platform. She concurs that the app is ‘difficult’ and says that when trying to garner a following her particular network relies more on Instagram.

Instagram is seen as the more stable of the two. We’d tend to use that platform more to build our network and source opportunities,’ she explains. TikTok, even with its expansion into longer video formats, still prioritises shorter-form content. Styles such as tango or ballet, which involve thematic story-telling and longer-form expression, must adapt to the shorter-form medium for a chance of a breakthrough. 

‘I personally struggle with the clickbait nature of the app. It’s often tricks or funny, short, relatable content – which I enjoy watching, but find harder to create, because I prefer longer-form creation,’ Martin explains. ‘With TikTok, you get only a snapshot and I think it can be unhealthy for dancers. You only get 10 seconds of a snapshot, but in reality, a ballet performance can be three hours long.’ 

Hannah Martin

‘There was one clip I found beautiful – but we had to scrap it because it didn’t fall in line with RAD practices’

Keshia Dodd
Keshia Dodd

There are also safety concerns around dance content. After attempting the Footloose trend last year, the actor Kyra Sedgwick went public about suffering a wrist injury, while back in 2020, a TikTok user named Allison documented popping her knee out after trying Cardi B’s WAP viral trend. Louise Molton, director of education and training at the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, has noted that repetition of dances without qualified feedback can develop bad practices. Keshia Dodd, the RAD’s Lead Social Media Officer, reveals that similar concerns govern how they use their own TikTok platform.

‘Each of our videos has to go to a team of professionals who advise whether a clip we want to post aligns with our practices and doesn’t promote bad technique,’ Dodd says. ‘There was one clip that I found beautiful, but we had to scrap it because it didn’t fall in line with what the team deemed appropriate.’ Whilst advocating for entertainment and freedom of expression, Dodd reiterates the responsibility she and her team carry.

As dance has become a leader across TikTok it has had to reckon with intersectional instances of controversy. Perhaps the biggest is around credit for particular dance moves. When the celebrated TikToker Addison Rae made a guest appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon in 2021, she performed – uncredited – a number of dances, including those from popular creators including Mya Nicole Johnson, Chris Cotter and Dorien Scott. Fallon subsequently invited the creators to break down their dance moves and took accountability for his lack of effective curation. 

Mya Nicole Johnson struggled to be credited for her TikTok dances. Photo: @theemyanicole/Instagram

All too often minorities, and specifically Black creators are erased from the popular narrative: an issue that doesn’t just affect dance, but cultural production at large. A Black TikToker strike in America in 2021 protested the lack of credit. That same year JaQuel Knight, best known for his work with Beyoncé, founded Knight Choreography and Music Publishing to tackle the lack of knowledge in acquiring licenses for choreography and allow dancers to gain legal protection for their moves.

‘We have to get better at giving credit,’ Dodd notes. ‘It speaks to a wider issue of people not respecting creative careers, but it is getting better. We have to just keep pushing ahead and fighting this fight.’

TikTok’s dance culture can also have a wider impact. In March, five young Iranian women posted a video of themselves dancing the Calm Down challenge without head scarves, in defiance of Iran’s severe modesty laws. The clip went viral and the young dancers were reportedly arrested – yet their protest continues to circulate.

At this moment, we see a platform in conflict with the US Congress (amid fears that the Chinese-owned platform might give their government access to users’ personal data), a platform acquiring new audiences at one of the rapidest rates in history and a platform still building relationships with brands, businesses and the social media market. Dance on the platform will likely continue to drive entertainment and engagement. Currently, the short form is king, with faster forms of dance attracting a larger reach. Yet that doesn’t guarantee instant traction – or any traction at all – considering the complicated algorithms at play. And is TikTok a catalyst for harm? Perhaps it simply reflects a human desire for attention, risk and connection – also true of life outside the platform.


Nicolas-Tyrell Scott is a London-based music and cultural journalist writing for Pitchfork, GQ, The Face, Huck, Dazed and others.

Vincent Cecil is an illustrator and graphic novelist, currently working on his debut graphic novel/webcomic retelling of The Great Gatsby.


Full circle

David Jays

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It’s a spring evening in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, and I’m the sole, privileged audience at a rehearsal by Children’s National Ballet Potskhishvili. Dressed in their rehearsal blacks, the dancers range from nine to 15 years old. Hair neat and heads aloft, they run through the choreography of former professional ballet dancer Nino Katvelishvili, which combines classical ballet with rich folkloric dance traditions from across this ancient Caucasus nation.

The rehearsal space, in a school building on neoclassical Chavchavadze Avenue, is a short walk from Rustaveli, the central thoroughfare where mass protests erupted a few days earlier against a law which Moscow-leaning prime minister Irakli Garibashvili tried to force onto the Georgian statute. The foreign agents’ law sought to ban overseas charities and companies from operating in Georgia and would have affected the scores of arts organisations such as the children’s ballet who attract funding from foreign institutions and charities, says David Potskhishvili, 45, the company’s ballet master and himself a former professional dancer.

Children’s National Ballet Potskhishvili, or ‘Little Stars’, was founded in 1990 by Potskhishvili’s father Gelodi, a year before Georgia’s secession from the Soviet Union. Gelodi had danced through the dark years of Soviet rule and its censorship. All four of David Potskhishvili’s sons, aged seven to 16, are also current or former members of the child company. ‘Dance is not in my blood, it is my blood,’ he laughs.

Potskhishvili’s 15-year-old son Andria attended Tbilisi street protests in March as did many of the Little Stars’ children and their families which, says Potskhishvili, was ‘naturally scary’. For Potskhishvili’s generation the April 9 1989 tragedy – during which a pro-independence demonstration in Tbilisi was brutally crushed by a Soviet Army armed with spades, resulting in 21 deaths and hundreds of injuries – looms large. After three febrile days, however, this year’s protests forced Garibashvili’s populist Georgia Dream Party to withdraw the reviled legislation: a small success for liberal Georgians, for now.

Nino Katvelishvili. Photo courtesy Children’s National Ballet Potskhishvili
David Potskhishvili. Photo courtesy Children’s National Ballet Potskhishvili

Dance is inextricable from politics in Georgia, as it is across the former Soviet bloc, where Muscovite administrations have often used Russian ballet as propaganda. Ballet was used to forge political allegiances between Cuba and the Soviet Union in the Soviet era and Swan Lake notoriously played on loop across Russian television in 1991, during the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev by hardline communists. 

The war in neighbouring Ukraine brought 180,000 Ukrainian refugees to Georgia in the year to February 2023. They include dancers Olha Vidisheva, who joined Tbilisi Contemporary Ballet, and Evgeny Lagunov, who closed a defiant Georgian Culture Week at the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet State theatre in November 2022 by starring in Radio and Juliet, a ballet set to 11 Radiohead songs. 

Like the region’s political history, the ballet traditions of Russia and Georgia are also deeply entwined. Vakhtang Chabukiani (1910–92) was born in Tbilisi and trained at the Vaganova Academy in St Petersburg, being hailed by the Soviet regime and influencing its dance traditions. However, he fell out of favour in World War Two when he played a folk antihero too sympathetically in a propaganda ballet, Taras Bulba, that had been forced on the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet. Today Vakhtang Chabukiani Tbilisi State Ballet School, named for Georgia’s most famous dancer, continues the proud tradition of teaching classical Russian ballet.

Supple waves… Children’s National Ballet Potskhishvili in performance

Running a dance company in Potskhishvili’s father’s era, in the waning days of the Soviet Union, remained a dangerous act of defiance. Potskhishvili recalls, ‘my father risked a lot to keep up in dance through the Soviet time. Even though Stalin was Georgian, the Soviets did not like any culture that was about Georgian nationalism. The adult company was censored by the communist party machine into the 1990s.’

Little Stars’ name, according to the company’s origin story, was inspired by dissident Soviet ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev’s comment at an early performance by the young company in New York, a few years before his death. ‘I want to thank Gelodi Potskhishvili and the team of the choreographers who have prepared these little stars so professionally,’ Nureyev is reported to have said. He was presenting emerging dancers at an event, Potskhishvili tells me, at which he was too frail to dance himself.

In the rehearsal room at Chavchavadze Avenue, the music strums into a crescendo of Georgian panpipes as dancers part like a supple wave and 12-year-old Marisha Loladze takes the stage. Loladze dances ‘jeyran’, a twirling female dance with febrile footwork, elegant outstretched arm positions and fluttering hands that combines classical ballet with hunting dance traditions from the southern Caucasus. It is said to call to mind the gazelle, the light-footed antelope native to southern Georgia; but also its hunters, who traditionally stalked it with spears. 

Loladze would like to join an adult company one day. Jeyran is her favourite dance, she tells me later. ‘It combines techniques from classical ballet and Georgian national dance with elements of the hunting ritual, resulting in a unique performance,’ she adds. ‘In Georgia we believe that you have to dance the jeyran very well to prove you are a good dancer and it suits my personality too. Sometimes my family and friends call me jeyran!’

Folk stories… the company on stage
Children’s National Ballet Potskhishvili

Georgia lost territory to Russia during the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, when South Ossetia and Abkhazia ceded to Russian occupation, a fact that still rankles with many Georgians. In recent concert programmes, Little Stars have presented folk dances of these two ancient regions (Abkhazia is seen as the cradle of Christianity in Georgia, which took to the religion in the first century): the java hunting dance of South Ossetia and musera, a martial dance from Abkhazia. The company performs in regional traditional costumes in vivid colourways.

