The Sedgemoor Learning Alliance was given the opportunity to provide 200 young people from disadvantaged backgrounds (drawn from Years 7, 8, 9 and 10) selected from our four Bridgwater secondary schools and one special school, to perform in an international dance and performing arts project. The initiative would enable the students to perform with Alexandra Burke (X Factor winner) at Twickenham on St George’s Day in April 2010 at the Wasps v Bath Guinness Premiership rugby game, in front of a 60,000-strong crowd. Choreography and training was supplied by educational organisation Pro-Excel and international choreographer Jason Pennycooke. The aims behind the project were to raise the aspirations of our students, putting Bridgwater, an area of significant deprivation, on an international stage and giving the students an opportunity to learn new skills, perform at a very high level and test themselves to the limit!

Funding came from a variety of agencies including ‘Give it A Go!’, Steve Hayes (owner of Wasps Rugby), Somerset Children’s University, RiO (Creative Partnerships), Mendip and Sedgemoor Sports Partnership, Somerset Gifted and Talented team, Aimhigher Somerset, Somerset Community Regeneration Services, a local County Councillor and the Engine Room’s Young People’s Film Council. Our target participants were those children who were eligible for free school meals and/or looked-after children within the Bridgwater community. A key aspect of the project was identified as being in tackling and breaking down the barriers to participation, including those arising from economic disadvantage. Therefore, participation in the project was totally free for all those involved.

Four hundred young people were auditioned for the two hundred available places over a period of two days at the four different school venues. The youngsters were chosen for their personality and dance potential, rather than ability, and they were drawn from a wide range of backgrounds. There was a very competitive edge to the auditions and part of the process was to allow for success and failure – a learning process in itself.

Aims of the project
This project was part of our broader aspiration to transform learning opportunities and help to regenerate the local area of Bridgwater. Bridgwater is considered to be the most disadvantaged town in Somerset and falls within 10% of the most deprived areas in England. It has been identified by the Government Office for the South West as being a ‘lower super output’ area and as such, Bridgwater is a focus for significant regeneration and redevelopment. Our specific aims for this project included:

  • To engage young people in a prestigious, international dance project, demonstrating how high aspirations, linked to successful outcomes, can be achieved through teamwork, hard work, commitment and enthusiasm.
  • To use the glamour and profile of professional sport to attract, enthuse and harness the academic and social capabilities of young people, regardless of ability, gender, social, ethnic or religious background.
  • To create a real-life working environment that takes elements of curriculum-based education and embeds them into a real-life situation where the pupils perceive themselves as young adults and have the opportunity to excel.
  • To nurture a culture of teamwork among the participants, interlinking the importance of education with achieving career and social goals. The project’s components harnessed a blend of divergent skills, moulding them into physical outputs.
  • Community cohesion – linking this project to the Somerset Cultural Strategy, ‘Bridgwater Challenge’ and the Bridgwater ‘Building Schools for the Future’ project.
  • To offer students the chance to engage with young people from other parts of the country on an international stage in a social setting.

Preparations for ‘Give it a go!’
The 200 successful young people volunteered to take part in workshops that took place over one week in the Easter holidays. The venue changed daily in order to utilise the four school campuses, and intensive workshops were held from 9.30am until 3.30pm every day. This training was supported by the Pro-Excel team and dance students from Manchester, who provided a great deal of encouragement and support for the students involved. The young people were hugely motivated and had to master some very difficult and intricate choreography within a short time frame, requiring a lot of hard work and physical energy. The highlight of the week was when the BBC and ITV came to film the workshops and interview some of the students – thus making it a truly memorable experience for all involved.

the workshops helped to unite the group which over the development of the project built some strong common goals and a high level of cooperation and teamwork between themselves, despite the fact many of the participants did not know each other prior to commencement of the training. The participants learnt about the importance of warm-up and participated in intensive workshops and master-classes in vocals, dance and drama. The week was structured to identify and nurture talent and roles existed for students with varying levels of skill and experience, thus widening the scope for participation while generating a united culture of success.

