Covid measures risk the next generation of performers

by Liz Cole

As we emerge from national lockdown into tiered restrictions, one victory for common sense is the restoration of children’s grassroots sports.

It is a testimony to strong, persistent voices like Robbie Savage as well as campaigns like #savekidssports that children can get back onto the pitch. In truth, sport should never have stopped – authorities have catastrophically let children and their wider health down across the board.

We know that this generation faces a growing obesity crisis, and that children returned to school after lockdown in worse physical, as well as mental shape. We know that there was no specific recommendation by SAGE to suspend children’s sport, so the ban was nonsensical. We absolutely must get children active again and sports are an important part of that.

But I implore Ministers to not neglect other activities for children that do not have such tireless advocates like Savage. Not all children are sporty, as I can sadly testify. Not all children have an affinity for athletics or for charging around the football pitch on a cold Sunday morning. There are many thousands of children whose out-of-school passions lie elsewhere – including in dance, theatre, and music. These children are also missing out on fulfilling their gifts and potential and these experiences are also vital for mental and physical wellbeing.

Before March, my own daughters danced several times a week and took part in various musical theatre classes and local productions. They derived a huge amount of joy from dancing and singing with friends, rehearsing, and performing. While their dance and theatre schools tried valiantly to keep things going with Zoom classes, dancing alone in your living room, cannot replicate the buzz of dancing with your class or troupe.

After schools returned in September, their weekly performance classes resumed, but not as we know it. The performance regulations and bizarre guidelines around singing have all but put a stop to any musical theatre practice. In dance, they are in squares 2 metres apart, so group work and choreography are limited.

While kids playing football outdoors have a reasonably close to normal experience, children doing dance and performance are still very much restricted from the full range of activities.

Parents in our UsforThem campaign group have told me of mixed, sometimes dispiriting experiences from their young performers. Many young dancers have lost motivation with interminable Zoom classes that cannot replicate studio practice.

One parent said her son was so alienated by the restrictions in place at his drama class he has not wanted to go back. Another told of her son doing street dance in a chalk circle box.

Perhaps most distressing was the parent who told about her daughter, an exceptionally talented dancer and performer who had once won a coveted role in the West End. Like many children in theatre, she had sacrificed a great deal to work towards her dreams. However, since lockdown and an extended period out of the dance she became demoralised and ‘fell out of love with dancing’.

This is a heart-breaking loss of potential and countless examples like these will impoverish our arts in the future. Just as sports people need to play their sports and compete, so do young dancers, singers and actors need to perform. Even before Covid struck, kids who wanted to sing, dance and act faced stiff competition and limited opportunities whether taking part in national productions or local community theatre. Now I fear it will be even harder.

When and if theatre resumes, restrictions and financial constraints stand to inhibit directors from including children, put theatre schools out of business and prevent community theatres from running youth projects. Naysayers will argue that these are minor inconveniences-which they are, if truly temporary.

However, as time goes by, we must ask ourselves what kind of colourless future we will face if we fail to nurture our next generation of artists.  I would love to hear an equivalent voice to Robbie Savage emerge to kick start a campaign for restoring the arts for children and speak out for our next generation of young performers. Our inbox at UsforThem is open.

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