‘We [perform these dances] in the fervent hope that these territories will one day be returned to Georgia,’ Potskhishvili says of his decision to stage the dances as an ongoing gesture of political protest in the company’s programmes. ‘These territories are shown on ancient maps to be ours; and are ours in our hearts.’

Nine-year-old Kirile Oqrokvercxisvili fixes me with an enthusiastic smile as he springs forward on pointe. Oqrokvercxisvili is a favourite with Little Stars audiences: tiny and spry, but with the power of a dancer three times his age. He tells me that Little Stars is the ‘coolest troupe in the world,’ and particularly loves dancing a character called Mamber in the concert that Little Stars will tour from September. Mamber, he says, is a young boy with ‘a strong and fighting spirit, who [has] many adventures and finally regains the honour of his family.’ It’s a tale based, Potskhishvili tells me, on an old Georgian coming-of-age folk legend: ‘we need our folk stories now more than ever.’

Strong emotions… Children’s National Ballet Potskhishvili

‘We perform dances from territories that are ours on ancient maps, and in our hearts’

David Potskhishvili

Next up is a performance of the South Ossetian java. Danced by boys with cossack-like military posturing, darting spins and lunges, java is both martial and strangely uplifting. 

The challenge in melding traditional ballet and Georgian folk dance traditions, says choreographer Nino Katvelishvili (a former professional ballet dancer and Potskhishvili’s wife), is the male dancers’ legwork. ‘There are lots of strong leg positions in folk dances and lots of squatting which can be hard on young legs,’ she tells me. ‘It is also difficult to mix these seamlessly with classical ballet positions – going from tense muscle work to the open position of ballet.’

Potskhishvili, for his part, sees Georgian folk dances and classical ballet as ‘oil’ and ‘water’. ‘Ballet is very mathematical. In ballet two plus two equals four. In folk dance it is 70 percent about emotion: what are you saying about the local character in the dance? Who or what is your war dance for?’

Katvelishvili admits that some emotions the folk dances are designed to convey – aggression, nativism, nobility against the odds – can be tough for younger dancers to grasp. The strongest and most martial dances hail from the mountain borderlands with Russia, where the territory is harsh and the threat of invasion ever-present. Sagalobeli, a folkloric tradition from another border region in which young boys dance with swords, can prove too much for audiences, Katvelishvili admits. ‘We can have negative reactions to sagalobeli. But it is a dance that comes from our history and our territory with good reason.’

Dancers from the Little Stars. Photo: Michal Chelbin
One of the Little Stars dancers. Photo: Michal Chelbin

‘I would like Georgian dance to become as well known as ballet. It is the dance of the gods’

Cotne Gabadze, 12

The RAD adult dancer Sophie Rebecca met Little Stars when she was performing at a competition and gala called Ballet Beyond Borders in 2019. ‘What struck me was the ferocity of their performance,’ she recalls. ‘The boys were hurling themselves at each other with swords and shields in this traditional warrior dance where they battle at such pace.’ This is starkly contrasted with the female dances, Sophie says. ‘These are more about creating serene shapes and moves, reminiscent of a swan gliding on water. At times they were doing this as the boys fought all around them, swords flying: it was quite unique, even in the cultural melting pot of Ballet Beyond Borders.’

Java is also Cotne Gabadze’s favourite dance. The 12-year-old Little Stars dancer describes it as ‘volcanic’. ‘People can easily see the culture and character of the mountainous regions of Georgia in the dance,’ he says. ‘It evokes strong emotions in me and I do my best to express myself in it.’ Gabadze tells me he would like to become a professional dancer and an ambassador for Georgian dance. ‘What I would like is that Georgian dance become known all over the world and be as well known as ballet,’ he says. ‘It is the dance of the gods.’

Nodar Khutidze, 12, also loves to dance java. He is weighing up whether to pursue a career in dance or in the Georgian boom industry of wine-making. Dance for Khutidze is a form of communication, across national boundaries but also of national character. ‘When you dance, you have to tell some kind of a story, not with your voice, but your body and what you mimic,’ he explains. ‘Dancing is not just art. You can dance and make important statements about the world with your movements.’

Potskhishvili, who says that dance is ‘a challenging life, and a narcotic,’ doesn’t push his charges to become professionals, though many are on this route. ‘They have to decide what future awaits them,’ he says. He hopes that, whatever the fate of the 50 young dancers in his ensemble, it will be played out in peacetime rather than through the turbulence of his own childhood. He tells me that he supports Ukrainian dancers’ repudiation of Putin by dancing in Ukrainian national costume and in exile: ‘They must dance and we must dance too.’


The Little Stars in rehearsal

Sally Howard writes for the Sunday Times and others, and is author of The Kama Sutra Diaries and The Home Stretch.


Family guy

Jonathan Gray

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Katharine Hikmet, RAD’s new Safeguarding Manager and a former headteacher in a state primary school, likes to give an example of the literacy that’s required of professionals with a safeguarding duty towards a child. 

‘A six-year-old comes into school and says “look what happened to me!” and presents a burn on their arm. They tell you that they fell on the radiator – what do you do?’ Hikmet posed this question to the 80 global RAD members who attended the RAD’s Introduction to Safeguarding event in December. This was the latest in a series of safeguarding talks and initiatives the Academy is staging for both members and non-members as it seeks to become an international leader in safeguarding in dance.

What would you do in the case of the young child presenting in dance class with a burn? A safeguarding professional, Hikmet says, would seek to unpick the chain of events that led to the injury, without resorting to leading questions: was the child pushed onto a radiator or was this a genuine accident? Is this part of a pattern of incidents that might raise a red flag? ‘In this case, the child had been playing with a sibling and had fallen into the radiator,’ Hikmet says, ‘but it could have been very different.’

Until recently, the UK out-of-school sector (OOSS) – which encompasses all dance classes that are not Ofsted-regulated full-day ballet schools – was a blank space when it came to safeguarding. A series of abuse scandals, however, shed a light on this lacuna, including revelations of decades of abuse suffered by young British gymnasts and aspiring footballers. Meanwhile allegations in 2020 of serial sexual predation by vice principal Jonathan Barton at Scottish ballet school Ballet West (a court case that is expected to return its findings in early 2023) highlighted abuses that have been enabled by the dance sector’s record of tolerating bullying teaching styles and its failure to be clear-sighted about power imbalances in the teacher-student dynamic.

A survey conducted on behalf of the RAD by YouGov, published in August, revealed that 89 percent of adults in the UK were not aware that there is currently no legal requirement for dance teachers to have a relevant dance teaching qualification to lead a dance class or school.

Photo: Siobhan Hennessy

Belatedly, the UK government is also waking up to the need to oversee the out-of-school sector, drawing on two decades of effective mainstream safeguarding in state schools. In 2022 the Department for Education (DfE) examined oversight of out-of-school settings. Published soon after the RAD survey, its report found a ‘common misconception’ amongst the general public that the OOSS was regulated. It also found that few providers were aware of the voluntary DfE OOSS Safeguarding Code of Practice; and that local authorities were not accountable for sector safeguarding as they lacked the necessary capacity and knowledge.

Peter Flew, Director at the School of Education at the University of Roehampton, an RAD trustee and head of the cross-industry working group Safer Dance, consulted on the DfE pilot and says its results were ‘damning.’ He says that, although the government is launching a consultation into safeguarding in the out-of-school sector, dance organisations will be integral to a long overdue sea change in safeguarding: ‘to put it frankly, the government doesn’t know dance,’ he says. ‘Many aspects of what we need to bring in, such as looking at consent around touching, can only come from those in dance.’

In August 2022, following its survey, the RAD launched a global Register of Teachers, where employers, prospective students and their parents or guardians can find RAD-registered teachers. These teachers are advised to follow the RAD’s new Safeguarding Good Practice Guidelines and to comply with the RAD’s Code of Professional Practice for teachers.

Katharine Hikmet
Photo: Elliott Franks

‘I want to make members understand that safeguarding is not scary and applies to dance’

Katharine Hikmet

Alongside the register, the RAD also published a downloadable checklist for members of the public looking for a dance class. This includes questions to pose to schools: around teachers’ qualifications, whether DBS checks (Disclosure and Barring Service checks, into someone’s criminal record) have been carried out on staff and whether the school has a safeguarding policy. It also includes questions to help assess a prospective school’s ethos: can guardians observe classes? Is it highly performance-focused? 

‘It became clear [from the YouGov/RAD survey] that we need to not just work with our members, but with members of the public too,’ says Penny Cotton, the RAD’s Membership Director, who is also involved in the academy’s safeguarding initiatives. ‘We also have a role, we have learned, in simplifying and collating the information on safeguarding that’s out there so the public can understand it.’

The RAD’s Safeguarding Hub, which launched in 2021, offers information to members on safer recruitment, criminal record checks, insurance and a self-assessment so members can test how robust their safeguarding practices are, as well as giving guidance on the information members should provide to students, parents and carers. It will be regularly updated with resources, training opportunities and advice on best practice.

