How Northern Ballet is bringing the joy of dance to seriously ill children

Children make memories with a photo exhibition

Children make memories with a photo exhibition - Credit: Archant

One of the country’s leading ballet companies works hand in hand with an arts charity to improve the lives of seriously ill young people

Northern Ballet plan a range of activities including movement workshops

Northern Ballet plan a range of activities including movement workshops - Credit: Archant

Children at a Leeds hospice are being introduced to ballet as a way of enriching their lives. The idea is part of a national programme called Start Hospices, itself part of a Children and the Arts project which aims to reach young people who are denied the chance to be creative. Northern Ballet, one of the country’s leading dance companies based in Leeds, is working with families at Martin House Hospice for Children. Their aim is to bring the joy of dance to seriously ill children while, at the same time, involving their brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents.

‘We learnt from our first year of the project that it can be difficult to engage everyone all the time,’ said Jo Dean, learning projects manager at Northern Ballet. ‘The answer was to provide a range of activities from movement workshops, photography sessions, the chance to try on costumes, to offer something for everyone, from ill children and their siblings to parents and grandparents.

‘Activity sessions are planned to suit different abilities and when a child would be in or out of their wheelchair. Martin House staff are always there to give their support and to ensure busy days of activities don’t become overwhelming.

‘Northern Ballet is renowned for breaking down barriers to ballet but for some people, their preconceived ideas about it can be daunting and off putting. So we’ve introduced photography to help challenge these preconceptions as well as to inspire families to capture special moments in a unique way. We are creating an exhibition of photos from the project to not only support Martin House’s aim of making memories, but also to give families the chance to reflect on and appreciate their involvement in the project and share experiences with other families in a similar situation to themselves.

There is the chance to try on costumes

There is the chance to try on costumes - Credit: Archant

‘Trips to the theatre are meticulously planned, allowing families to relax and enjoy themselves without worrying about the logistics of their care needs. For example parking bays were reserved close to the entrance to enable families to watch a performance of Peter Pan at Leeds Grand Theatre.

‘Hand-held lights for those who are afraid of the dark, quiet fans to keep cool without disturbing other audience members and giant bean bags for those who need to get out of their wheelchairs are all essential in enabling families to attend a live performance. And the families appreciate being able to enjoy the performance together, saying that they feel like VIPs with extras such as lunch at the theatre before the show and meeting the dancers afterwards.

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‘Now in the second year of working with Martin House, we have listened and responded to the families’ needs and have developed the skill and understanding of working with ill children and their families.

‘For Martin House the project has been of huge benefit to the care team as it has enabled them to get to know the families better, so they are able to deliver a deeper and more reactive care for the whole family. We hope to continue working in partnership with Martin House in the years to come because we are passionate that everyone should have access to high quality arts activities.

Jo Dean, learning projects manager at Northern Ballet

Jo Dean, learning projects manager at Northern Ballet - Credit: Archant

‘And with what we have learnt from the Start Hospices programme we are now in a position to share our experiences with other arts organisations and theatres in Leeds and support them in offering activities which are truly inclusive of everyone.’

What the families say

‘Most activities are aimed at either the ill child or the sibling but this project included both of them. As Joel was ill and missed some of the activities it was great that Ruby could attend with other family members and friends so that she didn’t have to miss out.’ Claire, whose son Joel uses Martin House

‘Often, Zac has to stay at home as activities aren’t suitable for him, so the most important thing about this project was to be able to go out as a family and take part in activities that are inclusive of Zac. We often take Molly to the theatre but this project has opened our eyes to the possibility of taking Zac to the theatre too.’ Jona, whose son Zac uses Martin House

‘The project has been an amazing experience because it is something that we can all do together as a family. All the kids have enjoyed it. We were apprehensive at first as we didn’t know what to expect but it has been more enjoyable than we thought and the kids have enjoyed dancing and meeting new friends.’ Julie, whose daughter Holly uses Martin House

About Start Hospices

Jeremy Newton chief executive of Children & the Arts, explains more about the Start Hospices programme

The Start Hospices programme was created by Children and the Arts in 2012 to enable children and young people with life-limiting and life-threatening conditions, and their families to have fun together away from the medical, physical and emotional demands of their daily lives.

There are over 50,000 children in the UK receiving hospice care. The complexity of care required by most children receiving support from a hospice means that they and their family are rarely able to go on outings or visits together. Siblings also often miss out on opportunities to take part in activities and events that their friends enjoy with their families.

The Start Hospices programme is an innovative three year programme of activities by Children & the Arts funded by the J Isaacs Charitable Trust and City Bridge Trust. The programme involves seven arts organisations working with children’s hospices nationwide creating moments of happiness, togetherness and lasting impact for the families involved. One of those organisations is Northern Ballet which is currently in the second year of the programme, supporting families at Martin House Children’s Hospice.