The Monthly talks to Mags Byrne from DU Dance (NI) about the impact of the pandemic on the organisation’s activities

What was your initial response to the Pandemic particularly Lockdown?

When we first heard that the Coronavirus was spreading we really didn’t understand the impact it was going to have. We were following the news and keeping up to date with developments but I think it was only when the Irish government closed schools, and that was in early March, that it really hit home that this was going to have a serious effect on everything. The following week we closed our office at The Crescent Arts Centre and started to work from home.

That is a major decision for a community arts organisation to make?

That decision had a substantial impact on our work. We left the office on the 18th of March and immediately started postponing programmes. We were only a couple of weeks away from a performance in The Mac which was going to bring together young people from all over the island of Ireland. We also had 5 youth engagement projects running weekly workshops with young people from across Northern Ireland; that all had to be postponed.

It was hectic. We were trying to reschedule, checking with funders to see what was possible, trying to get in touch with all involved and it was close to Easter too, so we didn’t have a lot of time to act. On top of that I was meant to be travelling to Bethlehem at the beginning of April to work for a month on a project with our partner organisation there. That also had to be postponed.

What did you do?

As I said we had to put on hold our current work and have discussions with funders and partner organisations on the implications of that.  We then set about looking at what might be possible to deliver and how.  Now, given that we thought we would be back in operation around July implementing Summer Schemes and re-establishing projects, we thought this interim period would be relatively short. We decided to set up some online classes to keep things going for our youth engagement projects. Of course the July deadline came and went and we were still in the thick of it.

Did you move online?

We managed to organise Zoom classes for 4 of our youth engagement groups adding the 5th one a few weeks later.  A steep learning curve followed as, like most people, we didn’t even know what Zoom was prior to lockdown and we had no experience of delivering dance online.

Closing the office, suspending programmes and setting up the Zoom classes took a few weeks.  In that time we had little to no contact with the young people we work with. I must admit when we started to get back in touch with them I was shocked at the impact the lockdown had had and taken aback at how withdrawn and subdued they had become.

The need for us to run those classes and keep up connection was clear. We kept the Zoom classes going right through until mid-August when we started in-person classes again,  which we are running outdoors and socially distanced of course.

Do you think the kind of work you do can be done online easily?

Most of the work we deliver is outreach, with a focus on young people; often very vulnerable young people. To do the work online required a whole series of measures and permissions, not least considering how to keep participants safe in a virtual space.  In many ways we had to think through and adapt the work to connect effectively through a small phone screen.

Obviously to work online internet access is vital. But some of the young people we were engaging with just didn’t have a sufficiently strong Wi-Fi signal, so workshops would drop in and out which was very frustrating for all.

Space was also an issue; not everyone has a big living room or their own bedroom and distractions from siblings was challenging.  We really didn’t have the resources to help them, so we just did the best we could to encourage them to keep going.

I was never so aware of the importance of the exchange of energy in a workshop between facilitator and participants, that energy is tangible and matters and it’s very hard to replicate through a screen. The classes were really draining too, contacting the young people if they didn’t appear for class and trying to talk them through issues and encourage them when we were feeling hamstrung ourselves was hard work.

You are now back doing in person dance classes?

Yes. We have been facilitating socially distanced workshops for a little while now. The classes are totally joyful and in the beginning the relief of seeing each other was palpable. We follow all the guidelines of course, with hand sanitiser, spacing and tracing etc.  The young people were just worn out with Zoom and wanted the in-person contact.  We weighed up the risks and decided for the sake of their mental and physical health we would move workshops outdoors and meet in-person.

There were various barriers that we needed to overcome.  The lack of safe outdoor space was and is a big problem, as is the lack of suitable, affordable indoor space, particularly as we head towards winter. We moved our Ballymoney groups to outside Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart, but lost some people who couldn’t make that journey. We moved our Belfast classes to Crawfordsburn Scouts Centre and again that meant that some participants couldn’t get to the venue. We simply had to do the best we could and hope that as many people as possible would take part.

How were the funding bodies?

That is one positive thing to come from this Pandemic – the funding bodies we work with were great. They seemed to understand the pressure we were under, how we needed to be flexible and that we needed them to be flexible too.  In essence we felt supported and there has been a lot of good will and a real sense of common humanity.

You have had to make some dramatic changes. Do you feel you have lost out on opportunities that you might otherwise have had?

We have postponed work  but so far have had to cancel only one project. We have worked hard to keep our local and international partnerships live and are trying as best we can to keep possibilities open. We’re a bit in limbo though and the future depends on how long this uncertainty goes on.

We are unable to plan more than three months ahead, although we do have a 3 year schedule outlined and a lot of work which is waiting to be delivered. It isn’t really possible to set anything in stone given the shifting nature of the pandemic.

Moving forward we hope to deliver as much of our planned programme as possible. We have a responsibility to the artists who work with us and to the participants to do that.  Cancelling work impacts on them so we are working hard to find imaginative ways to deliver.  Who knows how we will fair though; the immediate future feels very uncertain.

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New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.