Safeguarding Manager Katharine Hikmet, who joined the RAD in March 2022, says that a key role of dance organisations is to address the barriers to dance teachers safeguarding their students. ‘Mention safeguarding and some teachers recoil from the idea, whether that’s because it seems too much to take on or out of fear,’ she says. ‘My work is to make members understand that it is not scary and that the principle of safeguarding very much applies to dance.’ 

Sharon Birch, an independent safeguarding professional who works with OOSS dance schools in County Durham, believes ‘distaste’ around scandals such as Ballet West can lead to some teachers burying their heads in the sand. ‘I contact dance schools to offer my services and some resist the very idea of thinking about safeguarding,’ she says, though she adds dance schools have become notably more receptive to bringing in safeguarding policies since the Ballet West allegations broke.

Photo: David Tett

‘The RAD has a role in collating information on safeguarding so the public understands it’

Penny Cotton

Cost is another barrier teachers face, Cotton adds: ‘Naturally there is a cost to training and to having enhanced disclosures.’ The RAD seeks to address financial barriers by providing resources to teachers, including the safeguarding hub and a quarterly newsletter, with all safeguarding events being open to non-members for a nominal fee. Flew, however, has little patience for teachers who refuse to address safeguarding for financial reasons, drawing a parallel with legally-required health and safety insurance. ‘You can’t run a business unless that business is safe, so proper safeguarding should be one of the costs of [a school’s] operations.’

Alia Waheed’s daughter Alisha, aged 10, is enrolled at Motion Arts Dance Academy in southwest London where staff are RAD-trained and principal Lauren Matthews is on the RAD Register of Teachers. Despite being a primary school governor, Waheed says she ‘took it for granted’ when Alisha enrolled at the school in 2017 that teachers would be trained by a leading organisation such as the RAD and that all staff would be DBS checked. ‘It didn’t occur to me to ask,’ she admits. She believes that out-of-school sector scandals, particularly those highlighted in the damning 2022 Whyte review of British gymnastics which found routine physical abuse of children in a system that ‘put medals above welfare,’ have led to a greater consciousness of the need for safeguarding amongst a cohort she calls ‘the ballet mums.’

Peter Flew. Photo: David Tett

‘You can’t run a business unless it is safe: proper safeguarding is one of a school’s operating costs’

Peter Flew

‘I’ve been really lucky with Alisha’s school, they have great safeguarding policies and help students balance the demands of dance with their school work,’ Waheed says, ‘but that was purely luck on my part.’ She adds, ‘I’d be more clued up and know what to ask these days.’ She welcomes the RAD’s Register of Teachers and believes that educating parents and guardians is key to creating pressure to improve safeguarding in the out-of-school sector. ‘We need to know how to make enquiries and what questions to ask.’

Hikmet, who brings 26 years of experience in the formal education sector to her new RAD role, told attendees at the December safeguarding event that dance teachers are in a ‘unique position’ in relation to the safeguarding of their students, especially in a time of growing social need. ‘Dance teachers naturally look, listen and talk to students,’ she said. ‘You might see if a child is going hungry, or if they are having problems at their [academic] school.’ Dance teachers should see this role as a privilege, Hikmet adds, rather than something to fear.

In 2023 the RAD will continue to promote and expand its Register of Teachers internationally and look to learn from safeguarding models elsewhere in the world to strengthen its safeguarding message globally. The RAD’s new National Director Australia, Aaron Bloomfield, joined the academy from the Australian gymnastics world, where safeguarding policies are world-leading. The RAD supports the Australian Guidelines for Teaching Dance, produced by Ausdance in conjunction with members of the dance industry. 

For Hikmet, expert safeguarding allows both dancers and teachers to focus on the joys of dance. ‘If it’s clear that children are going to be safe; that syllabi are appropriate to children’s age and level; and that staff have the necessary professional qualifications and background checks, everyone can relax,’ she says. What better environment, she adds, to ignite ‘a lifelong love of dance.’

Safety first

Tips for teachers from RAD’s Safeguarding Manager Katharine Hikmet

Write your own safeguarding policy. Authoring your own policy as a school lets you articulate what is important to your school and what procedures staff, students and parents should follow in case of issues.

Keep all important safeguarding information and contacts on hand on one document. This will include local police and local authority contacts.

Undertake training. Safeguarding leaders children’s charity NSPCC offer a range of gold-standard courses, including online: learning.nspcc.org.uk. See also Unicef: unicef.org/child-protection.

Understand that safeguarding can be frustrating. Perhaps you think that something is going on with a student, but have no evidence. Sometimes it takes time, through a process of building trust, for issues to become clear.


Sally Howard writes for the Sunday Times and others, and is author of The Kama Sutra Diaries and The Home Stretch.


Misha and me

Sarah Crompton

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Russia is turning inward. Isolation is a noble moral stance for President Vladimir Putin, especially from the west, whose nefarious influence is imagined to have forced Russia to invade Ukraine. The west no longer respects traditional values, according to Putin, and so Russia alone defends marriage and conservative principles.

Vladimir Urin

Since politics have always influenced art in Russia, the nation’s great cultural institutions, which receive the bulk of their funding from the government, have also been expected to turn inward and promote official ideology. The reality is much more complicated, especially in the intrigue-filled world of Russian ballet. Strange as it might seem, the Bolshoi Ballet has been one of the more progressive companies in the world.

Strange as it might seem, the Bolshoi Ballet was one of the world’s more progressive companies

The general director, Vladimir Urin, is a canny operator able to sense official policy without being instructed in it. He initially came out against the Russian invasion of Ukraine but has since, out of self-preservation, fallen in line with the Kremlin. Thus ended a period when he had effectively manipulated officialdom to his theatre’s advantage, balancing the past and the present by assigning ballets and operas based on Chekhov, Lermontov, Shakespeare and Woolf to iconoclastic directors and up-and-coming composers and choreographers. The Bolshoi at once respected and resisted tradition, challenging the Putin regime’s conservative cultural politics in defence of European humanist values. The Mariinsky in St Petersburg did nothing of the sort, tacking in the opposite direction under Putin loyalist Valery Gergiev.

Before the invasion, the Bolshoi’s offerings included experimental productions by Dmitri Tcherniakov, who staged a version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Sadko that playfully jabbed at the Bolshoi’s history and traditions and angered conservative critics for its ‘lies’ and ‘inauthenticity.’ Urin brought in David Alden to direct Britten’s Billy Budd with an international cast that included the Ukrainian baritone Iurii Samoilov in the title role. The Bolshoi has been open to Indigenous works (the Yakut opera Nyurgun Bootur, for example) and to performers with disabilities: a group of Russian wheelchair dancers joined the corps de ballet for A Hero of Our Time (2015), directed by Kirill Serebrennikov and choreographed by Yuri Possokhov. These same artists challenged LGBTQ+ strictures with Nureyev, which reached the Bolshoi’s stage in 2017 despite government efforts to make it go away. It’s hard to imagine such a provocative show being done in London or New York, even harder to imagine it happening again at the Bolshoi.

Olga Smirnova, now at Dutch National Ballet (in Raymonda). Photo: Altin Kaftira
Olga Smirnova. Photo: Laura Cnossen

Nureyev tells the story of the dancer’s life in reverse, beginning with his death from Aids and ending in the Soviet Union. It includes a queer bacchanalia set in the Bois de Boulogne, the red-light district of Paris, after Nureyev’s defection to the west in 1961. Kitsch dialogues with camp; Nureyev’s life animates the clichés of Russian classical ballet. It is a study in contrasts, with an affirmation at its heart: just as you can’t choose your country, you can’t choose your sexuality. 

The production was postponed just after the dress rehearsal in the summer of 2017. At a press conference in the theatre, Urin brusquely rejected the accusations that Nureyev had been cancelled by the Ministry of Culture. The ballet just wasn’t ready, he insisted. The artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, Makhar Vaziev, stood beside him in silence. In December, a modified version was premiered for a crowd of celebrities and politicians. Serebrennikov wasn’t there. He had been placed under house arrest, accused of looting the budget of a non-profit foundation that he had established under the previous Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, to promote contemporary artists.

Among the Russian cognoscenti, the production’s greatest defender was Tatyana Kuznetsova, the dance writer for Kommersant newspaper and author of an unflattering book about the Bolshoi in the later Soviet years, when Yuri Grigorovich, now 96, was in charge of the ballet. The operative word in the Russian title is Khroniki, which means ‘chronicles,’ but can also refer to chronic illness and addictions. Mass forces are organised for mass entertainment in Grigorovich’s ballets, geared towards seemingly superhuman dancers of astonishing physical strength. They make use of folk dance but exclude character dance, a sin in Kuznetsova’s eyes. His inspiration came from Petipa and the streets, in the behaviour of people at bars, brothels, gyms and on battlefields. His works set forth proper lessons about good and evil, patriots and traitors, oppressors and liberators. Doing that meant simplifying – and impoverishing – balletic syntax.

