WHEN you walk into Dance United Yorkshire’s studio, there are rules. Mobiles aren’t allowed, hair must be tied up, jewellery taken off, and uniform T-shirts worn.

“It’s worse than school!” moan some of the troubled youngsters arriving for their first session. But by the end of it they are walking that bit taller, and over a course of classes they develop a sense of confidence, trust and self-esteem many of them have never had before. And it’s all down to contemporary dance.

Based in Bradford, Dance United Yorkshire works with a range of people, from children to pensioners. The main strand of its work is a dance and social inclusion programme for vulnerable young people aged 13 to 19 referred for various reasons. Some are NEET (not in education, employment or training), some have behavioural issues in school or are excluded, some are youth offenders, or have mental health problems, some are self-harming and some are at risk of sexual exploitation.

The organisation, now a charity, works with schools, pupil referral units and youth offending teams, delivering dance courses lasting several weeks, each for about 20 youngsters, culminating in a performance at a professional venue. The dance training, taking place daily in a supervised, structured setting and delivered by specialist dance tutors and support staff, develops discipline, motivation, teamwork and confidence as well as fitness and wellbeing.

Dance United Yorkshire (DUY) is based at Kala Sangam Arts Centre, St Peter’s House, Forster Square, and delivers programmes across the region.

Artistic Director Helen Linsell has a degree in theatre and a post-grad degree in community dance, and has worked around the world bringing dance to a variety of communities. In the UK she has done outreach youth work in deprived areas. She says the disciplined environment of DUY’s programmes helps the young participants to achieve something new every day: “It’s strict, but for a good reason. They often walk in and say: ‘It’s worse than school or prison’. They’re not allowed their mobiles, they have to eat what we give them, they’re supervised all the time, they wear Dance United T-shirts, they’re in a room with people they have never met before. There are no shortcuts, no hiding places.

“It’s very rigid but it’s also very creative, and every day they go that bit further and build more self-esteem.

“There’s so much going on within a dance studio. They have to stay focussed for an hour-and-a-half, they have to get on with people they don’t know. They begin with resistance behaviour but over time they discover new potential; they learn how to communicate and co-operate with different people, they learn to stand up tall and make eye contact. It’s incredibly rewarding to see their journey.

“At the end of the programme they get a qualification and everyone gets to perform on stage. We’ve used venues such as the Alhambra and Bingley Arts Centre; it’s a wonderful experience for them to dance on these stages.

“Some of those taking part want to continue with dance and they go on to pursue it at college. Some have gone into professional careers in the industry.”

Adds Helen: “Even if they don’t continue with dance, the programme helps with confidence, communication, posture, discipline, and valuable life skills.

“It’s not about turning them into dancers. It’s about helping them with things like controlling anger and problem solving, building the skills to manage their behaviour. We work with kids from a range of backgrounds, and they all work together as a group.”

Many of those who train with DUY go on to join its Gradient Dance Company, for young adults aged 19-plus. The company is comprised of DUY alumni and others who have completed dance and performing arts degrees. Some attend sessions just to continue dancing, while for some it’s the next stage in their creative careers.

Students are invited to be peer mentors when DUY works with local schools and colleges.

“Gradient is integral to our aspiration to retain new and diverse dance talent in Yorkshire, be this young professionals who originally trained with us (many are the first in their family to have entered higher education) or graduates who have experienced DUY’s methodology through our HE and FE teaching,” says Helen. “Gradient provides key training, performance and professional development opportunities for young dancers at a critical juncture in their professional lives.”

One Gradient dancer said: “I was the first in my family to go to university and I’m probably the first in my whole area to be a professional dancer. The first year after uni has been really daunting; I have to motivate myself to keep training, look for auditions, explore how I’m going to launch myself as a dance professional. Gradient keeps me grounded. I have the chance to discuss opportunities and challenges with experienced professionals.

“It’s also a way to pay back some of what I got out of dance. There’s no doubt in my mind that things would have panned out very differently for me if it hadn’t been for dance. Most people who knew me would have predicted a custodial rather than a degree. Through Gradient I’ve had the opportunity to lead sessions with the other performance companies. I know what it’s like for them, and I can show how worthwhile it is to stay focussed.”

DUY also works with victims of domestic abuse and women with mental health issues, both in the community and in prison. And the charity is developing intergenerational and cross-community work; bringing together diverse groups from across Bradford through bespoke dance-led initiatives. Dancers aged three to 80 took part in a recent performance at Kala Sangam to launch DUY’s charitable status.

“You can still turn people’s lives around, even in their forties and fifties,” says Helen. “The work we’ve done with women suffering domestic abuse led us to set up the Bradford Women’s Dance Company. Now it’s for anyone who may be vulnerable, isolated or has mental health issues. There are women from diverse backgrounds, including Polish, Muslim and white women. They have been to hell and back but they were brave enough to step through the door.

“Initially some of them say things like: ‘ I don’t think so’ when we tell them that they’re going to be performing in six weeks, but they go on to do some amazing work. They end up saying: ‘I really didn’t think I could do it’.

The main programmes for young people take place three times a year, and participants often keep in touch afterwards. “It’s wonderful to see their journey continues, and we’re still there for them,” says Helen.

DUY is supported by several Trusts and Foundations, as well as Arts Council England. Charitable status has enabled the organisation to apply for more funding.

“Our new status as a charity is an opportunity to celebrate and advocate our work with people from arts, education, social care, criminal justice and health, who share our concern with delivering high quality arts provision to disadvantaged and marginalised people,” says Helen. “We believe that every life has meaning and that everyone should have the chance to succeed.”

“You learn in a different way,” says one DUY participant. “I’ve achieved a lot here, like I’ve realised when you say you can’t do things, if you try you can. I used to hide myself away and say ‘I can’t do this’, but now I know I can. From now on I’m going to not hide myself away.”

l For more about Dance United Yorkshire call Helen Linsell on 07775 334098