An Interview with Moving Together

How Leicester’s Moving Together found its feet and went on to become one of the UK’s most innovative dance organisations.

Moving Together have been bringing dance to communities throughout Leicestershire for 9 years. They were also one of the first creative businesses we supported through our Bank of TMC project for young entrepreneurs. We caught up with founder Emily Jackson, who set up Moving Together while she was at university, to find out what it takes to grow a successful creative business and how dance can change lives at any age…

What inspired you to launch Moving Together?
I studied dance at university, including community dance, and whilst there, my co-founder Rachel and I ran a project with a women’s refuge. It was one of the most challenging things I’ve done, but also one of the most rewarding. Many of the women felt really nervous at first and we had to spend time building up their trust and developing a rapport with them. It took a while but once they knew they weren’t going to be judged or critiqued in any way, they could just go for it and dance, as much or as little as they wanted to. They really enjoyed it, especially as a form of release and self-expression. It made me realise that as someone who’s always been able to access dance, I took it for granted that everyone knows dancing makes you feel fabulous. The reality is, you need a certain level of confidence to go for it at first, especially if you’ve never done it before.

“The project inspired us to start-up Moving Together and we officially registered as a company three months after graduating. We wanted everyone to be able to access the benefits of dance and felt we had the skills to create safe spaces for people to do that. I was also curious to start a company and see if it worked!”

How did you get started?
Within the content of our university course there wasn’t a huge focus on starting a business and how to do it. We had to get the feelers out and start to build contacts. We also had to get our ideas down on paper and work out what our offer was. We spent a lot of time trialling and testing our ideas to find out what kind of dance workshops people wanted and needed, and researching our sector, including things like Arts Award.

“We applied to The Mighty Creatives ‘Bank of TMC’ project in our third year of university - it was the first thing we did after deciding to start Moving Together. ‘Bank of TMC’ was a scheme designed to help young people set up their own creative business and The Mighty Creatives gave us a grant to help us develop our ideas, build up our partnerships with key organisations and pay for equipment. Beyond that, they helped us grow our business plan and provided mentoring to guide us through the process of becoming a fully-fledged company. They were our support network and really helped us refine our offer – by giving us the confidence and know-how to keep at it and keep tweaking until we had a package of provision we were 100% happy with. The Bank of TMC project gave us a year’s worth of support, but The Mighty Creatives have continued to be there for us.”

How have things progressed 9 years on?
We’re now a team of six and Rachel, my co-founder, has moved on to a different project. The great thing about Moving Together, is that everyone here has helped to shape our journey. As a team we all have different strengths and areas of expertise, which means we have the right people delivering the right projects. At the moment, we run 30 dance projects every week – including Arts Award for 5-18 year olds in schools and community settings and dance classes for older people around Leicestershire.

We’ve established some really strong, long-lasting partnerships and they’ve been key in helping us extend our offer and reach out to even more people, along with our own presence, which has grown both nationally and internationally.

"For example, we work with the internationally-renowned Aakash Odedra Company as their Education Producer, devising and implementing a diverse programme of activity focused on providing excellent creative dance opportunities for all. We also work very closely with De Montfort University (DMU). We support their Performing Arts students to create a community dance programme suitable for all needs and abilities, including dance workshops for people living in slum communities in Ahmedabad in India, delivered through the Manav Sadhna Charity. DMU support many of our projects in Leicester, including a yearly progamme of activity focused around Arts Award qualifications, giving 100 young people a week the chance to use the university’s state-of-the-art creative facilities and get a taste of life at uni.”

What changes have you seen over the last decade?

“I think cultural organisations and artists have had to become more diverse in their practice and what they offer as the landscape around them has changed – from funding to the sectors they work with. For instance, one of the big changes we’ve seen has been schools’ desire to upskill teachers in the arts, rather than relying on external providers, and as a result, we’ve developed more CPD training for teachers.

“Encouragingly, I think there’s a lot of opportunity for people to access creativity at the moment. There’s more of a focus on culture in the news with things like social prescribing being talked about, which is opening up more activities for older people especially. There’s also more focus on celebrating different backgrounds and diverse art forms, and how those forms can come together. The fusion side of things is really strong at the moment and young people are at the heart of that, leading the conversation on social media.”