Alexei Ratmanksy (centre) rehearsing the United Ukrainian Ballet. Photo: Johan Molenaar
Vladislav Lantratov in Nureyev. Photo: Mikhail Logvinov/Bolshoi
Artem Ovcharenko as Nureyev. Photo: Damir Yusupov/Bolshoi

The Bolshoi hasn’t returned to that era, but two of Grigorovich’s symphonic ballets are on the books this season: the exotic-erotic Legend of Love (1961), in which a queen sacrifices her beauty to save her sister and a hero sacrifices his love for the sister to save his people from water scarcity; and Ivan the Terrible (1975), denounced by Kuznetsova as a ‘hopelessly outdated’ jamboree of Russian and Soviet clichés that only tourists can love – except the tourists have largely disappeared. More interestingly, the Bolshoi premiered Vyacheslav Samodurov’s Dancemania, a high-octane battle of the sexes, in July 2022, and he’s spoken out against the invasion. Pierre Lacotte’s 2000 version of Pharaoh’s Daughter is still in the repertoire; he has said nothing. 

Then there is the shameful case of Alexei Ratmansky, the former artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet and one of the most in-demand choreographers in the world. Having danced in Kyiv at the start of his illustrious career, he has repeatedly denounced the invasion and dramatically quit Moscow last February, leaving behind an almost-finished production of the ballet The Art of Fugue, stating that he doubts he’ll return while Putin is Russia’s president.

It’s hard to imagine another ballet like Nureyev (here with Artem Ovcharenko) at the Bolshoi. Photo: Damir Yusupov

Despite his active support for Ukraine, he was not on the list of personae non grata dissidents until recently. A Russian colleague of mine explained that the Federal Security Service and pro-Putin cultural collaborators dislike ballet, don’t know foreign languages, didn’t monitor the choreographers much, and was probably unaware of Ratmansky’s comments made in English until an interview with the BBC and social media exchanges was trafficked around. 

Now Ratmansky has been blacklisted and his name removed from his own ballets. On 13 November last year, he complained on Facebook that ‘The Bolshoi Theatre of Russia performed my production of Flames of Paris, two shows, afternoon and evening. My name as choreographer was erased. The same thing happened to all my other productions in Moscow: Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, and Le Corsaire. And at the Mariinsky Theatre all six of my ballets are now authorless according to their official website: Cinderella, Anna Karenina, Little Humpbacked Horse, Concerto DSCH, Seven Sonatas and Pierrot Lunaire have no choreographer.’ He wondered if the dancers noticed either the theft or the perversity of cheerfully dancing the work of a supposed ‘traitor.’ But no one has communicated with him from the Bolshoi. 

The Nutcracker sold out immediately this winter. Photo: Damir Yusupov

The Bolshoi is stuck in a state of anxious limbo. Attitudes towards the invasion are mixed

Like the Mariinsky, the Bolshoi is stuck in a state of anxious limbo. None of the dancers was mobilised in September; performers elsewhere have been sent to Ukraine. Attitudes towards the invasion are mixed: a small group of liberals in the theatre oppose it, yet some dancers with Ukrainian roots actually support it. In March, prima ballerina Olga Smirnova left the Bolshoi for the Dutch National Ballet, announcing her opposition to the invasion just beforehand. She’s missed by her colleagues, but they knew she was going to leave anyway. 

The attitude in the company toward Putin’s actions mirrors that on the streets. Four-fifths of Russians are concerned about the fighting; the rest are indifferent while Kyiv sits in darkness. As I write this, the holidays are approaching in Moscow. Tickets to The Nutcracker sold out in a few hours.


Olga Smirnova explains why she left Russia and the Bolshoi

Mikhail Baryshnikov on Putin’s war

Simon Morrison writes about Russian music, ballet and Stevie Nicks. He is currently working on a history of Moscow.


Dance is good for us – that much we know to be true. Join a dance class as a non-professional and you can expect to feel the advantages of physical activity, endorphins and new friends. 

Yet the actual benefits to mind and body from dance and movement-based activities go far beyond, and are much more specific than, a generalised boost to ‘wellbeing’. And this becomes particularly apparent when looking at what dance offers patients with a range of medical conditions and those who care for them.

A Move Dance Feel session. Photo: Camilla Greenwell

One of the UK’s best-established programmes for medical staff is Performing Medicine, established by Suzi Willson, co-founder of Clod Ensemble. Many of the company’s stage works reflect an interest in medicine and science, including pieces on the placebo effect (Placebo, 2018) or medical laboratories (Under Glass, 2007). Performing Medicine, however, grew out of Willson’s personal experiences visiting people in hospitals shortly after training. ‘I had just come back from the Jacques Lecoq theatre school and was spending quite a lot of time in hospitals with various friends and family members,’ she explains. ‘I realised that a lot of the actor training skills and dance skills I had learnt throughout my education could be really useful to healthcare professionals, because it seemed like their route through learning hadn’t taught them much about their own self-care or physical expression.’

Willson alighted on a specific aspect of the doctor-patient relationship that she believed dance could help improve: non-verbal communication. ‘Most people’s experience of being in a hospital is based around the space they are in, and the way other people are moving towards them, touching them and communicating with them,’ she says. ‘Dance has got so much to offer here.’

Performing Medicine specialises in non-verbal communication. Photo: Benedict Johnson

‘Healthcare professionals focus on other people’s bodies and forget about their own’

– Carly Annable-Coop

For the past 15 years, Performing Medicine has been embedded in the core curriculum at the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry of Queen Mary University of London, while also delivering workshops to qualified healthcare practitioners. The subtleties of non-verbal communication remain a key focus, with students being taught to develop bodily awareness and understand the different qualities of touch, plus the chance to turn the microscope onto themselves. ‘Within medical education, healthcare professionals always focus on other people’s bodies,’ says Carly Annable-Coop, programme manager at Performing Medicine. ‘They often forget about their own bodies and stop having a curiosity about what it means to look and feel for themselves.’

The need to help those working in healthcare increased hugely during the Covid-19 pandemic and Performing Medicine saw how coronavirus brought new challenges. Willson recalls how, ‘right from the early days of the pandemic, people were really struggling with wearing PPE and the impacts of that in terms of communicating, plus just the exhaustion of wearing it for long periods of time.’ 

In response to a request from a doctor at University College London Hospitals, Performing Medicine developed a resource based on the expertise of performers used to wearing restrictive costumes on stage. The leaflet covers everything from preparation to body scan techniques, communication and being part of an identically dressed group. A similar resource dedicated to mask-wearing was also created.

Move Dance Feel shows evidence of faster recovery times and lower relapse rate. Photo: Camilla Greenwell
Performing Medicine helps healthcare workers develop self-compassion and self-care. Photo: Benedict Johnson

Alongside this practical and targeted advice, Performing Medicine also helped healthcare workers develop self-compassion and self-care techniques, including calmness and reliance, through an extended programme based in Swansea. This more holistic approach to helping with the emotional pressures of the job is mirrored in the US-based project the Clinic. Founded by dancer and nurse Tara Rynders, the Clinic addresses ‘compassion fatigue’, where mental and physical exhaustion makes medical staff unable to respond empathically and compassionately to their patients. Contributing factors include being regularly exposed to other people’s grief and experiencing their own grief for patients. 

Like Performing Medicine, the Clinic delivers both long term and one-off workshops. But it’s also created an immersive dance performance in a hospital setting for medical staff to watch. First, Do No Harm, made by Rynders with Jadd Tank and Lia Bonfilio, is performed by professional dancers. The choreography draws on Rynders’ background in gestural dance and naturalised movement – ‘I have a very broad definition of dance and think that everything is dance, whether you’re putting the thought “I’m dancing” into it, or it’s just happening naturally, like with our hearts beating,’ she says – and it takes place in found spaces in the same hospitals where the staff work.

Both the familiar location and naturalistic choreography help Rynders’ audience to connect with the performance. ‘I knew the audience wouldn’t be dancers or people who necessarily go to the arts all the time, so I wanted it to be something they could easily relate to,’ Rynders says. ‘I wanted to invite them back into their own space – the hospital – and then briefly shift it, all in a way that disrupted what normally happened there.’

First, Do No Harm looks at the experiences contributing to burnout and compassion fatigue: for example being overlooked, underappreciated or made to perform ‘behind the scenes’ roles. It also clicks into the philosophical aspect of caregiving work and ‘the idea that the depths of our grief can also be the depths of our joy.’ The notion of joy is precious to Rynders, who has lent on her own dance practice in times of personal struggle, and it is, at root, the reason she believes dance is infinitely useful to doctors and nurses. ‘In healthcare, we need to run to what brings us joy. For me, that’s dance and creating these spaces for joy, pleasure and beauty. Alongside that, we are human and we need safe spaces to cry and to reflect, and to remember the heart-to-heart things,’ she concludes.

‘In healthcare, we need to run to what brings us joy. For me, that’s dance’

– TaRa RynderS

The complex web of different benefits drawn from dance, from the practical to the mental to the physical, is likewise present in projects working with patients. Move Dance Feel, founded in Britain by Emily Jenkins in 2016, works with women with cancer and the long-term consequences of diagnoses, treatment, recovery and rehabilitation. ‘Long-term’ could here mean working with people who were diagnosed ten years ago but still experience anything from side-effects of drug treatment to feelings of disconnection from their bodies, which may have been radically altered by surgery. 

A Move Dance Feel session. Photo: Camilla Greenwell

The techniques used in the dance sessions, whether in-person or online, respond to these experiences. Jenkins observed how many women arrived holding a lot of physical tension in their bodies. ‘There was a lot of numbing out and freezing, or people feeling scared to move their bodies. So we use breath, touch and imagery to just drop into the body a bit more,’ she says. ‘We also use techniques from contemporary dance like dropping to the floor and literal grounding techniques.’ 

