Based in Hampshire, Strictly School Dancing Ltd (SSD LTD) provides the highest standard of Latin American and Ballroom Dance tuition in the area and beyond. Founded and run by Neil and Sarka Brock, SSD combines their expertise and backgrounds – Neil’s in commercial business and Sarka’s as a former world class dance champion and now licensed British Dance Council Adjudicator – to ‘become one of the most recognised dance schools in the United Kingdom and a powerhouse in the open competitive environment’.
We spoke to Sarka and Neil on Zoom – where else – and also Jayne Spencer, an active dance parent and volunteer at the school, to talk all about the club and how recent challenges have forced them into even greater innovation, as they adapt to the volatile and ever-changing world in a global pandemic.
KUDOS: So I suppose the first question has to be – how are you, as a school, coping in the latest lockdown and how have you had to innovate?
Neil: Probably the biggest issue for most people is the fact that each day seems to be monotonous. Having followed the news we knew it was coming, and so when the first lockdown was announced we already had a plan, in our heads at least, as to how we might tackle it. Dance is very much a hands-on and in-person activity, and it also requires quite a lot of space! So the issues and constraints for us, and our students, were ‘how are we going to deliver this, how are they going to take on board our information and how are they going to perform?’.
Then of course we had to plan for when lockdown measures were relaxed – making sure that we had all the protocols in place, all the risk assessments completed, and all of the PPE stock procured to make our working environment safe. All of that was part of the plan, and on top of that we had to ensure all of our students and our clients were aware of those processes so we were all singing from the same songsheet and make it as safe as possible.
For Sarka, in particular, she’s teaching most days – sometimes all day – on Zoom in front of a screen. We’ve actually converted our lounge into a dance studio! We laid a whole wood floor over a carpet, which lasted for a couple of months, then we had to purchase a huge 20ft x 12ft piece of vinyl, laid that over the top of the wood floor – so now we’ve got a nice sprung floor in the lounge!
Sarka: I’m a sportsperson! I belong on the floor, to be moving, getting all hands on – and now…I’m a lecturer!
If there are any positives to be taken, I suppose, from that point of view, there’s some kind of self-improvement going on…? It’s a difficult situation, but it might be rewarding in some ways?
Sarka: Definitely! You improve yourself as a speaker, as a communicator, and have to find ways to explain yourself better. Although I’m definitely more of a doer than a speaker!
Neil: Sarka works Tuesday-Sunday, only one day off, and our clients take up most of her time – with the group tuition where we have everybody on Zoom and Sarka lecturing, and then also the private one-to-one tuition which is essential for their continued development. We have schools in Wales and Ireland that we teach and also one in the Czech Republic! I manage the operational aspects – the business, the marketing – but for Sarka it’s literally a case of standing in front of a TV screen for hours on end every week! That’s lockdown, that’s covid-19 for us!
Sarka: Dance is ‘never sleep’ – even if I have a day off I’m still replying to messages. And so even though we don’t currently have competitions and preparations to deal with, because I teach from home it feels like I can never go from work to home, because the work is here all the time! So it’s quite difficult now to relax in the lounge because I’ve been in there for six days!
Jayne: As a parent of a student, I’ve had to clear out my lounge so now I have no lounge – I leave Mikey (my son) to dance with Sarka in the house!
Neil: And in terms of innovation – we’re trying to get kids and young adults to operate from a set of vocal instructions. So I’ll be working in my study and I can hear Sarka saying things like ’45 degree angle to the candle on the table’…! So the whole methodology of our teaching has changed, but we’ve found it’s been effective and throughout this period our students have continued to improve. And that’s not only a measure of what Sarka does, but it shows that it can work online, which had been a concern for us, but we’ve proven it can.
And so if and when we get back to normal, do you think you’ll take anything you’ve learned from these last 10 months or so and be able to use that going forward?
Sarka: Oh definitely, yes! Perhaps less showing and doing, and trying to explain how it works. All students learn in different ways – some respond better to explanation, and others learn through actions. So now, in a Zoom, I’m trying to combine everything. I’ve learned a lot about my students and how we can teach in different ways.
