I chose Surrey for the breadth of skills it offered beyond performance, such as project management, marketing and fundraising, and the second was the professional training year.
Polly graduated from Surrey with a BA in Dance and Culture in 2002. She is Director of East London Dance, a charity based in Stratford, which creates dance projects and experiences for the people of east London and beyond. She was awarded a Vice-Chancellor’s Achievement Award for 2016
What attracted you to choose to study Dance and Culture at Surrey?
There were two main reasons. One was the breadth of skills it offered beyond performance, such as project management, marketing and fundraising, and the second was the professional training year. Other courses provided short-term placements but I was keen to build up my experience – I can honestly say it helped me get where I am today.
The campus is really nice with everyone on the same site so it felt like a real community and it’s also close to London.
Although I had studied with the Hastings School of Contemporary Dance since I was four, my secondary school didn’t offer dance, and I was initially unsure whether to do geography or media at university. I followed my heart and went with my passion. However, I had only ever studied contemporary dance so it was a real shock to the system when I went to my first ballet class at Surrey aged 18!
What were the best things about your course?
The diversity of the dance practice – we didn’t just study western dance but also styles such as Kathak and African. It gave us a real global perspective. The other highlight was the connections the department had with the dance sector - we weren’t in an isolated university bubble. I also enjoyed the balance of dancing and writing.
How did your professional training year influence you career?
I was fortunate to spend my placement year at two places – DansConnect in Swindon and The Place, the UK’s premiere centre for contemporary dance. DansConnect was a touring dance-in-education company and I supported the company to tour into schools and designed teaching resources.
At The Place I worked on a project using dance to teach science in primary schools. I am really interested in kinaesthetic (physical) learning styles - the modern curriculum doesn’t support these learners effectively. I was able to develop my teaching skills, which continued in my final year when I taught adult contemporary classes at Surrey.
I found my focus and confidence on placement. I always knew that I was drawn to dance for the social impact it can have, connecting with people, and my experiences confirmed this for me. The year also gave me a sense of ambition which has got me where I am today.
What do you enjoy most about your work and why?
Connecting with the community and the breadth of what we do. I have a real passion for giving a voice to the people who don’t get recognition or access to opportunity, to nurture hidden talent. Each perspective is valuable and makes art richer and I love seeing the impact it has on people’s lives. As a shy teenager myself, dance was a way of expressing myself and I want to give that opportunity to others.
A real highlight is seeing a group of older people taking over the South Bank Centre, celebrating dance, inspired by the London 2012 Olympic Games. It was a real explosion of dance!
What are the challenges?
We are a small charity constantly raising money. We receive public subsidy for half of our costs but I have to source different income opportunities for the rest which can be a challenge with all the political and economic changes.
We work really hard to break down some of the barriers we face by showing the community the value of our work. I remember taking the Big Dance Bus (a double-decker with performance space) to an estate in Canning Town and all the residents came out with their families and spent the afternoon with us dancing and bonding. We have also worked with 100 young men with emotional and behavioural difficulties and introduced a programme of dance participation and performance for young Newham residents with emerging mental health difficulties.
What are your aspirations for the future?
I am really excited by a new project for summer 2018, the biggest production we have ever undertaken. We are working with world-renowned choreographer Hofesh Shechter to produce East Wall, a spectacle of dance and live music which will take place in the moat at the Tower of London, in conjunction with Historic Royal Palaces and the LIFT 18 festival.
It will run for five nights and will be performed by up to 200 people from Tower Hamlets working with Hofesh’s professional company to celebrate east London’s rich cultural heritage.
Longer term I want to set up our own talent house for dance creatives in East London.
What is your strongest memory of your time at Surrey?
We often performed across campus, just choosing a site and creating a piece. I remember a particular time in Chancellor’s when we surprised everyone with our performance, dancing on people’s laps! As a niche subject, it was always nice to mix with other students and show them what we did.
What advice would you give to students hoping to work in your field?
Network, network, network! It’s a small world in dance and you have to get out there and meet people and the placement year is great for doing this. It will set you up with a list of people who will support you in the future. Real connections can be built.