Thus far, Move Dance Feel has gathered highly impressive results showing how dance leads to significant boosts to a person’s mood and fatigue levels. More than that, it also shows evidence of faster recovery times and lower relapse rates. Jenkins believes that in a situation where there is almost too much for the mind to process intellectually, working through the body can be very therapeutic. 

Delivering such outcomes relies on the expertise of the teachers leading the classes. Dance teacher, academic and author, Clare Guss-West leads the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, and formerly worked on the RAD’s Dance for Lifelong Wellbeing project. Her extensive body of work includes teaching older non-professionals in Switzerland who often have a range of different medical conditions and symptoms associated with older age, such as the onset of Parkinson’s or dementia, arthritis, vertigo, and vision and hearing loss. She also teaches courses in France and Switzerland, instructing dance teachers in how to work with older people. ‘One of the specialisms I teach is based on 25 years of sports science research into how we use language to guide the attention of the learner,’ she explains. ‘When we guide using images or artistic aspects like music, we facilitate movement for the learner and the capacity to learn is increased by about 50%, just by teachers changing our language.’

A performance by the Clinic. Photo: Adam Bove

‘I’m asking what creativity brings: confidence and risk-taking at a neurological level’

– Clare Guss-West
Claire Guss-West

Within the academic circles Guss-West moves in there is a lot of respect for and understanding of the benefits of dance, especially in neurological fields. However, she believes that the general perception of dance and its applications is often simplistic and tends to focus on the basic physical gains. ‘There’s a lack of understanding of the incredible wealth [of benefits] dance can bring. So I promote what dance is beyond physical activity. It’s about asking what creativity brings to self and self-validation, and therefore confidence, risk-taking and autonomy at a neurological level. It’s about the three-dimensionality of dance.’

All of which is good for our health and good for the health of those who care for us.


Emily Jenkins introduces Move Dance Feel


Rosemary Waugh is an art and performance critic who writes for publications including The i, New Statesman, Art UK and The Stage.


‘Instead of taking a few little hops, you can open your wings and really fly,’ says Monica Mason. ‘I compare it to the moment that the Royal Ballet moved into the remodelled Royal Opera House. We couldn’t believe that all that wonderful space was ours.’

The RAD’s new global headquarters. Photo: David Tett

The former artistic director of the Royal Ballet is talking with pleasure and pride about the new RAD building in Battersea, for which she has been a powerful advocate and keen fund-raiser. ‘The most important thing as a young dancer is to have enough space to move in and feel free to move in. If you’re always restricted by being in a room that’s too small, you’re always pulling back on your movements, containing something that should be blossoming. Dancers improve and their work is better when they can be bigger.’

The seven full-sized studios which win such plaudits are only part of the gleaming glory of the new RAD global headquarters. Perched on the busy York Road, a main thoroughfare through the borough of Wandsworth in south west London, the organisation’s 70,000 square feet of space on the ground floor of a multi-storey residential development, also boasts a 193-seat studio theatre, a state of the art archive, a library, expanded shop, lecture rooms and offices.

Luke Rittner. Photo: Ali Wright for Dance Gazette
Takero Shimazaki

On the first floor, alongside more offices, there is the RAD’s global centre for examinations, complete with a special room to house the machine that prints all the certificates sent to every successful candidate. On the ground floor, there will be a cafe, open to the street and to any passer-by, and comfortable waiting areas for the hundreds of families whose children are taught at the RAD every week. Not to mention its full-time students in the teaching of dance.

This sleek and sophisticated development has been achieved at the relatively low cost of £19.5 million. The bulk of this was raised by a little creative thinking: the old RAD headquarters in Battersea Square was valued and given to the property developer Avanton in a building swop. That left just £3.5 million for the Academy to raise; as of April, just under £700,000 was outstanding.

A welcome at the main entrance. Photo: Siobhan Hennessy

‘Architecture is moving towards sustainability:
making the most of what we have, elevating what we find’

Takero Shimazaki

The new building – and the deal, which was suggested by Wandsworth Council, who wanted to keep the Academy in the borough – is the last legacy of outgoing chief executive Luke Rittner, who retired in April after 23 years in charge. ‘I can leave thinking the RAD has got its new home. No-one can take it away,’ he says. ‘It’s a very tangible feeling of accomplishment, of achievement. It’s not just my achievement. It belongs to a huge number of people. But goodness, I feel good about it.’

There was no doubt in his mind that, despite the sentiment attached to the old headquarters, that the time had come for change. ‘We were absolutely bursting at the seams, and it was in dire need of updating,’ he explains. ‘We were increasingly at odds with the legislation on disabled access, for example. I kept being invited to the opening of new buildings – Elmhurst in Birmingham, the Scottish Ballet in Glasgow – and I realised that we were way, way behind.

‘Students would begin to look at the facilities and say this isn’t what they’d expect. So there was need for change on a whole number of fronts.’

The original idea was to update rather than move, but it quickly became obvious that this would be prohibitively expensive. So Rittner began to look at alternative sites. ‘It’s been a nine-year journey,’ he says. ‘I looked all over London; then this option came up and the project started about five and half years ago.’

Inside one of the new studios. Photo: Siobhan Hennessy

Key to the success of the move is the contribution made by T-SA Architects and their founding director Takero Shimazaki, who took on the assignment knowing that he would be working within a space already conditioned by the building above it. All the concrete pillars that define the design, for example, are the weight-bearing part of the original development; this meant that the studios, with their sprung floors, and discrete air-conditioning and lighting, had to be placed under the gardens of the apartments, so there was no column in the centre of the space. Serendipitously, this has produced a light-well in one of the rooms that looks rather like an Anish Kapoor installation as it spreads a circle of light across the floor.

Shimazaki likes working in this way. ‘The exciting thing about adaptive working is that it is about fitting things into the framework that the developer has already laid down,’ he says. ‘You don’t impose your design. It is more about a dialogue with what you find on site.

‘We are already constrained in many ways and that’s much more interesting. The architecture industry is moving in the direction of adaptable re-use, sustainable economy of means, doing less. It makes me happy because it is about making the most of what we have, elevating what we have found.’

The results of that elevation are everywhere to be seen, from the moment you walk into the airy reception area that houses both the shop (complete with pointe shoe fitting area) and one of the largest studios. Shimazaki has kept the design simple, but welcoming, creating what he calls streets and plazas, indicated by warm, terracotta red tiles on the floor, where people can meet, chat and relax. ‘We didn’t want it to feel like lots of corridors with rooms next to them,’ he explains. ‘We wanted to turn these open spaces into something.’

In a similar way, Shimazaki found a balance between contemporary minimalism and the history of the RAD. The portraits of the past – of founders Adeline Genée and Tamara Karsavina – sit comfortably alongside the sleek, modern lines of the walls and lighting. Everything about the building says dance, but it also makes dance seem contemporary and accessible to the community who will come into the building for dance classes, for old and young, and will use the facilities for their own activities.

The new RAD shop. Photos: David Tett

‘We put together a pretty detailed brief,’ says Rittner. ‘But it has been a real collaboration. It has been a real joy working with Takero. We haven’t had a single row.’ Shimazaki smiles, then adds: ‘It was very creative in that sense. Every time a problem occurred we’d discuss how to go about solving it.’

Rittner sees the new building as marking a sea change in terms of the future. ‘Obviously the building is all about a physical change, but I think that physical change will demonstrate itself in psychological ways as well. We’re no longer a little old building tucked away in a courtyard, we are right out there with huge letters above our door, making a very strong statement about our presence and our existence.’ Mason agrees. ‘I think for people coming from abroad and outside London this beautiful space makes people understand that the RAD is important. Buildings can impress.’

In deciding to support the fund-raising for the building through the Linbury Trust, Anya Sainsbury was backing that sense of both psychological and physical expansion. ‘I felt the RAD was growing and that their ideas were broader,’ she says. ‘It’s not just about space, but what they are going to do with that space. I knew about some of the things they were adding to help young people and older people to dance. At the new building they are going to really stretch out and give opportunities, particularly to the poorer kids in the borough. So many things can happen when opportunities are provided. I like that open feeling they have.’

The RAD has opened itself to many activities within its walls: there is the Wolfson Library, funded by a £375,000 grant by the Wolfson Foundation in recognition of ‘the Academy’s long tradition of excellence in dance education’; then there are the dance teacher training courses, with their full-time students, and then the board for the examinations around the world. 

But there are also 900 young people coming into the building each week for a weekly dance class, and activities such as adult dance lessons and the Silver Swans for older learners. These activities are only likely to expand, as more people discover what is on offer.

Monica Mason. Photo: Helen Murray for Dance Gazette

Mason loves the way that as soon as you walk into the building, there is a glass viewing area into the first studio, which also has a window that can be open to the street, so that passers-by can see what is going on. ‘You can see dance happening,’ she says. ‘So many people don’t know about dance because they have never had the opportunity. Now people can come in, visit the café, look in the windows, see dance from the top of a bus – anything that stimulates them to ask questions about what goes on in this building. And to realise that their children could very easily be part of something going on there.

‘Darcey Bussell [the RAD’s President] talks all the time about how wonderful it would be if everybody in the world had a chance to dance. I think we should aim as high as we can to give everybody a taste of it.’

