Alumni spotlight: Dr Sara HoustonThu 29 October 2020
Dance Studies researcher and lecturer Dr Sara Houston completed her undergraduate in Dance Theatre in 1994 and MA in Dance Studies in 1996.
Sara was the first dance studies scholar to win a BUPA Foundation Prize in 2011 for her research on Dance and Parkinson’s in association with English National Ballet. She has since published Dancing with Parkinson’s (2019), a book exploring the benefits of dance through the lens of people living with the disease.
A National Teaching Fellow, Sara has worked at University of Surrey and London Studio Centre, and is now Deputy Head of Dance at University of Roehampton. She also served as the Chair of People Dancing for seven years.
We caught up with her to find out more.
Tell us about your book Dancing with Parkinson’s
“It’s a unique book because it’s the first on dance and Parkinson’s. There have been autobiographies written by people with Parkinson’s who dance, and there are lots of journal articles that look at perceived physiological changes of that population, but there have been no philosophical, sociological academic studies at book level until now.
“My training is Dance Studies rather than Dance Science, so although I brought in Ashley McGill [TL Dance Science alum] I thought it was also important to look at the various context in which dance for Parkinson’s takes place. The book includes teachers, producers, dance organisations, programmes and initiatives from all over the world. They were all using dance styles, forms, pedagogical tools and artistic facilitation techniques. It highlighted the fact that dancing doesn’t have to be a therapy just because people have Parkinson’s. It highlighted the artistic nature of a lot of these classes and initiative and workshops. Even people with a movement disorder who can’t move as well or fluently can dance with artistic integrity.
“Dancing can change people’s lives. It can at least change how they approach their lives. That’s a strong theme running through the book.”
How did the book come about?
“In 2010 I was invited to be an independent evaluator on English National Ballet (ENB) pilot project for people with Parkinson’s.
“I spent a whole summer reading every single research paper going and interviewed doctors and nurses and people with Parkinson’s. I also went to a dance class for people with Parkinson’s – there were only a handful at that time.
“People would walk into class with their walking sticks. They’d be shuffling, bent over, slow. By the end of the class some of them even forgot their walking sticks. There was a real sense that there is something here worth investigating.
“We investigated the physiological change as well as the motivations, experience, social changes and assumptions. The most important thing wasn’t the physiological change, it was the whole approach that people had to life.
“The project was so successful that ENB won a lot of money from Paul Hamlyn foundation to continue the programme for a further three years. They asked if Ashley [McGill] and I would stay on and research for the duration. We continued to gather data for about four years in the end, and then spent a year writing it up.
“When I started the research I had an idea I was going to write a book on dance and social inclusion, that’s really what I’m interested in. Then I realised that this project – which was just going to be a little case study in the book – could actually be a book in its own right.
“The book came out last year, 2019, and it was published with Intellect Books who were great to work with.”
How has the book been received?
“I’ve had a lot of feedback from people living with Parkinson’s who’ve read and said ‘I really recognise me in there and I really recognise what dancing can do’. I’m really pleased that that is the case. You’ve always got to be quite wary as an academic where you’re coming into a situation as an observer, an outsider.
“It’s a full-on academic book, but I’m passionate about public engagement so I tried to write it in a way that was accessible. It’s difficult to write for multiple audiences, but I did try to write it as clearly as I could. Judging from the reactions from non-academics that’s succeeded to some extent.”
You’ve been interviewed on BBC Breakfast, and featured alongside Joe Wicks for an international broadcast recently. What is that like working with the media?
“At first it was really nerve wracking. I found I was getting indignant if a journalist misinterpreted my words. But having done quite a lot of this now I’ve realised that you’ve just got to have thick skin. As long as the general key point gets across, then it’s ok.”
What does your role at University of Roehampton involve?
“Being an academic involves teaching undergraduate, postgraduate and doctorate students, a lot of programme, department and student management and administration. On top of that you must fit in time to run research projects, bid for grants, and write book or articles. Public engagement is increasingly important for academics so that cutting edge research happening in universities is spread wider.
“I love coming in to contact with new people and ideas.
“I’m of the opinion that research students need to own their project and run with it themselves, so I’m there as a guide to provoke ideas.”
How have your studies at Trinity Laban impacted your career?
“The performance focus of my undergraduate dance degree set me up for general dance studies teaching. I needed to have a sense of my body in space, the general historical flow and what’s happening currently in contemporary dance.
“My master’s degree involved in-depth reading, writing and discussion about dance. It really set me up in a big way because it allowed me to read widely across the disciplines of aesthetics, sociology and politics. It allowed me to think in a broad, deep way about how dance is not in a silo. It’s something which exists within society and is influenced by people and can influence people.
“The bits of those degrees I was most interested in was how dance connected with society, with political and social ideas. That really sparked me.
“Early on I realised that I didn’t want to become a dancer, but I was still really interested in dance. That set me up for being an academic. I went on to do at phD at Roehampton and I’ve worked in the University and Vocational School Sector since then.”
How did you become interested in community dance?
“After my PhD I became interested in social inclusion and did a post-doc study in an adult male prison with MotionHouse. I realised that I’m interested in community dance – done by people who are not necessarily trained – and in people who are excluded or marginalised in society whose experience of dancing can lead to something else.”
You’ve recently retired as Chair of People Dancing, the national support organisation for community dance – what did this role involve?
“I got a call from the then director [of People Dancing] Ken Bartlett who said ‘Sara, you’ve got a really good sense of the bigger picture, where dance sits, we need someone like you on our board’. So I joined. I became vice chair and then chair in 2013. It allowed me to be at the centre of decision making and to see what was happening in terms of policy making.
“It’s incredibly hard stepping away but I’m still involved in People Dancing’s Dance for Parkinson’s partnership and will continue to do that.”
Any advice to share for those interested in community dance or dance research?
“It’s important to connect with other artforms, policy makers and allied disciplines such as health. I think the more that you can do this as a student, the more you can bring your skills into play in society. It’s really good to build up different networks and cultivate a diversity of relationships.
“For anyone interested in community dance, become members of People Dancing. They really do support the sector in a big way. Check out their summer school because they always have different professional development workshops and training available which is really useful. If you’re just starting out, they’ve got a brilliant introduction workshop you can do.
“I’d also recommend shadowing someone more experienced so that when you come to do it on your own you’ve got more in your armoury to use.
“Community dance is very rewarding but it’s also hard work, don’t underestimate the challenge. Don’t do a project just because it’s topical or sexy, do something you’re truly passionate about. And it’s important not to go into this work just for you. Think of your participants first.
“In research, methodological stances are often narrow, but it’s important to never forget that there is a wider context. I have come across some scientists who haven’t seen the bigger picture and I find that their approach to dance isn’t as imaginative.”
Any future plans you’d like to share with us?
“I am writing a lay book on dance and health which should be out next year. And the Parkinson’s world hasn’t got rid of me yet. I’m continuing to write articles and do public engagement on that.
“I’m also continually trying to find ways to work with my European partners (Directors of European Dance Houses) and keep discussions going on dancer’s soft skills, Parkinson’s research and vulnerable people going through forced migration. I feel Brexit is going to be an isolating situation, so I’m doing my utmost to think of ways I can still connect with these very close and inspiring partners. My intellectual circle would diminish if I couldn’t access these people.”