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On making an impact with dance, with Emma Smith

We catch up with Emma Smith, BBC Arts Fellow, to discuss the “profound, powerful, and positive impact on people’s lives” that dance can have and her evolving career since she graduated in 2010…


What was your first dance job after college?

When I first finished at DFA, I moved to London to be closer to auditions, to do classes, and to gain more experience. My first job out of this was in a 5-month touring production on the Balearic Island of Menorca, where I was a dancer/singer. After this, I sought out more teaching and choreographic work, as well as performing in a few commercials (most notably a viral for Just Dance 4, Ubisoft).


When did you work with SkyeDance?

I was in post as a Dance Development Officer with SkyeDance from 2012- 2013, although I continued to choreograph for their youth company on a freelance basis into 2014. In this post, I was responsible for improving dance provision for more rural communities in Skye and Lochalsh (Highlands). I organised and delivered a busy programme of weekly community classes, as well as working within nurseries, primaries, and secondary schools in the area.

I choreographed work for the SkyeDance Youth Company, who participated in national events and performances including the Commonwealth Youth Dance Festival 2014, and YDance Routes 2013 and 2014. We also collaborated with the National Galleries of Scotland and Atlas:Arts on a commissioned dance film, which was exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, in 2013.

This post gave me a huge insight into community dance and this has been my focus ever since.


What did you do after SkyeDance?

After returning to Edinburgh, I began teaching for a company called One Day Creative Education, who specialises in delivering dance and drama within the national school curriculum, while I also started looking for more training opportunities within contemporary and community dance contexts. This lead me to many exciting opportunities, including training with Far Flung Dance, who focus on working with young offenders and those within the justice system.

I decided to return to higher education to complete my BA (Hons) Dance, and I was offered a place at Performing Arts Studio Scotland from 2014/2015. This year gave me a chance to study contemporary dance and choreography further and gave me many exciting opportunities, including creating and performing a new piece of work at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.


When did you go to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland RCS?

After achieving my BA (Hons) Dance in 2015, I was accepted onto a new Masters of Education programme at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, called MEd Learning and Teaching in the Performing Arts. This Masters will take me 3 years to complete, as I am studying part-time in order to continue working professionally.


How did you become a BBC Performing Arts Fellow – did someone nominate you?

At the same time as applying for my BA year in 2014, I was also awarded a BBC Performing Arts Fellowship (PAF), which I was selected for by YDance (National Youth Dance Organisation for Scotland). This was a lengthy application, which went through a 3 stage selection process. I was one of 3 successful candidates in Scotland, out of 42 in the UK. This fellowship gave me a unique mentoring opportunity for the whole of 2015, and YDance supported me to further my skills as both a teaching dance artist and a choreographer.

I worked on many different projects and had the chance to work with the National Youth Dance Company for Scotland, as well as learn from companies and artists such as Scottish Ballet, Anna Kendrick (Artistic Director, YDance) and Shaper/Caper (Thomas Small). Through this, I was also selected to perform at Tramway for Dance International Glasgow in 2015.


“For me, DFA was unique in that it provided diverse, comprehensive, and differentiated training. While I was there (quite some time ago, I graduated almost 7 years ago now!) we got the chance to work with renowned contemporary teachers/ choreographers, many of whom I have since encountered and worked with.

We had relatively small class sizes, allowing much more focus and input from all of our teachers. We were also given many opportunities to perform, and this all contributed to our experience.

I don’t know of any other dance school which gives such a solid foundation in ballet, while also allowing students to explore contemporary, commercial, and musical theatre skills, as well as teaching qualifications.

I think that DFA gave me the skills, opportunities, and rigorous training which has set me up for a long and successful career within the dance industry.”


What are you doing now?

In September 2015 I was offered a job as Dance Artist at Indepen-Dance, Scotland’s leading inclusive dance company (which means that we work with everyone, and more specifically, making dance more accessible to people with a disability.) In this role, I perform with Indepen-Dance 4 (IND4) who are a small, professional ensemble. We make and tour professional work, as well as delivering inclusive dance education in a variety of settings.