She pauses for a moment, then adds: ‘Margot Fonteyn was famous for saying that it’s not the building that matters but what goes on inside the building. But what will go on in this building now will grow and grow, and in ten years we will suddenly wonder how we ever fitted into the old place. It’s a triumph in every way.’

WATCH Take a tour of the RAD’s new home

Sarah Crompton is a writer and broadcaster.


When Etta Murfitt’s mother died of ovarian cancer in 2005, her father, Dennis, moved into her family home, along with her husband, Petrus and daughter Isobel. ‘It was great,’ Murfitt says, ‘because my daughter was eight and Dad was a very fit 80 year-old. He’d pick her up from school and cook dinner.’ Murfitt, who is Associate Artistic Director of New Adventures and a dancer and choreographer with a career spanning more than 40 years, refers to him as ‘Isobel’s carer for a good four years,’ adding, ‘he was amazing. There’s something wonderful about a young person talking to a really old person about their experiences, having funny political debates and finding out what life was like.’

Then, when her father was around 88, things started to shift. Dennis contracted a urine infection and serious dehydration and hallucinations followed. Murfitt found her father at home in a ‘sort of trance’. He spent six weeks in hospital, also contracting pneumonia. ‘It all sort of escalated from there,’ Murfitt says. In hospital, Dennis became more confused; when he came home, Murfitt struggled to secure a care package from her local council. 

Then her father had another fall. In hospital again, doctors found that Dennis had suffered several mini strokes. Once again he contracted pneumonia in hospital; once again she found it difficult to secure care. Increasingly fragile, Dennis could barely be left alone. The uncertainty began to take its toll on Murfitt’s family life – and her work. She has collaborated on many of Matthew Bourne’s celebrated New Adventures productions. ‘I’d be away for four nights working on a show, constantly worried about what was going to happen.’ Dennis had bonded well with one carer during his last hospital stint, and Murfitt asked her to care for him five days a week. ‘My dad was quite dapper: clean shirt, clean shave. But he would never let me help him with anything like that, so this carer was great.’

Etta Murfitt in rehearsal with Matthew Bourne at New Adventures. Photo: Mikah Smillie

Just when Murfitt’s family routine seemed to stabilise somewhat, her husband Petrus, who taught at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, died suddenly of a heart attack in 2014. ‘That threw everything up in the air again. My carer had her own family situation so couldn’t look after my Dad, and we were all grieving. My dad especially, felt as if the loss of Petrus was catastrophic. He kept saying, “it should have been me.”’ Murfitt recalls that her anxiety was through the roof: ‘I was desperate. An amazing woman, who was in a senior position at the council, came to the house. She saw how I was barely functioning. Thankfully she arranged more care.’

Dance can be an unsparing career, whether performing, teaching or studying. It demands long hours and dedicated regular practice – but these can be difficult to balance with an equally demanding home life. Murfitt is honest about how both grieving for a tragic loss and working in the arts impacted her ability to source proper assistance. ‘It is so difficult to know what to ask for,’ she says. ‘I work for a dance company and I was away all the time so the level of care I needed wasn’t really predictable. They’d ask “you need care overnight?” And I’d say no, just one or two nights this week, then nothing next week. People didn’t get it.’

Penny Cotton, Head of Global Membership Services at the RAD, notes that the RAD is particularly attuned to these pressures for dance teachers and students who are also carers, and have put in a number of measures to support them. ‘We launched the requirement to participate in Continuing Professional Development (CPD) in 2013 and felt it was important to recognise that registered teachers have commitments outside of their dance teaching careers. CPD activities can be accessed in-person or online, ensuring teachers from all over the world have the opportunity to connect with their fellow teachers,’ she notes. 

For teachers who have onerous caring duties, Cotton explains they can apply for full and part exemptions each CPD year. There’s also a Teachers’ Hardship Fund, introduced in 2016, to support teachers financially with their annual membership subscription, and the RAD Teacher category, for professionals who may need to take a break from dance teaching, but want to stay connected to the RAD, as well as the Wellbeing Toolkit for teachers and students, which provides mental and physical health resources.

Jacqueline Floyd (centre) with Richard Leader, Deborah Preece-Brocksom and RAD dance students. Photo: courtesy Deborah Preece-Brocksom

‘I never wanted to be seen as a carer. It just seemed to be part of daily life’

Deborah Preece-Brocksom

‘I have never wanted to be seen as a carer,’ says Deborah Preece-Brocksom, an RAD teacher and co-director of the Dance Centre, Peregian Springs in Queensland, Australia. ‘What I do just seems like family to me.’ Caring is nonetheless what she has done – for her friends and mentors Jacqueline (known to all as Jonnie) and Jack Floyd, former stars of the variety stage. 

‘Jack and Jonnie were known in the dance world as Floyd and B’Nay,’ Preece-Brocksom explains. ‘They danced in the first television broadcast from Crystal Palace and danced in a Royal Command performance where the king remarked “this is the second time I’ve seen you two dance this week!” – he had also seen them in a West End show. They were very prominent in the RAD organisation of Australia, and when my husband Richard and I came to Australia they saw a newspaper article about us and asked us to dinner. From there an extraordinary friendship blossomed, that turned into a family.’

Like Preece-Brockman, Floyd and B’Nay were British born. ‘Although decades apart, we had almost the same British RAD upbringing,’ she recalls, ‘and as dancers we had so much in common as we had danced in so many of the same theatres, even remembering the same awful dressing rooms!’ They began meeting for lunch every Sunday – Preece-Brockman relished their stories of performing with Judy Garland and Michael Jackson, and ‘they helped me tremendously with running a dance school incorporating the RAD system.’

As the years passed, the weekly visits increased, to give the couple the extra help they needed. They had no children and ‘a strong love between us all had grown and flourished, the passion for dance and dance teaching being the bond that tied us together,’ says Preece-Brockman. ‘When the time came that they needed serious help,’ says, ‘a small cottage/unit was built where our vegetable plot used to be in our side garden as Jack said he needed more space to tap dance!’ Soon ‘caring just seemed to be part of daily life.’

Etta Murfitt. Photo: Dan Wooller

‘I can’t tell you how awful it is, to close the door on somebody you love and worry about them all day’

Etta Murfitt

It was nonetheless a demanding routine – getting up soon after 5am each morning to prepare breakfast and medicine, and ending late with a shared sherry and supper, and in between the school’s schedule of classes. Jack died aged 102, still eager to hear about Preece-Brockman’s talented students, and Jonnie was 96 when she died in March this year. ‘I don’t think I could ever have managed the caring if I had not had my ballet teaching each day,’ Preece-Brockman considers, ‘to help calm and balance my mind and refresh my soul. Seeing ones loved ones slowly die is quite soul destroying. I find that teaching young exuberant students, especially our Vocational students, is balm for my heart and mind.’

Although the worlds of dance and care can seem very far apart, Akeino James, studying dance at Kingston University in the UK, choreographed a final degree piece based on his own experience as a carer. ‘I had to help take care of my little brother, who is three years younger than me,’ James, now 22, said in a university news article. ‘I would be left while mum worked and had to make sure he had done his homework. I had a lot of responsibility but we’ve since realised that this only made us closer.’

His mother also encouraged him to explore dance. ‘I’ve never been really good at talking so being able to dance and express things without words has always been important to me,’ he said. ‘I like to share my ideas with people, I want those with similar experiences to myself to know that you can do other things.’ Reflecting on being a carer, he considered, ‘you might have more responsibilities than your friends, but you will be better for it in the end. You are not alone – you can do anything you want if you put your mind to it.’

Akeino James. Photo: Kingston University

While looking after her father, Murfitt received support from New Adventures, which she calls ‘a brilliant company.’ She was often working far from her London base – ‘they let me just get the show on, then go home. That was really useful,’ she recalls. But Murfitt still lived with a permanent sense of trepidation while working away from her father. ‘I can’t tell you how awful it is, to close the door on somebody who you love very much and worry about them all day, thinking that something might happen to them – and also getting phone calls because my dad had a personal alarm and he’d press it by accident. It was a lot.’ When Dennis died in 2016, Murfitt describes feeling overwhelmed by a sadness that was also laced with a sense of relief: it still feels confusing.

More support needs to be readily available to freelancers and creatives during family crises, Murfitt says. ‘You need somebody to explain what your options are, but also understanding from performing arts companies themselves,’ she says. ‘If someone has a caring situation, they need cover. There may be many carers who want to perform, but can’t be away from home for long periods of time. What we need is flexibility. There’s not very much protection for freelancers, apart from a company’s goodwill.’

What, if anything, does Etta Murfitt think she learned about herself during a period fraught with grief and anxiety, but also much joy? ‘I learned that talking to others to help work out what’s going on is so important. And that even when I’m anxious I can still operate and do my job.’ She pauses. ‘And also, that I still really loved my Dad even when I was caring for him. Even though it was really stressful, he still made me laugh so much.’

Georgina Lawton is the author of Raceless and Black Girls Take World. She also writes for the Guardian and others.

Ellis van der Does is a Dutch illustrator and designer based in London. ellisvanderdoes.com


When the Dutch government imposed restrictions on people’s mobility following a dramatic spike in Covid infections in the Hague at the end of November, Emily Molnar faced yet another dilemma. As artistic director of Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT), the transplanted Canadian had a show to put on. But the curfew placed on all night time activities meant that, at the very last minute, after months of painstaking preparations, she was not allowed to open the doors on the theatre where NDT had been scheduled to perform.

