More than just art: youth, dance, and community

Caitlin Comerford and Mary Shannon

Support, connection, self-trust and being truly heard: for young people in Launceston, Stompin is far more than just a youth dance company.
More than just art: youth, dance, and community

Stompin's 2017 production, Fully Grown. Image by Jasper Da Seymour.

Participation in the arts has significant and positive impacts on young people, enhancing their self-confidence, reducing anxiety levels, and making them better able to cope with challenges in life. Artists and arts workers have long known this, with the sector’s first-hand experiences backed up by a landmark report released last year by Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP).

Read: Value of the arts demonstrated in new Australian study

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Here, the Artistic Director and Producer of Launceston-based youth dance company Stompin discuss their observations of the young people they work with every day, and how the impact of dancing with the company extends well beyond the physical.

‘FEELING ENTIRELY SUPPORTED’

I moved from Brisbane as an independent dance artist to the little town of ‘Launnie’ (Launceston) Tasmania to take on the role of Artistic Director at Stompin. I could not have prepared for how the (now 26 year old) youth dance company was going to impact my understanding of dance and the power it has to nurture, build empathy, broaden perspectives and horizons and foster community.

Stompin is made up of some of the coolest young people I know. They are intelligent, brave and interesting. Some of them are also at risk, vulnerable and experiencing such a fragile time in their lives. They live in a very isolated and unique place and that gives them an incredible outlook on life, but often one that is coupled with a desperation to ‘get out‘ or at least a desire to walk, barefoot, where the grass is greener. 

I adore teaching the Stompers how to roll on the floor, how to find a decent parallel and articulate their spine. Even more so, I love watching them work stuff out, seeing them discover something new about themselves or their body. What I was unprepared for and have found is a huge part of my job, is how badly these young people need to be listened to and truly heard.

Sometimes, they are dealing with very heavy, adult issues and need to be supported to get adequate help. Other times, they just really need to tell you all about their day and how hard their school assignment is and which meme is the funniest right now. Because this is their world and there are very few people in their lives that have the time to stop and really listen.

So at Stompin instead of drilling a routine or critiquing form in a mirror, we stand still and see if we can move all at once, every company member at the same time. We practice listening with our whole body and then act on it. We practice partner technique, sensing where our partner is in space rather than just looking and assuming. In this way, we practice letting go of assumptions. One of my other favourite exercises is getting the whole group to lift one person and travel with them throughout the space. When we break it down afterwards the dancers talk about giving way to trust and feeling entirely supported by the others beneath them.

This is contemporary dance, we have been doing this for a long time! But in breaking down the teachings that we explore with our body, we gain access to some very profound and sometimes vital life lessons. In my two years with Stompin I have witnessed huge personal growth and shifts in attitude as well as incredible dance artists bloom. I think what I am also beginning to observe is a deep love for dance and movement that starts with ‘self’, instigated by Stompin but a body-confidence and self-trust that I think will stay with these Stompers for life.

Hopefully they do get the chance to explore the grass on the ‘greener side’ but when they look back at their home-turf, I hope that Stompin is always a place that they hold a bit of ownership over and know that here, they made a difference and were heard (and could grow their own grass in whatever colour they liked).

- Caitlin Comerford, Stompin Artistic Director

Competition stifles creativity

When I first started working at Stompin, I was unsure what the youth-based company was really about. I’d done my research, read as much paperwork as I could find, but was really uncertain how my skill set and experiences as a practicing artist and events worker would translate into working to help produce works for a dance company.

My own experience with dance was not a good one. I remember distinctly being placed at the back of the group work, always. As a seven-year-old who was slightly bulkier than my counterparts it didn’t matter that I could keep time, remember and execute parts just as well as anyone else in the class, larger girls went to the back. That’s just the way that it was. I now have deeply rooted self-esteem issues that I link to that time. However, I also think these experiences have shaped me and improved my overall sense of acceptance and understanding of how invalid one person’s opinion of you can be. I think that we should focus on being the best version of ourselves, one that is kind and considerate to those around them. This is where Stompin comes in; a dance environment that is inherently different from most. 

We’re not about perpetuating the culture of competition. I strongly believe that competition stifles creativity and can wreak havoc on a young person’s idea of self-worth. How can we expect artists (particularly young artists) to find their identity within their art form if we dictate the steps to them rather than giving them the tools to create their own? And then tell them that their work is only valid if it’s compared to and succeeds against others? There’s such a beauty in not trying to create cookie-cutter dance works. Our dancers work hard, as does our inspiring AD, who lives and breathes the Company but they are motivated by a love of movement, a passion to inspire change and to have their voices and opinions heard. 

Learning proper technique and understanding the purpose of the art that they create is vastly important. At Stompin, we also aim to instil our dancers with the skills required to properly articulate their artistic voice, to not be scared or ashamed to talk about issues that are affecting them. We create a safe space where the dancers are free to explore self-expression through dance. Our Stompers design their own choreography, lead groups of their peers to create works as well as participate in a professional scale major show each year that focuses on a concept that the dancers develop themselves. 

These types of projects help to improve a young person’s ability to communicate ideas and understand the consistent time and effort that must be put into creating major-scale productions. It prepares these young people for a life working not only within the arts industry, but any type of practice where some type of goal is to be realised and achieved. Though my time with the Company has been limited, I believe that Stompin engages and encourages the next generation of creative thinkers, nurtures their artistic voices at a time where it’s crucial to offer support and hope that it is possible to live a sustainable life in the arts.

- Mary Shannon, Stompin Producer

www.stompin.net

About the author

Caitlin Comerford, Artistic Director, Stompin

Caitlin is an independent dance artist who has been based out of Brisbane for the last five years, having completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance (Performance) at QUT in 2009 and a Bachelor of Arts in Dance (Honours) at WAAPA in 2010. She has a strong history in choreography, teaching and leadership across a diverse range of communities. Caitlin also has an impressive resume of dance performance as an individual, and with her collective MakeShift.  As an alumni of Canberra-based youth dance company QL2, Caitlin knows the immense value of being a part of the youth arts sector, and brings a deep passion and wide network to her role as Artistic Director at Stompin. Across all her work, Caitlin aims to create authentic opportunities to communicate and connect.

Mary Shannon, Producer, Stompin

Mary Shannon is an arts worker, performer and enthusiast from Tasmania. Working on numerous local events such as Festivale (Event Officer), Junction Arts Festival (Program Co-Ordinator), Party in the Paddock (Artist Liaison) as well as producing her own events as part of the local music scene, Mary has formed a solid and well rounded understanding of arts culture and community ethic and how these are integrated to form a better life experience for many. Passionate about the future of our youth and issues affecting our society, Mary has a keen focus on developing work that is relevant and expresses self in a way that is cathartic and healthy.