An Alternative for Young Offenders - Orange Is The New Black Week


By Molly Freeman

Photo courtesy of Dance United.

From the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 200 Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiatives around the country to New York City’s Andrew Glover Youth Program, there are many outreach programs in the US that offer alternatives to youth incarceration. These efforts work to reduce juvenile detention through a wide variety of methods. Some groups call for improvements, in cases involving minors, within the justice system itself, while others focus on working directly to rehabilitate the offenders through counseling, mentoring, and care.

However, one group in the UK, Dance United, offers a unique alternative to incarceration for young people.

The group began in the ’90s as a means of outreach to street children in Ethiopia, youths in post reunification Germany, as well as young Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

In 2006, Dance United launched their Academy program in Bradford, West Yorkshire to work with young offenders and disadvantaged youths. The company has since opened programs in London, Yorkshire, and Wessex.

“Our biggest goal is about using professional, contemporary dance training and performance to really shift and inspire the young people that we work with into more quality futures,” explains the London branch’s Alliance Dance Director Carly Annable-Coop. She became involved with Dance United nine years ago and currently works at the London Academy program.

Dance United works with young offenders in the UK, but also with young adults who have been marginalized by society. Young people, who participate in Dance United, do so for a number of reasons; they might have had trouble in mainstream education, had a difficult upbringing, or have just been struggling in their lives.

The dance curricula can last anywhere from six to ten weeks and are established on a case-by-case basis, with programs that are full-time, five days a week, six hours a day. Annable-Coop emphasizes that although the program does teach contemporary dance, those who participate also learn a host of life skills.

“I think dance is at the heart of it. By doing dance they are proactively learning other skills about themselves,” she says.

Teamwork, trust, how to be trusted, and time management are among these skills. In addition, some young people who start the program might have trouble with reading or writing, which is improved through the portfolio work they are assigned. Annable-Coop also explains that the London Academy has a solution-based life coach that works with each participant in order to address specific issues in their lives.

When beginning a Dance United program, all participants are paired with a mentor for a year. The mentor monitors a participant’s progress and then decides what the next steps for the particular person should be at the end of the program. For those who are interested in continuing on with dance, they are able to join Dance United’s performance company, which meets on a weekly basis.

Annable-Coop attributes the success of Dance United to the intensity of the program, as well as the professionalism and dedication of the staff. She explains that they set serious goals for the young adults who participate and expect them to take the program just as seriously. The staff puts the participants on stage quickly in order to demonstrate how much they can learn in a short amount of time.

However, despite this quick turn around time, Dance United expects the participants to put on professional-level performances. Everyone involved, from the lighting and costume designers to the dance instructors, takes the participants seriously and works very hard to put on accomplished performances.

Although Dance United aims to work with young offenders and disadvantaged youth in order to get their lives on track, the artistic aspect is also integral to the program.

“We’re an arts led company. The art is at the forefront of everything that we do,” Annable-Coop says. “Achieving those high artistic standards is crucial to our work and to make sure those young people achieve and are excellent in what they do.”