Neil: Another key thing has been how do we motivate the students. We’re all human, we’re all different, we all have our own fragilities, so we’ve definitely learned through this process to find ways to maintain their motivation, their passion and desire. We’re extremely fortunate that our students are committed competitors, with committed parents supporting them, so there is that support infrastructure. We’ve just learned better ways to keep them motivated, with positive messages about the future and what the future will mean for them when normal life resumes.
Sarka: And for ourselves as well! Although it *is* very difficult to switch off, I can’t. It’s my passion, it always will be my passion. Dance – in fact any sport – is like a drug! Sometimes when things aren’t going great you might feel like you hate it, but you can’t be without it! I always feel a responsibility for my students, I’m a highly competitive person – in all walks of life! – and I want to achieve as much as possible for everyone in the dance school.
How has the competitive side of what you do been affected?
Neil: The whole dance world has been decimated, and the competitive angle has gone. It’s a bit like a bunch of chefs who’ve got no ingredients with which to make anything. Our students come from a competitive background, and we are a competitive school – so the biggest issue for them has been that they live to compete, and competition is the measure by which they see their progress. So finding ways to keep them sufficiently motivated to continue to improve, now there is no measure, has been our challenge. The only real measure has been the opportunity to get back in person together. The ongoing issue for the competitive dance world is…it doesn’t matter how good you are – whether a world champion, British champion – unless you have your counterparts to bounce off, it’s very difficult to measure your own progress. So that’s something we’d like to give more thought to going forwards – in terms of enabling our students to understand that they are still improving. Our job is to make sure that what they do doesn’t fall off a cliff – we have to keep them on that upward curve…in their minds, in their physicality and their technical ability.
Has everyone been able to participate in your online sessions, or have you seen some drop off? For example not everyone has the technology or equipment, or even the motivation to join in online…
Neil: We’ve had a bit of both. We’ve had new people, and we’ve also found some of the least experienced, the very youngest who are starting out in the dance world…some of those have been the casualties, if you like. The view might be that they’re starting out on their journey, so perhaps, for the parents, it’s not essential from a financial perspective, while the children also, of course, have their schooling and education, much of which is now online and in front of a screen. But they haven’t stopped – they’ve just paused it for now. So far during the pandemic we’ve actually lost one student, which is extraordinary really.
Sarka: It has been good, yeah. The support from the parents has been amazing, they are dedicated and they’re finding ways to do it. We know it’s been very difficult for everyone – some might have lost work for example – so we’re always trying to find ways to keep them on board and keep them dancing.
Neil: Jayne is the quintessential, supportive dance Mum, who goes way over and above what is expected in support of her son’s development. Parents and clients like Jayne help us to not only survive but also to help the kids keep doing what they’re doing. Many of the kids are all Zoomed out, of course – this lockdown has been different, harder in fact, because the kids are not at school, and so we fully understand that for some of the kids, all this Zooming can be a real strain and create a bit of a mental block.
Just to bring you in, Jayne. One of our big passions is to celebrate the volunteers and parents who help keep grassroots sport, clubs and schools like SSD going – without volunteers and parents like yourself none of this would be possible. How do you see your role?
Jayne: So I’m a parent of one of the kids, but if there’s anything I can do to help I always jump in. So for example during the summer, with our new covid-compliant protocols in mind, we did hand-washing teaching for all the kids. I do a lot of the ordering and sorting out of the kit, the KUDOS tracksuits! At comps I might be the coffee lady…I just do anything I can to help out. I’m also a horse-riding mum, but suddenly I had a 14 year old boy who wanted to dance. Even in lockdown I’ve managed to do 18,000 miles of travelling. Normally, for Mikey to be able to dance, I’ll do around 35,000-40,000 miles of travelling a year. It’s a big commitment being a parent of a competitive child!
You’re not wrong! The grassroots and junior sport sector has an awful lot to be grateful for to good people like yourself – your enthusiasm is fundamental to keeping all this going! So, moving on, there was probably a time, 20 years or so ago, when some took the view that dance is ‘for girls’. Thankfully that kind of view seems to have been left behind. Have you seen an increase in boys getting involved?
