On Monday 16th March, the Government announced social distancing for vulnerable people and Aesop’s staff sat stunned in an emergency meeting considering the implications. All our Dance to Health groups would have to stop with no indication as to when they could restart.

The challenges of adapting to the COVID-19 outbreak for our charity were significant: sudden suspension of funds, closure of all frontline services and no way to proceed with the social franchise model we had developed to share our programme. The government’s furlough scheme came to the rescue enabling a breathing space and safety net for our team. But what about our groups?

Physical deconditioning from a long lockdown would reverse our participants’ hard-earned strength and balance gains. We couldn’t let that happen. We understood straight away: we had to take services online and keep providing for our participants, now more than ever. Aesop is an innovative organisation and we have adapted our programme in the past to respond to changing circumstances. Now we were faced with a tricky challenge – to develop and implement a completely new service model, with limited reserves and half our staff, to a vulnerable population in lockdown.

First Steps

In the short term we set up phone contact with our participants, and our Dance Artists produced videos for people to follow at home. This was a stopgap until we could set up live-streamed Dance to Health sessions.  We rapidly became Zoom experts. A productive sharing of solutions and good practice blossomed out from consultations with our Dance Artists and participants. We were quick to take advantage of COVID emergency response funds locally and nationally, and benefitted from the generosity of Arts Council England, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, South Yorkshire Community Foundation and the Heart of England Community Foundation.

As the plan took shape, one realisation dawned on us. Technology and its limitations would make or break it. Our existing website was not in the best shape to host multiple videos and live-streaming. Digital exclusion meant many participants had no broadband, email addresses or smart phones and couldn’t join in. Those with internet access lacked experience and confidence in using IT. The entire duration of our first online session was spent coaxing the 14 participants to set up their devices, cameras and selves so we could see them and they could see us!

We decided to develop a DVD of Dance to Health sessions for participants without internet access, which meant editing and producing it with no specialist software and limited expertise. No sooner was one issue resolved when two more would pop up. Our reduced team juggled fulltime work alongside home-schooling and childcare. It was exhausting.

Making Progress

We pooled all existing resources including people’s home computers and did a skills audit to find any hidden talents which could help. With our ear to the ground, we were able to make use of volunteer contacts. We found professionals at Project Give Back who provided marketing, IT and video editing expertise. Digital support organisations were sought out, Digikick in particular offering our Birmingham participants a free helpline.

The Dance Artists got to grips with filming at home. Our volunteer film producer gave guidance on lighting, sound, space, and recording basics. We developed hand signals, new cues and support in sessions. Our Peer Motivator volunteers stepped up to act as a second eye, keeping our participants safe. We saw the potential in expanding online provision to brand new participants. Sudden leaps in progress cleared out obstacles. Finally we had Dance to Health Online in place and our first new participants signed up.

Lessons Learned

This whole experience has thrown up some unexpected bonuses. Something we should have done a long time ago was to set up a participant panel with representatives from our regions. They now meet monthly and provide valuable feedback on our service development ideas. We have a closer working relationship with our dedicated Dance Artists and are pulling together with a shared focus and commitment. We’ve had to step outside our job descriptions and experiment and innovate in ways which are invigorating and liberating.

Aesop and Dance to Health are stronger than before. If necessity is the mother of invention, then adversity strips us down to the fundamentals. Dance to Health’s focus is on participants and we are redeveloping our website and communications to reflect this. Future local partnerships will be a mix of online and face to face provision. Our volunteer roles are expanding to include IT support for participants. The groups of people we serve around the country need us. We are determined to adapt and continue to be there for them.

Author: Rachael Hawkins, Volunteering and Public Engagement Coordinator