Case Study: The Work Room

The Work Room’s Radical Care project was Re-Emerging. It was a peer support group for freelance dance artists moving back into an active working practice after taking time away to care for children.


The Work Room (TWR) is an artist-led membership organisation. Its members are artists who work in dance, movement and choreography. Its mission is to empower artists to lead in their practice, enabling them to make high quality, pioneering dance for diverse contexts at home and internationally.

Programme areas for The Work Room include:

  • Supporting the development of choreographic research through a programme of supported, flexible and independent studio residencies
  • Fostering an active, independent dance community through the facilitation of networking and professional development opportunities
  • Developing the sustainability and international capacity of artist members through advice and practical support
  • Being a powerful advocate for the independent dance sector.

The Radical Care project

Images courtesy of The Work Room


The Work Room’s Radical Care project was Re-Emerging. It was a peer support group for freelance dance artists moving back into an active working practice after taking time away to care for children. The moment of Re-Emerging was purposefully broad potentially ranging from the end of maternity/ adoption/ parental leave, or at a later stage in life such as children starting school.

The key aim of Re-Emerging was to support participants in raising confidence, contacts and developing strategies of how to approach a working practice while balancing caring responsibilities. It was identified that for freelancers the return to work was not a single moment but an ongoing process with new conversations required for each new project.

The context identified by The Work Room was that dance is a precarious career with financial insecurity, characterised by short-term contracts and poor remuneration. Independent dance practice, outwith the structures of full-time companies, can be demanding physically and mentally. Unpredictable and inconsistent work patterns bring challenges to well-being and mental health.

People interested in being part of the project were asked to note their interest saying why Re- Emerging resonated with their circumstances. This was an informal expression of interest which could be submitted by email, video or audio format.

There were 16 applicants with participants selected based on their situation of re-emerging, what they would get from the programme and with the aim of having a breadth of perspectives within the group. The participants covered a range in terms of geography and different experiences of parenting. The number of selected participants was greater than planned. Of the 8 participants 2 were male.

Participants received:

  • £1000 bursary for time invested in the project
  • An allowance for childcare for two performances, workshops or industry events across
  • Travel expenses
  • Access to resources through the PIPA (Parents in the Performing Arts) Foundations Programme
  • Childcare was provided for in-person sessions
  • There was an access budget.

Participants worked together over a 9-month period. Sessions were conducted online with meetings recorded to be accessible for people who were unable to attend live. Sessions were typically monthly although frequency increased towards the end of the project. The Work Room Director organised and facilitated the online sessions.

The project was co-created with the participants and differed from the initial inception by focusing more on peer learning/ support and less on workshops. The output of the process was a Choreography of Parenting resource pack: this is a printed resource for organisations and those who work with parent artists, and for other artists who are - or are becoming – parents.

The resource was launched at an event for The Work Room members and dance sector stakeholders. This concluding event also provided the opportunity for the 8 Re-Emerging participants to meet in-person.

Impact of care prior to Radical Care

Dance is a physical artform with some participants reflecting on the impact of pregnancy and birth on their bodies. This creates an additional impact (compared to other sectors) with potentially a change in dance practice to be navigated. Barriers to workshop and training opportunities compounded this.

Participants identified the challenges involved with continuing their practice when this included morning/evening class, residencies and evening performances – aspects which were described as being ‘out of bounds’ and ‘unattainable for a lot of folk who cannot travel freely’. This left some participants feeling ‘useless’ while others were reluctant to identify their needs as they perceived that ‘pegged as needing more support’ leads to not being selected for opportunities.

“I am trying to hide my situation; people will look down on you and think you are not professional – they will know it will be more difficult to be involved with you and will not consider you.

Childcare availability and costs were barriers to career development opportunities and training. Participants identified that professional class was not viable with the cost of both the class and the childcare. Many opportunities are ad hoc with no availability of ad hoc childcare. This impacts on professional skills as well as networking and opportunities:

“I have missed out on the networking opportunities that come with attending workshops/ classes, which I am sure has led to missing out on work opportunities. I feel perceptions shift among gatekeepers. I am often unable to participate in the more social side of the arts, which is where a lot of opportunities, connections and collaborations are developed.

“I often feel isolated within the wider ‘scene’. I felt very different to my colleagues who didn’t have children and excluded from most activities, conversations and events. I felt I was suddenly unwelcome in my own community. I felt irrelevant. I felt invisible to my arts community, because I wasn’t physically there I felt forgotten about. This affected my mental health and my sense of identity.

