An interview with our ‘Feet First’ artist Olivia White

head and shoulders portrait
Olivia White. Photo: Bobbie

“I believe South Asian Dance offers a broad artistic outlet, there is music in the body, there is percussion and song, there is painterly abstraction, there is drama, there is play. Everything is there to nourish and nurture the soul. It looks beautiful, it feels beautiful.”

Akademi caught up with artist, Olivia White, who is leading on our project Feet First that aims to provide a platform for South Asian dance artists to train to work with young people with mental health issues. We spoke about her practice and her experience of being a part of this project.

Akademi: Please tell us a bit about yourself and your experience as a dance artist and practitioner

Olivia: I have been involved in the arts world for many years and within this there has been a long-standing and invested interest in therapeutic values. From my teenage years I had envisioned working towards studies in Music Therapy and Ethnomusicology with dance as a hobbyist Art form. However, I met many diversions throughout my journey which have been able to benefit me differently. I experienced a rather intermittent journey with Classical Indian dance, due to personal health, injury and other circumstances. This always frustrated me as I was keen to become deeply embedded in Bharata Natyam, but with these various setbacks I felt that I could focus more on music and as I had no professional intentions to work in dance it was less important.

It was during time I spent volunteering for several years with an organisation linked to both UK and Sweden where I had gone along with expectations to persuade me more in a musical direction and to enhance prospects of training in music therapy where I began listening more to my body and the responses of others who had limited movement. Movement fascination graduated into new beginnings, but still dance was less of an intention for me and more of a reward. I’m not entirely sure how the main shift occurred, I had spent much time in both worlds but with the setbacks in life I ended up in some slightly different places. I remember returning from a stint abroad thinking I would stay for a short time in the UK and then relocate, during that period I set up a short term project teaching a Belly dance class in my local area as it was another of my passions. I hadn’t expected to do much with it, nor to gain the interest that I found, but this ended up setting the foundations for a new career pathway. This was in 2003 and 20 years later I find that this small, seemingly insignificant seed has blossomed greatly with wonderful opportunities to my credit. I quickly became a regular teacher in adult education settings where I witnessed the emotional growth of people through dance. I became involved too in many projects with schools, universities, prisons and IRC’s (immigration removal centres).

Although dance wise my performance work was Middle Eastern, and the majority of my teaching was too, but because of my light affiliation with South Asian Classical Dance and perhaps more deeply entrenched study and exposure of Hindustani Classical Music, I received much encouragement and became involved in teaching and performing Bollywood dances too, although I often felt that I was still lacking somewhat as I had really wanted to work on developing classical dance. Nevertheless time limitations and circumstances got the better of me and I remained very closely focused on supporting myself, creating skills necessary to validate what I was doing. Simultaneously I was working in a school which I decided one year to fundraise for by organising a show. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing, but simply had a vision one night that the small area where I was living could benefit from some exciting artistry. It was only meant to be a one off event and ended up becoming another catalyst. For several years I organised an annual event which united local, national and international dancers with flavours of Middle Eastern, North African, Indian Classical, Flamenco and Tanzanian dance.

Through my own small business title, Majenta Dance I felt able to unite bodies through a universal language. I had considered both the majestic sensations of dance and the offering I wished to give to others, alongside harmonising qualities recognised through colour therapies to create a title which would be reflective of my intentions. All the way, in spite of being so heavily involved in these immediate demands, Iwas planning for future pursuits. It wasn’t until post pandemic that I finally felt able to negotiate the time I needed in order to focus myself on a masters programme, and by this time having spent the past 20 years in dance there was a natural decision to lean towards Dance Movement Psychotherapy instead of music. Prior to this I had also become professionally trained in Soft Tissue work, working for the WTA on yet another obscure journey which happened quite by accident. So I feel that I’ve been very much full circle and although there’s always been a leaning towards body work and mental well-being this journey has been needed to truly experience the nourishment for myself, hence motivating my understanding and thinking when I work as a practitioner.

Akademi: How has it been so far working on Akademi’s Feet First project. In your perspective, how important are projects like this?

Olivia: This project has been largely influential. I feel that movement is crucial for bringing people together with themselves and with others. The shared space that dance creates is something perhaps a little different to other arts as its effects are felt lingering in the physical form but perhaps appear more transient. The movement happens and then it’s gone. Music can be re captured, or a picture can be looked at over and over again, but dance is there and then suddenly vanished, but the body can still feel the effects, whether by performing a movement for the self or by observing it in others.

This project is key to supporting young adolescents both as inpatients and outpatients. I have collaborated with another wonderful artist, Showmi Das, to produce some incredible and powerful moments. It has been a necessary opportunity for us both and more recently I have realised its impact on hospital staff. When I say dance is the key, it is not only dance that brings the joy, there are other moments of conversation or relaxation or even music making which I trust as part of the creative procedure I want to bring to the setting.

“There is a level of spontaneous creativity that brings dance to life.”