Last year we performed at Dance Base in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as well as the Mirabillia Festival (Italy), and Gathered Together Festival (Glasgow). We are currently working on a new piece of work for 3 to 5-year-olds, which will be touring for the rest of the year.


What do you think it takes to have a successful career in dance?

Regardless of your speciality, it takes hard work, resilience, patience, and an open mind to have a successful career in dance. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do or what I would be best at, so I tried many different things until I found the right fit for me. It took a while to get here, but I’m so glad that I persevered as I’ve never been happier. Take every opportunity that comes at you, but also, don’t be afraid to say no to something that you know isn’t right for you.


What have the highlights of your career been so far?

Last year threw some massive career highlights at me; getting my BBC fellowship with YDance, getting a first class BA (Hons), getting a place on my MEd at the RCS, AND getting what can only be described as my dream job with Indepen-Dance! In an industry that can be so difficult, it is so amazing and reassuring to have people believe in you in this way. I am sure that the best is still yet to come!


Do you have a favourite dance style / genre?

Contemporary dance has always been my favourite genre; it is so diverse and allows so much expression. I had come from a strong ballet background and found that my foundation in ballet and modern dance from DFA have allowed me to move into specialising in contemporary dance now. Everything is relevant, however, and you should always be willing to try new things, even if it pushes you out of your comfort zone!


Which choreographers and dancers are you most inspired by?

I particularly love Wayne McGregor, his work is incredible, and he pushes the boundaries of physicality in his dancers. Pina Bausch is another legend, as well as Alexander Eckman, whose works are equally theatrical and beautiful. Stopgap Dance Company, who I have been working with through IND4, are also a massive inspiration, especially in my current way of working.


Why do they inspire you?

I am inspired by artists who continually force us to question the status quo, who push the boundaries of physicality or artistry, who make me laugh or surprise me. I am always inspired by physical prowess in a dancer, but these days I find even more inspiration in their expression of creativity and artistry.


What are the challenges facing pro dancers in Scotland?

I think that dancers are always challenged to make their mark in the world. We are often expected to travel great distances for auditions, or work for free/ expenses to gain experience, for example, and you have to be resilient enough to make it through this.

We have a very small dance community in Scotland, and this can be seen as both a blessing and a curse, depending on your perspective. I believe that we have an incredible community here, which celebrates its local artists and provides many opportunities. However, young dancers should surround themselves with an environment that will push them, and they should have the confidence to seek this out if it’s not here.

Dancers are increasingly expected to be able to market themselves, to run their own websites, events, classes, to seek out and apply for opportunities, especially when you’re starting out. I often need to set aside “office days” as a freelancer, in order to keep my business running. The more varied our work becomes, the more varied our skill set needs to be. I would also say that there seems to be a president for moving into teaching if you have trained as a dancer. I don’t think that this is always healthy; unless you have a genuine interest and passion for teaching. Be strong enough to turn down teaching work if it’s not what you want to do!


What have you learned from your time with Y Dance and Indepen-dance?

I have been very lucky to have worked with national dance companies such as YDance and Indepen-Dance, and through them I have seen that dance can have a profound, powerful, and positive impact on people’s lives. From these organisations I have learned that dance can empower and educate people, it can bring people together and bridge social, economic, political, and cultural gaps.

Even more importantly, I have learned that dance is for everyone, and I have loved making it my role to help make dance more accessible and inclusive.

Thank you so much Emma! We look forward to hearing about your future adventures!


Emma is one of our many graduates enjoying a life as a full-time performer and teacher. Train with us.

We’re incredibly proud of our high graduate employment rates:

Since 2012, 100% of Dance For All’s graduates have found work in the dance industry within 12-18 months of graduating, 87% within 6-12 months and 83% within 3 months of graduating. This is in sharp contrast to the industry average, where only 29% of performing arts graduates are working within their specific industry, according to the Higher Education Careers Services Unit’s What do graduates do 2015 report.*

Of those seeking travel and work abroad, 56% – 69% of our graduates since 2013 are working overseas, compared to only 2% of UK performing arts graduates. Dance For All’s professional dance graduates are three times more likely to get a job in the performing arts industry and 35 times more likely to win an overseas contract than their peers.

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