This leads to an impact on confidence and identity. Participants talked about a shift in their identity as an artist. Some people’s motivation to participate in Re-Emerging was to reconnect with their identity as an artist and identify ways to balance their dual identities as an artist and a parent:

“A lack of participation in the dance world has left me feeling like I do not have a community within dance. I am questioning my place in the dance world and my professional identity. This leaves me feeling like a whole part of me is being slowly erased.

“I felt alone in my identity as an artist which felt decimated by maternity leave and the pandemic. I needed a framework for how to get back. To give me a sense of identity back as being an artist.

Impact of Radical Care

One of the significant impacts from the project came from connecting with other parents. This was in networking with others from the dance sector to build professional connections as well as ‘solidarity’ with other parents in the same situation. Participants had talked about hiding their parenting responsibilities and this provided the opportunity to share openly about their experiences. Participants frequently mentioned that they felt less ‘alone’ as a result of their participation.

I felt empowered – everyone looked like they were doing an amazing job and I could ask them how and they could give me some tips – or they would say I am not managing but it looks like I am managing and it makes me feel less guilty that I am not the only one who is a failure. It is nice to be able to talk openly – there was a lot of practical help and advice.

“I feel like being part of this group has helped me look at my own career constraints as a parent in the movement arts with more compassion and optimism. Feeling the warm support of the group and connecting over similarities in our situations has helped me accept more where I am with my practice/career

“It is never going to be easy and that essentially is the answer – realising that everyone in that space was finding it so hard – that in a way for me was quite enlightening. It felt like I was the only one struggling. A sense of solidarity across the board was really supportive.

In addition to the positive benefits on people’s isolation, participants also remarked that there were practical benefits:

“I think I’ve gained practical tools/exercises which are helpful for reflection, self-compassion and self-care.

“I met a lot of new people that bought new perspective and ways of working that I would not have thought of

“I have gained so much clarity about what I should be doing with my limited time to focus on what I really want to do – more confidence and awareness of my priorities

“For me it is building myself up again – I’ll take step by step to build up. I have more confidence to do it – a better foundation.

The resource A Choreography of Parenting had a positive impact on the participants in two ways. Firstly, there was pride in the creation of the resource as a tangible manifestation of the project and their experience as a group.

“Our shared common experience was all in there. I hope it will have a ripple effect for individuals and organisations. It brought some air into the experience that many people are having in silence.

Secondly, the Choreography of Parenting resource was useful to participants in their professional practice. The resource itself created a tool that people could use to support their conversations with potential employers. It made the focus less about them as an individual with the weight of the wider working group and sector behind them. It provided clarity and gave tools that they could use to prepare for conversations.

“You don’t have to explain anymore – you just put it in front of people

“I think there is something that this was a CS funded initiative, what we are saying has some weight – that it did not have before. I can see the value in having the physical thing.

“We realised we did not know our own rights – that’s why we made the card so you can be clear with the person in front of you.

Three participants talked about using the resource and the associated tools in their practice:

“I got a job offer so I was using some of the techniques – it helped me calm myself and get into the mode. It gave me more courage

“Without RE I would not have known how to ask or the confidence to ask for everything I needed – I always thought it was not okay to ask for certain things. I was bold about it. It has been a confidence booster for sure

“I am so much more confident about saying if you want me, these are my rules.

One of the challenges participants had identified for their reasons for participating in Re-Emerging was a loss of identity on becoming a parent. The project helped some participants grow their confidence as artists and work through how to combine their dual identities.

“We asked the question why would anyone employ you rather than a young person with no responsibilities – we have more to give in experience, time management, people management, sensitivity – a different feeling we can bring. About thinking about how parenting can enhance your dance rather how it can take away. That’s what I thought before that the parenting was taking away from the dance all the time – now I am thinking about what it gives to you. That’s what we need to persuade people who are hiring.

“I got more courage – a lot of the time I am operating in a space where I am hiding my responsibilities rather than be up front and not see as something to hide – This has given me more courage and confidence; more equipped to be up front, more confident to say this is where I am now and not hide it

“It has felt like the identity of parent has been so present that my identity as artist has been amorphous and out of reach. I feel like I have remembered my artistic voice – I do have insight, worth and value in these discussions.

What made a positive difference?

The biggest factor that was identified by participants was the kindness within the project particularly in the facilitation. The project’s ethos was described as patience, support, sensitivity, empathy and sympathy. The project facilitation was crucial to creating this ethos, with the Director of TWR being described as ‘holding the project together her patience and trust’. This is identified as allowing the relationships to build within the project:

“Everyone left space for everyone else. Through the act of conversation, supporting each other and listening we slowly and steadily built common ground.