Welcome to an artistic director’s new pandemic reality. 

It was to have been a special evening. Three works (including a world premiere) by William Forsythe, the innovative choreographer under whom Molnar, years ago, had danced when he helmed Ballett Frankfurt. Today hunkered down at his rural property in faraway Vermont, Forsythe created his latest opus via Zoom, the defining app of the coronavirus era. To save it, Molnar had to move fast.

Emily Molnar. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

NDT in William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced and N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N. Photos: Rahi Rezvani

‘Everything is changing on us – that’s brought about a reawakening’

Emily Molnar

She couldn’t do a night show as organised. But she could do a matinee, which is what she eventually did do, rejigging the entire dance programme within a matter of days. When it finally debuted, it played to less than a third of NDT’s normal audience, 350 people instead of the usual 1100, as mandated by the government. But it was better than nothing. The show did go on, a direct outcome of Molnar’s ability to think quickly on her feet. ‘There have been some shining moments but it’s certainly been challenging,’ she reflects after catching a breather. ‘But you know, that’s the entire world right now, so no complaints.’

It’s an attitude shared by other artistic directors who similarly have been forced to navigate the precarity of Covid while leading a major arts organisation. Like Molnar who joined NDT last August, Hope Muir at the National Ballet of Canada and Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago likewise accepted new leadership roles at a time of great and unpredictable change. There’s no handbook about how to guide a dance company during a global health crisis. But this new generation of dance leaders is tackling the difficulties with ingenuity. All three women are making the most of a lousy situation, moving dance in new directions to ensure its future survival. The effort is noble as well as exhausting, as Fisher-Harrell would attest.

Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell teaching. Photo: Kanji Takeno

It’s a difficult time, let’s not kid ourselves. But it’s also a very creative period for dance

Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell

‘Starting a new job in the pandemic? What a crazy thing to do!’ she exclaims when asked how she’s handling the situation. The former Alvin Ailey principal dancer and university-level educator said it with a laugh, later recounting how steering her company through the rocky terrain of Covid has led to a rediscovery of the resilience of dance as an art form. So again, no complaints.

‘I’m completely working it,’ Fisher-Harrell, a married mother of three, enthuses. ‘It’s a difficult time, let’s not kid ourselves. But it’s also a very creative period for dance, a time to pull back and be even more innovative and nimble about what we do.’ 

By way of illustration, Fisher-Harrell shares what it was like to fill four new company dance positions in the pandemic. To do it safely, she organised a virtual audition, a first for Hubbard Street. Under normal circumstances the repertory company would generally get 100 applicants. But this time, after moving the process online, it received 900, including dancers in Asia and the UK. Using Zoom this way was a revelation. It enabled Fisher-Harrell to choose the best of the best from an enlarged talent pool. ‘So that worked out great,’ she says. ‘We now know we can do it this way and we’re going to preserve that experience going forward. We’ll always offer a virtual component to make the process more accessible to all.’

Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell. Photo: Paul Octavious
Hope Muir. Photo: Karolina Kuras/National Ballet of Canada

‘Social justice protests that followed in the wake of the pandemic have triggered a reckoning’

Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell

Speaking by phone from North Carolina where she was finishing her term as director of the 30-member Charlotte Ballet, Muir too has been compelled to implement novel ways of doing things in dance. A former dancer turned rehearsal director who has staged works for Scottish Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, Muir would relocate to Toronto in January to take on her next role. But already she was thinking ahead, about how to lead a classical dance company – at 80 dancers the largest in Canada – at a time of upheaval. It would require a progressive plan.

Covid has exposed vulnerabilities, not just in health but in people’s psyches and in society as a whole. In Muir’s opinion, this is not about trying to get dance back to where it was, before the lockdowns. It’s about bringing dance back stronger, and more self-aware. ‘What I learned in the pandemic,’ Muir says, ‘is, my goodness, but we are really late with some of these conversations, aren’t we?’ She’s right. 

Ballet’s been notoriously slow about addressing inequalities that have gone unchecked in the art form for centuries, making it look often woefully behind the times. But the social justice protests that have followed in the wake of the pandemic have triggered a reckoning. The call to correct imbalances that in the past have stood in the way of real artistic and social progress has sparked a rethink of the entire ballet culture. Muir for one is glad.

Hope Muir with choreographer Crystal Pite. Photo: Karolina Kuras

Guided by dancers whose voices she genuinely is listening to, Muir is now questioning everything, from racial stereotypes in The Nutcracker to the presence of fragile females in just about everything else. She’s not looking to bury the classical repertoire; she wants to make it more accountable and relevant to today. ‘Before plugging in repertoire as we used to do,’ she explains, ‘we need to look at the stories we’re telling and ask ourselves if they are the right stories – and if they are the type of stories we want to do, then how about providing context or education around them to make them resonate with today’s audience?’

Stories deemed worthy of retelling will no longer need a stage to be heard. One of the biggest surprises of the pandemic is how readily dance has adapted to new technologies to keep itself going even when the theatres remain closed. The advent of digital seasons during the lockdowns has pushed dance into brave new territory. There will be no looking back. The reach has been extraordinary. 

When NDT had to cancel all of its tours, both domestic and international, due to the coronavirus in 2020, the company digitised its programme for online viewing. More than 10,000 people in 75 countries clicked on, giving NDT a greater audience than it would have otherwise had. ‘So that was incredible,’ Molnar says, ‘because who would have thought? The experience gave us a lot of new questions and a lot of new information about how to get better and go forward into the future.’ 

Across the Atlantic in Chicago, Fisher-Harrell has used online platforms to forge new relationships with other dance professionals during the pandemic. She’s also harnessed the technology to expand and enrich her dancers’ training regimens through exposure to outside classes and other styles and techniques, providing more opportunities for artistic growth. ‘Covid has given us permission to knock down the silos,’ she emphasises, ‘and this has benefited the art form. I think this element of hybrid learning will stay with us now for the long term.’

NDT in One Flat Thing, reproduced. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

What it means to be a dance company leader is also evolving with the times. ‘It certainly isn’t status quo anymore,’ pronounces Molnar. ‘It’s all changing on us and it’s all beyond our control, really, and that’s brought about a reawakening. When something is taken away from you, you are forced to see it differently.’

Seconding this view is Muir whose own perspective of the artistic director has been altered by the pandemic. If the position previously loomed despotic and mean, a characterisation supported by history and perpetuated by pop culture representations like Black Swan and The Red Shoes, in these difficult times the role is undergoing a makeover, appearing more nurturing and compassionate. That shift has the potential to usher in a new benevolent epoch for classical dance. 

‘I’m trying not to push too hard,’ Muir says. ‘Just to get people back on stage is a feat in itself. Because the dancers haven’t exercised in 20 months. That’s true of the entire organisation. So you can’t take physical risks right now and you can’t take financial risks either. So I’m thinking about rebuilding, recycling and renewing people’s talents as safely and as responsibly as possible. So that requires a lot of preparedness and, you know, just sensitivity.’ 

For inspiration, Fisher-Harrell has been looking back at the people who once lead her, drawing on the strength of the likes of Judith Jamison, her mentor at the Ailey company. ‘I remember her stories about dancing during the civil rights movement and I watched with my own eyes how she brought us all through 9/11,’ Fisher-Harrell recalls. ‘Judith Jamison was an incredible arts director. She taught me what the expectations should be. I can only show up as my artistic self and hope that my way inspires the dancers, the work and the audience.’

It’s a big task, requiring stamina, and a lot of creative drive. But it’s what these women signed up for. ‘I really want dancers to be at their best,’ Muir says, echoing the sentiments of her director colleagues. ‘That’s one of the things that struck me when I woke up one morning and realised I was now the artistic director of this company. I was like, wow, this is such a high level of care. I’ve so many hearts and souls and careers in the palm of my hand. It’s a big responsibility. But it’s the thing I love the most.’ 

‘I’ve so many hearts and souls and careers in the palm of my hand’

Hope Muir


NDT in William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, Reproduced

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based dance critic and author of Ballerina. She has twice won the Nathan Cohen Award for criticism.

Sergiy Maidukov is a Ukrainian illustrator who works for the New Yorker, Guardian and Financial Times.


In September 2021, soon after a brutal second wave of Covid infection rocked her home state of West Bengal, Prathama Ghosh, 26, uploaded a video to her YouTube channel, That Glam Dancer. Ghosh is a dance teacher, choreographer and aspiring commercial dancer, and the number was a cover of Barso Re (‘Let it Pour’). This famous sequence was danced by Aishwarya Rai in the 2007 hit movie Guru, choreographed by the late Saroj Khan (gaining her eighth Filmfare Best Choreography Award). Like many monsoon sequences in Indian cinema, it was an exuberant display of east-meets-west choreography, with flourishes from classical Indian and folk dance and a section in which Rai swings joyfully on a jhoola, or swing, in a drenching rainfall.

‘I learned the dance in school as a teenager,’ Ghosh says. Her rendition of this much-loved number became a lockdown TikTok vogue overseas as thousands of cooped-up dancers uploaded their takes on its signature moves – including Na Na Re Na Na, a series of slow, retreating steps that signifies the playful refusal of a romantic overture. ‘It started raining when I set up my camera,’ Ghosh adds. ‘I could have danced and danced but it’s not actually very good for my health to dance in the rain.’

