Magpie Dance

South East

I founded Magpie in 1985 after graduating and working for 10 years teaching ballet, modern and tap to a range of young people and adults. I was looking for a new challenge in my work, so I approached SHAPE to see if they could put me in touch with any practitioners working with learning disabled people. They introduced me to Wolfgang Stange, founder of AMICI, and as soon as I joined in with one of the sessions he was leading, I knew that this was what I wanted to do; to work with learning disabled people.

I began delivering creative dance sessions for learning disabled adults who were all new to dance at the Astley Day Centre in Bromley for just 45 minutes each week. I worked pretty much alone for the first seven years with two very good volunteers. Following a successful first residency with the London Contemporary Dance Trust in 1992, I then secured a £40,000 grant for one year to kick-start Magpie’s work.

As time went on I knew that I needed to bring more people on board if Magpie was to stand a chance of growing, flourishing and becoming more sustainable. I think it’s very important to recognise that one person can’t ‘do it all’. In 2014 we now have 3 members of staff, 12 - 14 freelancers, a board of 10 trustees, plus facilitators and professional musicians to work with around 200 people every year in over 200 sessions across South East London and beyond.

Over the last 30 years you can see how Magpie’s activity has grown:

1985 activity was 45 minutes weekly
2103 activity was 700 minutes+ weekly
2014 activity is 1,110 minutes+ weekly

Magpie provides the opportunity for learning disabled people to take part and have a meaningful role in the creative arts. It is not about ‘one size fits all’ but a realisation of the potential that exists in each person to progress their skills way beyond the expected. This brings a huge realisation of both self-belief and belief in using the medium of dance. Over the years Magpie has refined what it does in the different sectors that it works in. Our vision has become: ‘Unlocking individual potential and ability, to be at the forefront of dance for learning disabled people.’

Magpie’s participation, performance and training programmes provide skill development for young people through to adulthood. We create progression pathways from weekly open access to performance opportunities at venues such as Trinity Laban, The Churchill Theatre, The Peacock Theatre, The Albany Deptford and O2. The programmes are an important platform for learning disabled people to have a voice and choice through dance.

Magpie joined ITC the 1990s. I remember the first training session I attended at ITC, ‘Starting a Performing Arts Company’ which made a big impact on me. I came away thinking that we needed to become a registered charity and Company Limited by Guarantee to protect ourselves. ITC were very helpful with the constitution and our articles. I remember that we had to go back to the Charity Commission several times so they could agree the articles. Back then, they did not see that learning disabled people could educate the public through performances.

Investment to enable the company to grow and flourish comes from a variety of sources, e.g. charities, trusts and foundations, fees and the lottery. Around £300,000 has to be raised annually to allow us to continue, none is regular funding: an extraordinary achievement over almost 30 years. We are now working more in partnership with other organisations as we know that it’s going to be more sustainable in the long run not to work in isolation.

We have three major partnerships currently in dance, education and health:

LINKED Consortium: A new consortium which sees us working with Trinity Laban Dance Conservatoire, Greenwich Dance, and Candoco to deliver joined-up dance provision across South East London for young disabled people.

Canterbury Christ Church University: A partnership to deliver an inclusive dance module to students as part of their performance and education degree courses in partnership with St Nicholas school, Canterbury. The students will get ‘hands on’ practical experience, while being assessed for each module.

Oxleas NHS Health Trust: A four year partnership through Magpie’s lottery funding agreement enables inclusive dance sessions for day service provision in this NHS Trust. The participants in these classes are people with a range of complex learning disabilities, including dementia and autism.

For Magpie this year, the next year, the next ten years is about becoming more sustainable and diversifying our income streams. We want to be known for work of artistic quality in the inclusive dance sector, and to be recognised as such.

2014 will mark an exciting new programme: ‘High Fliers’. Seed investment for two years has just been achieved from Esmée Fairbairn Foundation to set up a Magpie company class for gifted and talented dancers who want to progress their skills further in the industry. This programme will challenge perceptions and assumptions of what constitutes a professional learning disabled dancer, so that there are many more dancers who can be trained to have a professional career if that is their chosen path.

“Magpie could compromise its ability to fulfil a strong advocacy role for the progress of learning disabled people if it chose not to pursue its ambition for a performance company. In order to maintain and build on its leadership in the sector Magpie must address the issues that are of most concern to the sector”
Independent findings from viability study commissioned by Magpie Dance.

Investment and nurturing talent development is essential for learning disabled people to have opportunities to advocate their role in our cultural landscape. Inclusive dance must be part of the arts landscape that reflects the society we live in and not just an “add on’’. It is our collective responsibility to continue advocating for change at all levels.

Avril Hitman
Artistic Director: March 2014.


  • Dance


  • Community
  • Disability
  • Theatre in Health
  • Young Peoples

Organisation Type

  • Dance Company