“The Director’s leadership was stellar. There was never judgment about being late or having kids there. There was a real human understanding – no shame – no pretence. She set the tone and everyone there was up for that. There was an implicit understanding. There was a depth of shared honesty and understanding. We were able to dive deeply with each other. Time allowed for that – building up over the months – a different depth of connection.

The ethos had a positive impact on one participant:

“That ethos became a bit internalised, and I became more patient with myself about what I could and could not do. I was holding myself up to an impossible standard and by that standard I was failing – I am not an artist because I am not able to do these things but if you have more compassion and patience (which TWR Director modelled so beautifully) – I am an artist, but I have to do things at a pace around my other commitments – on a psychological level that was really helpful.

Another significant factor was the bursary for participation. This had two main impacts, firstly it was a factor in participants attending sessions when it would be easy to skip them (particularly before the benefits started to accrue); secondly it was an important factor in participants in re-engaging with professional practice. A lack of financial support would have been a barrier for many who would not have been able to commit the time without payment.

“I think if it was just a support group it would not have given so much value. The bursary contributed to me feeling more strongly in my identify as an artist. When you get paid you feel more valued as an artist. What we were doing was valued.

What learnings are there for The Work Room and others considering this model?

Co-design was an integral aspect of the project design. Committing to co-design meant that the project did not develop as initially planned. This included

  • Only online sessions (not a mix as anticipated)
  • Peer to peer focus (not experts sharing their insight)
  • A printed resource as an output (an event was planned).

Some of these changes had an impact on the budget particularly in the resource with TWR subsidising aspects of the project. The resource reflects the desire by the participants to have their experience heard by other organisations and shared beyond the project. This had not been an anticipated outcome.

TWR identifies that what was important to the participants was the peer support and peer learning. This ties with TWR values about valuing the expertise in the room. The project has informed TWR thinking about its networks and how to think about issues and practice in terms of peer-to-peer networks for different coalitions of interest.

TWR identifies that the project took more time than anticipated, particularly in facilitation. TWR reflects that the organisation needs to be committed and not approaching the project in a piecemeal or tokenistic fashion. For TWR this means taking a bit more thought and effort to achieve the benefit.

There was a mixed view about the sessions being held online. For several participants this was a significant barrier which impacted on the ‘connection’ and created ‘exhaustion’. All participants were positive about being able to meet in-person at the end of the project. The benefits of Zoom were also acknowledged in that it allowed a wider geographic range of participants and allowed people to participate when their children were present or when they were away working. Zoom also allowed people to catch up if they were unable to attend the session. One suggestion was that an initial meeting in-person would have been beneficial, and another key point might have been meeting in person to develop the Choreography of Parenting resource.

One person reflected that they had expected that the project would focus more on their individual practice and give them more specific tools to support their next steps. One participant reflected on wider issues which had not been explored in terms of budgeting for childcare within project budgets and wider sustainability within the sector:

“How to make it sustainable for parents in the arts so you don’t lose 7 years out of your practice; how to make arts careers more accessible. Otherwise, it will be privileged young people in the arts always.

One key aspect for participants was the wider impact of the programme. The resource a Choreography of Parenting was designed to share the learning the group had generated and stimulate change within the sector. Participants were concerned about how the resource would achieve this change without a proactive approach behind it. There was concern that the resource might ‘sit on a shelf’ and that initial response might be ‘tokenistic’ and ‘performative’ rather than generate a change in behaviour.

“I’ve been in this industry long enough to know you have to chase organisations. It needs to be visible and re-visited to achieve change. The people we invited to the event were only a snapshot of the ecology – that alone won’t make an impact but staff training around us to go and talk through the pack with organisations.

“It’s not just about parents; non-parents need to understand too. What would make them pick it up and care? I worry that it is buzzwords – organisations saying in call outs that they will support - but are you ready to understand what support really means because this is us laying it out for you.

Participants also talked about the long-term impact for them as individuals, in having the confidence to put into action the tools from the resource.

“I think it is going to take some consistent reminders and going back to it – it is all too easy to do something if you are empowered by it for a week or two but then get so absorbed in how hard it is – I consistently need a ritual to come back to the pack. In a way I need to use that pack as much the sector – it needs to be something I am picking up regularly.

TWR is an employer and a service provider – Re-Emergence has informed its working practice in terms of factoring in access and parenting responsibilities within residencies.

“It is more complicated with resource implications and has organisational challenges – but it feels really critical and important

“What we would say to other organisations is – it’s about the questions that you ask – being able to then respond.