‘Rain is a harbinger of joy, but also danger’

Professor Rajinder Dudrah

Monsoon song and dance numbers have been a staple of Hindi and Tamil-language movies for almost a century, says Professor Rajinder Dudrah, author of Bollywood: Sociology Goes To the Movies. Much of this is down to the cultural significance, in India, of the arrival of the rains. ‘In Britain, rain has this dull association with winter,’ he says. ‘But in India the rains bring relief from humidity and a promise of abundance as backyards become swimming pools and city streets become playgrounds. It’s part of the natural rhythm of life that’s written into Hinduism and a raft of cultural traditions. It’s a harbinger of joy, but also danger.’

In Hindi-language cinema (popularly known as Bollywood), the monsoon and dance sequence is a device with several purposes, says Indian movie critic Jai Arjun Singh, editor of Popcorn Essayists: What Movies do to Writers. ‘There’s rain as regeneration, including depictions where villagers look to the skies anxiously waiting for the weeping cloud that will bring fertility and crops; there are romantic rain songs, such as Aamir Khan singing Afsana Pyaar Ka’s Tip Tip Tip Baarish (‘drip, drip, dripping rain’); there are tragic ones such as the title song of Barsaat (Rain), in which a repentant man lights the funeral pyre of the woman he has wronged; and there are, of course, sensual monsoon sequences, with a wet heroine catering to the male gaze.’

Rani Mukerji and Shah Rukh Khan in Paheli (2005). Photo: Alistair Picture Library/Alamy

Rohit Chawla, a choreographer and artistic director of Mumbai-based commercial dance school Ensemble Studios, says that a concept of the shifting seasons imbues much of Indian song and dance. Ragas, melodic frameworks with a given set of notes in Indian classical music, include a family of 36 ragas classified as Raga Malhar, or songs of the rain. (The name is derived from the Sanskrit words mala and hari, which literally translate as ‘uncleanliness remover.’)

‘When you include a monsoon song and dance number in a commercial movie you tap into this deep emotional and cultural connection,’ says Chawla, who has trained Bollywood stars including Kareena Kapoor and Sonu Nigam. ‘Even in a thriller, throw in the rain sequence and you will tap directly into the audience’s nostalgia.’

In the first era of the movie monsoon sequence – in movies such as 1955’s Shree420, where golden age actors Nargis and Raj Kapoor hold a single umbrella between them, swaying head-to-head as the Mumbai rain falls – monsoon segments were ciphers for the budding romance, says filmmaker and academic Vikrant Kishore, and a means of evading censorship laws and cultural puritanism. ‘They showed the social mores of the time,’ he says, ‘and wilfully surpassed sexuality.’ 

This, after all, was an era so coy that kissing was depicted by two touching roses or by a bee hovering over a flower. ‘The leading lady in a wet sari was one way directors found to portray sensuality without kissing,’ says Anupama Chopra, editor of movie title Film Companion. ‘The rains become a metaphor for an outburst of emotion and often, seduction.’ There were also darker examples of the monsoon dance trope in this post-independence period, such as the seminal 1951 Awara (Vagabond), which also starred Raj Kapoor and features a scene where a woman is cast out of the house and gives birth to a child as the rain pours.

Nargis and Raj Kapoor in Shree 420 (1955). Photo: Dinodia/Alamy

In films from this era, folk dance styles influenced movie choreography, says Chawla, such as rouf, a popular Muslim dance style from Kashmir (in which women dance in rows with synchronised steps and interlocked arms) and nati, from Himachal Pradesh, which also danced by multiple dancers in rows and features sweeping arm gestures. The rural and ethnic heritage of these steps would be immediately understood by audiences, Chawla notes.

By the 1980s, American popular culture had come to influence Indian filmmaking, with movie choreography often featuring an admixture of Indian folk traditions, including the blockbuster Punjabi folk dance Bhangra (originally a harvest dance) and moves popularised by Hollywood, including 1982’s Disco Dancer, which pays homage to John Travolta’s ‘Brooklyn shuffle’ from Saturday Night Fever. In the same year Prakash Mehra’s Namak Halaal (‘Loyal’), starring a youthful Amitabh Bachchan and Smita Patil, features a joyful monsoon sequence in which the couple dance raucously in the Mumbai rain. ‘I love this because it is the rain dance as youthful rebellion,’ says Dudrah. ‘The couple dance together at night and when a policeman comes to chase them away they dance around him, jokingly.’ It is as if being wet has washed away their conventional inhibitions.

‘Monsoon song and dance numbers tap into a deep
emotional and cultural connection’

Rohit Chawla

This same washing away of inhibitions is reflected in Indian cinema’s fascination for Holi (the spring festival in which people douse one another with colour and water). There are countless examples of raunchy Holi dances on screen – Balam Pichkari Jo Tune Mujhe Mari, ‘Beloved, When You Drenched Me’ from the 2013 hit film Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (‘The Craziness of Youth’), Rang Barse Bheege Chunarwali (‘Colour Drenches the Beauty’s Scarf) from 1981’s Silsila (‘A Chain of Events’).

By the late 1980s and 90s leading Tamil-language director Mani Ratnam used the monsoon segment as a sophisticated device to convey drama, sensuality and the complexities of a changing social landscape where conservatism and youthful individualism exist in dramatic tension. In Mouna Raagam (‘Silent Symphony’, 1986) heroine Revathy dances in the rain in salwar kameez (the practical top and trouser counterpoint to a sari – see-through or otherwise) and her dance is one of unabashed release. And in Thalapathy (‘The Commander’, 1991) the hero, a courageous slum dweller, is introduced in a playful, choreographically complex rain montage.

Shahid Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra in Teri Meri Kahaani (2012). Photo: Everett Collection/Alamy

More recently, says Dudrah, the impact of the monsoon sequence has been diluted as cinema, music and choreography become a ‘global mélange’. ‘You have dance that incorporates bharatanatyam [a major form of Indian classical dance that originated in what is now Tamil Nadu] and uses hand gestures, bodily features and facial gestures to tell the story, but you also have elements of western hip-hop and modern urban Indian dance,’ he says. ‘The couple might be dressed in Indian or western attire; it might be highly sexual, or somewhat chaste.’

The shift can be most clearly seen in Tip Tip Barsa Paani (‘Drip, Dripping Raindrops’), a monsoon song and dance sequence from hit 2021 movie Sooryavanshi, in which Akshay Kumar watches the erotic gyrations of actress Katrina Kaif in a monsoon-drenched fairground and the couple writhe x-ratedly in a hall of mirrors. It’s a direct homage to the last appearance of the song in the 1994 film Mohra, in which a more youthful Kumar and Sunil Shetty dance across city rooftops in a downpour. ‘The reworked version is very 2020s,’ says Dudrah. ‘You see the couple in a brightly lit fairground and the choreography is less subtle, more western and much more unapologetically sexual.’


Prathama Ghosh performs Barso Re
Aishwarya Rai’s original version of Barso Re

For Dudrah, the exciting shift of recent years is the disruption of the assumed heterosexuality of Indian commercial film motifs. In Dostana (Friendship) from 2008, the first Hindi-language film to reflect metropolitan gay culture, two male protagonists pretend to be gay to share an apartment with a young woman. The camera lingers on actor John Abraham’s torso in the shower – a shot that calls to mind decades of lusted-over women in wet saris in monsoon sequences. ‘Abraham’s body is not just available to admiring female fans, but also for admiring gay fans too,’ he says.

For all of their inherent joyfulness, the rains have always been a feared and unpredictable force in Indian film: a torrent that gushes and rips apart infrastructure and livelihoods and causes life-threatening floods. Dudrah sees a new generation of writers taking up the classical tropes of Indian cinema and repurposing them with contemporary preoccupations in mind: climate heating, caste and other issues. In Baghban’s (2003) theme song, Dharti Tarse, Ambar Barse (‘The Earth Pines, The Sky Pours), the rain represents the sense of loss and abandonment experienced by an aging couple with an uncaring son who abandons them in their old age.


Aaj Rapat Jaye Toh from Namak Halal

Despite the dwindling of song and dance in Indian cinema, as it becomes ‘Hollywoodised’, Kishore believes that emotional dance and song numbers will always be Bollywood’s bread and butter. ‘This is all about songs and dances that people can sing and dance along to, download and dance at weddings and that make films blockbusters as they drive sales,’ he says. For Chawla, who notes the popularity of ‘rain parties’ amongst well-heeled Mumbai residents, a digital environment in which popular movie dances become social media memes has pros and cons. ‘You get many young Indians wanting to be dancers, yet there is a lack of teachers, and dance schools to help them learn the craft.’

Ghosh, for one, will dance the great rain sequences of Indian cinema history for years to come, including several from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Big-Hearted Will Take the Bride), Adita Chopra’s 1995 romance movie – another YouTube favourite, full of hip-swaying and liberated abandon. She plans to move to Mumbai to try her luck in Hindi-language movies when Covid subsides. ‘For me dancing is not just about my ambition but about the joy of life,’ she says.

Geetanjali Krishna and Sally Howard are co-founders of the India Story Agency and 2020 EJC/Gates Foundation grantees for their reporting work on vaccine equity and refugees.