Dancer Nikki Watson has been working with Create for three years. We interviewed her during creative:connection, a Create project that used dance to bring together disabled and non-disabled young people. She told us about her experience of becoming a professional choreographer, exploring an inclusive dance practice, and how her mum being diagnosed with MS influenced her work.
Could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into dancing? What opportunities were available to you and how did you become a professional dancer?
I started dancing when I was two, in the local town at a highland dance. I did [highland dance] four or five times a week and in competitions. In Scotland, dance wasn’t as readily available in schools as it is in England, so I moved away from dancing and went to university to study law in Aberdeen which lasted about six months. I was doing some classes up at Citymoves Dance but I still missed dancing. I moved to Edinburgh with my work and met a dance teacher – I started going along to some of her sessions and within eight weeks I was teaching for her. I just absolutely fell in love with it. I spoke to her about how she’d got into the profession and what training I should be doing. I decided to go back to college and discovered contemporary dance, creative dance and creative movement – I realised I’d found my niche. At college I was making work and [my tutor said], “It’s very different from what other people are making – you need to go to London and find yourself, even if that means getting lost.” So I chose to go to Roehampton for three years where in my final year I created a dance company and we went to Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Also, I started performing with Youth Company, so I was training with them once or twice a week, and that’s where I started to find out a bit more about inclusive dance practice. I just loved it. It opened my eyes to what dance was; how different people with different abilities could work together.
Around the same time, my Mum was diagnosed with MS, so [my work began to have] two strands of interest for me, because I was already performing in inclusive practice. I started to investigate what MS was and whether there were any community classes particular for people with MS, and it turned out there weren’t. I created some projects, got in contact with the MS Society, and looked at the progression of people with this disability and illness. For the last seven years I’ve had a really strong interest in inclusive practice. When I was in Edinburgh, I also worked with a group of hard-to-reach people via a youth club. It was at that point that I realised how important it was to engage young people in a positive and creative activity, and that’s why I have a really strong connection working with young people as well. And I guess that takes us up to where we are now!
What is it you like about dance?
With the right practitioners, dance can be entirely inclusive and accessible to all. A lot of people are scared of the word ‘dance’ and actually it’s just movement. It’s how you piece that movement together. All of us can move somehow – even if it’s just a flicker of an eye, or a blink, or a tilt of the head – if it comes from an intentional place, and a creative process, then as far as I’m concerned it’s dance, it’s performance.
Technique is really important for young people as well, but you don’t have to be the most technical dancer to be the best – you have to be the most passionate. I think dance allows you to be who you are without judgement. Constantly in life we’re moving about so fast, things are whizzing past us, and we don’t have time just to sit and enjoy being present. I think dance gives you that.
I guess it takes quite a lot for people to get to that point with dance – to let their guard down.
Yeah, definitely. I feel that that’s a huge part of what we do as creative facilitators – we’re spending a lot of time breaking down those barriers and creating trust. You have to be able to gain that trust really quickly and to allow whoever you’re working with to understand that we’re in a safe space.
How would you explain how dance can be inclusive to somebody who hasn’t explored the concept?
I think that, as professional dancers, this is something we face regularly. What people forget is that fundamentally dance is a creative expression through movement that can be anything. It can be someone who has no movement apart from a twitch of a finger that means something to them – they’re choosing to make that movement because it’s appropriate to how they’re feeling or how they’re responding to the music. We have a trillion different movements in life – if that’s a raise of the eyebrow, the blink of an eye, or the movement in a shoulder. That’s what making dance is. It’s moving and not being precious about what that movement is.
Why do you think engagement with the arts is important?
I think as artists we have the ability to reflect, to understand, to be part of a group, to have nonverbal and verbal communication, to be able to support someone else. It’s not just about moving, it’s about everything else that comes with it. All of those ‘soft skills’ – in terms of confidence, being able to communicate, to trust, putting forward your ideas – might not come in a traditional type of classroom.
Relationships develop between participants. This morning a student from Mapledown School (a special education school) was getting on really well with one of the participants from Whitefield School. The student from Whitefield was encouraging the girl from Mapledown, accepting the offer of social touch, supporting her. For that to happen in four 45 minute sessions is incredible.
What do you think the young people who participated in creative:connection got from taking part?
There’s a level of enjoyment that comes through pride of achievement within these sessions. My job is to empower the participants. It’s not about me going in and teaching them five or six different movements. It’s about me giving them the bare bones of an idea that they then take and it blooms within them. Through that, they have an ownership over what they do. Their creative ideas are never wrong.
In terms of social interaction, they’ve developed personal growth, better understanding, being able to think critically, right down to the basics of being able to make eye contact, realising that everyone has a different ability.
As well has working with people with disabilities, you’ve also worked with young carers through Create. How do you feel these young people approach and engage with your sessions?
It’s really important for young carers to get time away from their caring responsibilities to relax, so if that means we play games and we make movement through games, then great, let’s do that. If they want to make their caring responsibilities a thing – some of the young people that I’ve worked with previously have said, “This performance is about being isolated” – we [can] investigate those themes. But most of the time, they just want to make some dance and forget about everything that’s going on.
Do you learn anything from the participants when you’re working with them?
I feel like every single time I’m in a session I’ll learn something about the participants. I also learn about my own practice. It’s about reflecting on why some things work and some things don’t. Sometimes people will surprise you by taking a challenging task and just running with it. It’s the most amazing thing that you’ve ever seen. In situations like that, you learn to be confident in yourself because when you start apologising for what you’re doing, the participants know it and then you’ve lost them. It’s always about being critical and reflective and developing your own practice. You can only do that by being open and learning from the participants.
You’ve had a long working relationship with Create. Why does Create appeal to you? What do you think Create does differently from other charities and organisations?
Create is cross-artform, which I love, and not afraid to challenge the norm. This project, for example, is not just about working with young people at one school, it’s about working with students from two schools that have never really mixed. It’s mixing young people with behavioural difficulties with SEN students. Create’s not afraid to take on those challenges.
What advice would you give to these young people if one of them expressed an interest in becoming a professional dancer or choreographer?
Don’t be afraid to be slightly different and don’t compare yourself to others. Comparison is the thief of all joy. Just do what makes you happy and what you’re passionate about. And success is a personal thing; it means different things to different people.