A unique feature of this project was the ability to ‘fuse’ students from the five schools involved, including Penrose Special, with aspirations that these new links and relationships would extend beyond the life of this project and contribute in the longer term towards a greater sense of community within the Bridgwater area. Our objectives covered gains for individual participants, and benefits to the local community as a whole. These included:

  • Nurturing a feeling of pride within individual young people, and across the group: a sense of belonging in the local area, including establishing new relationships and opportunities for cooperation.
  • An opportunity for disadvantaged young people to identify heroes and role models, and provide a forum where they could pursue and achieve some of their own personal goals and objectives.
  • Creating a sense of accomplishment for all involved in the project.
  • Demonstrating to all participants that much could be achieved within a spirit of adventure, fun and excitement.
  • Highlighting the roles of curiosity and creativity, and the part they play in helping individuals achieve their personal goals.
  • The development of leadership and responsibility.
  • Creating a sense of confidence to be brave enough to embrace change and take positive action.
  • The creation of partnership opportunities with higher and further education, and creative arts providers and industries.

The event
The 200 young people and their supporters set off for Twickenham at 7am on the Saturday morning and did not return until after 12 midnight. All day was spent rehearsing before the kick-off between Wasps and Bath at 5.30 in the evening. The young people were accompanied by a large number of supporters – parents/carers, members of their wider family, teachers from the schools involved and a film crew from the Young People’s Film Council in Bridgwater.

The match was a fundraiser for the Help for Heroes charity, and the young people contributed to producing the biggest ever educational dance show staged at Twickenham, with over 380 dancers from Bridgwater, Leicester, Maidstone and Richmond, all wearing Wasps shirts and performing on the Twickenham pitch as part of the pre-match and half-time entertainment.

The Bridgwater students entertained the 60,000-strong crowd before the match with one of the dance routines they had rehearsed during the Easter holidays. They were joined on the pitch by the massed choir of the London Chorus and the Royal Marines Band, all stirring the emotions by leading a rousing sing-along to some of England’s most patriotic tunes: ‘Rule Britannia’, ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Jerusalem’. A parade of troops, many of whom had returned from active service abroad in Afghanistan, was welcomed by deafening cheers, while abseilers from the Royal Marines received a similarly thunderous reception when four giant St George’s flags were lowered from the four corners of the Twickenham stadium. Thousands of St George’s flags were given out to supporters at the stadium, creating a sea of white and red in the stands that added to the patriotic spirit of the day. It truly was spine-tingling stuff for the young people from Bridgwater and the huge rugby crowd assembled to watch the game – many of them Bath supporters from Bridgwater.

At half-time, pop sensation Alexandra Burke wowed the crowd, performing live versions of her hit singles with the 380 Pro-Excel dancers. The Bridgwater students were incredibly excited and motivated to perform with such an immense superstar and were received with thunderous applause for their performance.

Quotes from some of the young people involved
‘It still feels like a dream and it was a fab experience! I got more confidence in myself. Today was a great day!’

‘It feels so surreal but was an amazing experience. I have had so much fun over two weeks with my old friends and also new friends I have met. Something to tell our grandchildren!’

‘Wow, this whole project has been an amazing experience. I feel so grateful and lucky that I was able to take part. The people organising this fab event have been amazing! I don’t think I will get another great chance like this again. Thanks to everyone involved.’

‘It was amazing, I loved the whole experience and it has allowed me to make some great friends. I can’t believe it’s over. But I loved it!’

‘I’ve really enjoyed these past few weeks, a once in a lifetime opportunity. Jason and all the other dancers have been great! I’m so grateful and definitely want to do something like it again. I really liked performing on the Twickenham rugby field.’

‘Post-match analysis’ and future directions

Feedback from all the young people, the performers, the national press and all involved in the event was unanimous – the build-up to the day and the performance itself had been an outstanding success. Feedback from the students themselves was inspiring, and we believe that the benefits of this event, and others like it, whether on a large or on a small scale, have the potential to create a new platform, that can be harnessed for the future, in order to nurture the hopes, aspirations, and self-belief of all involved.

If we could bottle this experience, I think that it encapsulates everything good about creativity and education. It has given these young people a life-changing opportunity, raising the bar for their hopes and aspirations and helping them to look forward to a more positive future for themselves and those around them. In the future, we have set our sights on involvement of our young people in a dance project at the 2012 London Olympics, and truly believe that anything is possible!

Mike King is coordinator of the Sedgemoor Learning Alliance, which runs initiatives with local schools.