This project is needed across the spectrum in hospitals all over the country. Although I am currently training in Dance Movement Psychotherapy, I have spent years working with movement creatively and therapeutically. I believe there is a difference between the two. It is not the need for a dance teaching practitioner to train in psychotherapy, I feel very strongly that any dance artist can produce the therapeutic environment in their own methodologies and not be afraid of working more spontaneously and courageously. I feel sometimes we can become too bound into a certain practice and perhaps by stepping away from this for a few moments can stimulate a deeper creative process which ultimately becomes a therapeutic release.

Akademi: What do you think makes South Asian dance such an effective tool for working with adolescents experiencing serious mental health illnesses?

Olivia: I believe South Asian Dance offers a broad artistic outlet, there is music in the body, there is percussion and song, there is painterly abstraction, there is drama, there is play. Everything is there to nourish and nurture the soul. It looks beautiful, it feels beautiful. It is possible to draw from many aspects to encourage someone. As I say, my background in South Asian dance has been rather hindered in terms of actual learning and practice that I never progressed to become proficient in that field. There ended up being more of a journey through Hindustani Classical Music, which some find odd as my preferred dance style was more attuned to Carnatic Music. So for me when I teach I’m drawing heavily on influences and cross tuning genres to become something of a contemporary release. I observe the qualities of dance as an outsider perhaps more than an insider, which is quite useful as a tool for finding building blocks to create with. I encourage the movements and expressions to come out organically. I always refer back in my mind to a dance company i watched once from Bangalore. At the end of the show the teacher came out to inform the audience that every participant was blind and wanted to explain the teaching process, especially with finding the correct eye movements.

To work with adolescents experiencing mental ill health requires some level of care and discipline within South Asian dance can assist in setting new codes of boundaries and focus. Similarly as I said there is something for everyone and the different elements of dance can be brought into the setting in quite unique ways when needed. For example I like to use the concept of namaskaram and reintroduce this with a personal flavour for an individual. I use instruments and artwork, songwriting to support storytelling, so I tend to incorporate other skill sets i have which may at first glance not appear to produce anything vaguely related to Indian Classical dance, however my thinking here is to access the nuances of the dance forms in a subtle way which feels personalised to the individuals and later on can become the root expansion.

Akademi: What has been the most memorable moment(s) during a Feet First session? 

Olivia: There are actually so many small gems within these sessions. I have to say first and foremost when working with another artist it is imperative to find that method which supports both people. I have worked in the past in other settings whereby the artist is less collaborative, supportive or in tune. In this project I am very blessed to work with Showmi as we are both completely synched. I know that if I do something I can look across at her and she knows precisely what I am thinking. She is equally able to contribute without either of us saying anything as we just seem able to support one another. One of the key moments has been unlocking connections with participants. I have to say that physical movement is not always the priority. There is just as much movement intention in silence and stillness which for me is where having a more radical approach helps. A participant attended one of my sessions and spent the whole time hidden behind the barrier of a pool table, not engaging, zero eye contact, no speech and mostly with head in hands. This same character could easily have requested to leave the room. We’ve had other patients who managed to enter the room and leave within minutes, this one stayed. So the session was largely conducted with another two participants. It was the week after when I arrived at the hospital to be informed by a support worker that the non-participant from the previous week had commented how much they had loved the session and wanted to come back. Sure enough they entered the session that day, head held up, able to exchange a few words and although not willing to join in the session in a traditional sense, they sat on the floor, in the corner of the room watching the session. For me this was progress, this is the essence if what this sort of programme needs. Of course it’s incredible to go into the sessions and see someone dance, we’ve had Michael Jackson impersonations, Skanking sessions and all manner of things, but to witness a change in body language is powerful and brings it back to what dance does for the body and mind.

Akademi: You are currently completing your MA in Dance Movement Psychotherapy at University of Roehampton, what aspects of your studies have helped support your planning and delivery of Feet First sessions?

Olivia: I am currently studying an MA but I have to say I have actually wanted to keep both things a little separated, as I am not qualified as a practitioner at present I don’t want to go into the setting with a psychotherapist head on. I do however find that i draw from my many experiences through the years. I have built up my own repertoire somewhat pick pocketed from various dance classes, observations, performances, physical therapies, different people and settings, music classes etc. I spent time some years ago shadowing a dance therapist on a project, I have also attended foundation courses and various workshops in dance and music therapy at Goldsmiths, Roehampton and Cod Arts which have given me a background wealth of knowledge and understanding, as well as creative visions. I feel one of my major influences on my approach to this project has been prior work in IRC’s and prisons where I have realised very quickly that adaptable approaches are the key to unlocking the work. I feel that building from the strengths I’ve developed over years in other settings, and perhaps my own initial insecurities as a dance practitioner form a large part of how i plan and deliver these sessions. Having said that I do feel rather more equipped with confidence since the masters study has shown me that what I’ve been doing for years is actually working and worthwhile, plus I am more able to support myself with personal boundaries as a result of the current studies. I am able to leave behind the work in the place it needs to be and maintain a professional environment distinction. I also feel that the outcomes in dance teaching or facilitating are very different to those necessary for actual therapy but a therapeutic release is found through dance nonetheless.

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