Neil: Yes definitely! Jayne’s Grandmother, the late Peggy Spencer, was one of the most famous and influential people in dance…
Neil: Peggy’s legacy lives long in the world of dance even to this day. If you go back to Peggy’s era, there was never a problem with boys and men dancing. It was the done thing. It was cool! Then you had that change that probably came about in the late 80s through to the early 2000s when it was seen to be not the done thing for boys. I think we are seeing a change, again. We are seeing many more boys wanting to get involved in dance – not just in Ballroom and Latin, but in other forms like contemporary, modern, jazz, tap, ballet, all of it! I think, quite rightly, it’s now seen as a very physical activity, a competitive activity. It’s about changing perceptions. When you see dance live, it changes your whole view of what it’s really about. Dancers are athletes.
The dictionary definition of sport is ‘an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment’ – it’s pretty clear that dance ticks all of those boxes.
Neil: Absolutely. Once upon a time we used to provide after school clubs, and going back to about 2008 we remember some of the boys at that particular time being quite averse to the idea of dance. Very averse in fact – until they saw dance in action!
Sarka: I think once they get involved, and they feel part of something, part of a team – kids especially – they feel and enjoy the responsibility of all pulling together. And that’s what we found with the boys, who were VERY not interested – they became the ones who absolutely loved it the most, in the end.
Neil: With Ballroom and Latin, it’s just not what most people think it is, until they get involved. There’s always this big contentious question in dance – what is it? Is it sport, or is it art? Our view is it’s clearly a mixture of both. In order to do it at the very highest level, some of these people are training six or seven hours a day. They’re at the absolute peak of their physical fitness. And on top of that there’s all the information, all the knowledge, that’s constantly being injected into them…enabling them to become better and better.
So you must have a number of elite dancers competing at a pretty high level?
Neil: We’re very fortunate. The history of our school, which is now 13 years old, means that we’ve still got some of our original students with us. For example one of the boys started with us 12 years ago – at aged 7 or 8 in a breakfast club in a school – and he’s still dancing today. He’s a regular semi-finalist and finalist at key competitions, Stephen Webb!
My own son, Ethan Brock, dances – he came into it quite late after following the team around but never wanted to dance. One day he said he’d like to get involved and that was it – and now he’s a world under 19 Latin finalist, European quarter finalist, Blackpool semi-finalist, UK Amateur finalist, etc!
For the last three consecutive years we’ve been lucky enough to see some of our couples represent Team Great Britain at the annual junior festival in Blackpool. We’ve won so many titles – they’re all on our website! The list goes on – too many to mention really – we wouldn’t want to leave anybody out! But we have extraordinarily talented couples and we’re very fortunate. When we say ‘elite’ we mean people who pretty much want to make this a career, and they’re at a level that enables them to do that.
Jayne: What Neil said there is quite important. We had to make a big decision, during the pandemic, due to education and my son doing his A-levels at the moment – it’s really important that he carries on with his education. But we made the decision to not go to university, because he wants to be a dancer. It was huge and quite emotionally difficult, for me, to come to that decision with him, because my dreams for him had always been to go to uni, so it’s quite a different pathway to the one we’d imagined! If you’re going to be a dancer, it is a lifestyle, a very big commitment, and I don’t think many people realise the work that goes into it. My son is doing something to do with dance every single day of the week.
Neil: I have to say, all of our students are really bright. They’re all academically gifted, but as Jayne says at some point you have to make that decision whether you want to go down this road or that road. We have students in that category, and they’ve chosen to do this as a career.
And finally…! I know you do take on beginners as well and you’re always open to new students. So how, in a nutshell, how would you sell the idea of joining SSD to anyone who might be thinking about it?
Neil: Well, by virtue of the fact that they’ve made an initial enquiry or thought about joining means that there’s already an interest. So it’s then about choosing the right environment, and understanding dance isn’t always easy because there’s quite a complex structure around it. So, in the world of Ballroom and Latin dancing, which is our focus, we’ve chosen specifically to focus on what is known as the open circuit. We believe that is where the highest level of competition exists, both here and around the world. It’s where the top dancers ply their trade. So we focus on the environment that will enable you to get to the very top of the Ballroom and Latin dance world, and we have in place the infrastructure, the coaching skills and the team to enable that to happen. With every starting point there’s an end goal – so the starting position is always quite small and that grows as your journey develops. So we can accommodate the needs of all, and we do that in a wonderful environment that is full of brilliant people!
Thanks so much to Neil, Sarka and Jayne for their time and fabulous insight into their terrific school and the wonderful and innovative ways in which they’ve dealt with recent challenges.
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