Minding young people comes from the right moves

By Sported |  16 May 2023

“What’s so cool about dance? What isn’t so cool about dance!?” Kaitlyn Howlett proclaims.

Exim, the award-winning dance company in Plymouth where she is a mover and shaker, leans towards contemporary: less rigid, more free, she explains. Musical choice of your preference.

Hundreds of young people come through its doors each week. Outreach in schools too. And into the community, even venturing across the border separating Devon from adjoining Cornwall. Bringing classes, and education too.

Children and teachers dancing
Image: Exim/Brett Lockwood

Their mission is about so much more than shuffles or sways. They operate amid one of the UK’s most deprived areas and there is constantly a difference to make.

Particularly in deploying dance as a tool to liberate their attendees of their troubles and support their mental health.

“Our main focus is appreciating people, giving them the space to feel confident, and to encourage them to be who they need to be, who they want to be in their most truest form,” says Howlett, who oversees Exim’s hires and programmes. “And dance is the added fare on the top of that, really.

That provides a lot of young people with the element of escapism that they need, especially in today’s society that puts them under a lot of pressure. But also the social element of it as well is massive for them within our space. And we allow that to happen.

“So it’s not just, ‘you’ve got to come here and meet these standards of dancing.’ We’re inclusive in our approach. And when we create that freedom, we usually find that young people tend to express themselves more clearly or with more creative freedom, because they’ve been allowed that space.”

With Mental Health Awareness Week 2023 running from 15-19 May, the need for that engagement will be welcomed and recognised by so many.

29 per cent of the grassroots organisations who responded to Sported’s most recent Ring Community Pulse survey listed mental health as a key challenge facing young people at a time when cost of living pressures are rife.

With forecasts of fewer among them taking part in physical activity, one of four group leaders expect there will be long-term negative consequences on that generation’s mental wellbeing.

kids dance class at Exim

It is one reason why Sported is launching a new series of resources, including a Handbook, produced in association with fellow charity Mind, on how to recognise signs of struggle among young people and then offering – or signposting – the right kind of help.

“Some of our young people have really difficult home lives, and don’t necessarily have supportive environments,” Howlett underlines. “Lots of young people have gone through the care system.

“We work on a referral basis and a social prescribing basis for our adult services. So those who’ve come through us have normally experienced some kind of trauma, or are in the process of still going through trauma.”

The dance floor, wherever it might be, is the refuge where they can relax and allow themselves to be vulnerable: without judgement or critique. No masks, no hiding away. “Which we know how detrimental that can be to mental health and how exhausting it is for a lot of our young people,” she adds.

Exim works closely with another group that offers opportunities to those with physical and mental disabilities, whose frequent exclusion brings a pressure of its own.

Other participants have may have self-harmed or attempted suicide. Above all here, they receive respect and kindness. But useful steers too.

“We had somebody from the NHS come in recently and we always try and equip our young people to not see the system as the enemy,” Howlett points out.

“And we can provide them this safe space, in which we can still bring specialists in, and they can then access services that still care for them. But at a level that meets them, and that doesn’t present them with trauma or fear.

“I think a lot of the time, they’re just really scared. Or they don’t necessarily have an adult at home that they can rely on or trust. For some of our young people, we are those trusted adults.”

That is, in looking after their wellbeing, they have made very much the right move.

To access Wellbeing resources from Sported, visit our Hub.

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