What are your aspirations for the next 9 years?
Our 10 over-55s dance classes are all booming so we’d love to expand them further – across the Midlands and the UK. We also want to continue our partnerships with DMU and Aakash Odedra and develop the performance aspect of our work with children and young people – in both schools and community settings. We increase our provision every year and we’re always open to new ideas and opportunities. We don’t always pre-plan, we ride the wave of where the team wants to go and what people need from us. Plus of course, we’d love to grow our team so we can help even more people access dance.”

1 in 2 creative businesses fail in the first two years of starting out – how have you survived and thrived?
I think at first it was about trying things and not being afraid that our ideas may not work. For instance, we found a couple of age groups didn’t work for us when it came to delivering workshops. Overall, it’s about the massive belief we have in what we’re doing and our huge desire to make sure everyone, whatever background they’re from, can benefit from dance. The beauty of community arts is that you can see you’re making a difference, we’re part of people reaching their individual milestones and that’s very inspiring. We have a real passion and love for our work and care for our participants and programmes. Plus of course we’ve thrived because of our great team, Moving Together isn’t just about me, everyone is heard and feels valued.”

What does dance mean to young people?
Dance gives young people the chance to express themselves through an art form that doesn’t need any previous experience or expertise – they can just start dancing and take it from there.

Dance is a part of culture and life around the world, so it’s also a great way of exploring identity and cultural understanding and awareness, which is really key in a culturally diverse city like Leicester.

“Through our Arts Award programmes, we try and make sure all young people can access high quality creative opportunities – in both school and community settings. For example, our Arts Award project with DMU reaches out to young people whose families can’t afford to pay – to make sure finance isn’t a barrier to getting involved. Young people get the chance to watch professional performances, create performances of their own as a group and learn different styles of dance – and the second they experience those things, it inspires them, sparks their aspirations and gives them a sense of belonging and acceptance. Their input and opinion counts and they meet like-minded people and make friends. That’s why access to the arts and tackling poverty of opportunity is so important.”

What do you love about dance – especially dance in Leicester?
The cultural diversity – there are so many high quality arts organisations and venues offering art to people through workshops, programmes, performances etc. And behind them, lots of support organisations like The Mighty Creatives, helping that happen. I’m proud of both Leicester and Leicestershire and it’s great to be part of what’s going on here. We offer a wide variety of dance, from contemporary and street dance, to Bollywood, salsa, African and carnival – so there’s lots of room for interpretation and creativity in all the work we do. We’re lucky in Leicester to have a city that understands, embraces and celebrates different cultures and backgrounds and people with experience of many different dance styles, who bring so much of themselves to our activities.

“I love how anyone can benefit from dance at any age – the oldest lady at our over 55s workshops is 86. It’s great for developing fitness but it’s also good for emotional and psychological wellbeing too. It can be more accessible to more people than sports-based activities, and because it’s light-hearted and fun, it’s social and an opportunity to meet people and make new friends. For young people, our dance activities are a chance to express themselves, develop their own performances and grow their confidence and self-esteem, there’s no right or wrong, as we’re not a dance school type environment. For older people, our workshops are a chance to learn something new, and if they want to, craft their own creative pieces as a group, through our senior company.”

What advice would you give to someone thinking of starting their own creative business?
It’s important to know exactly what it is you want to offer – you need to understand that inside out and believe in it completely by researching your market, establishing a need for what you’re doing, finding your niche, trialling and testing your ideas and gathering feedback and testimonials. Build connections and continue to ask for help – you’ll need supporters around you, whether that’s industry advice or supportive family and friends. Above all, make sure your chosen art form and your passion for it is at the centre of what you do. Our focus at Moving Together has always been about providing fun, exciting, varied dance opportunities and that’s something that will never change.

“I’d also recommend getting in touch with The Mighty Creatives to see how they can help. We wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing now without them. They supported us to turn our passion for community dance into a successful business and make it sustainable. Above all, be flexible and adaptable!”