Interview with 2017 Lifetime Achiever Award Winner – Avril Hitman.

Avril founded Magpie Dance in 1985 as an inclusive contemporary dance company for people with learning disabilities, developing an innovative programme of participation, performance and training across the UK. Her uncompromising values and steadfast support of participants and their ability to confound expectations has enabled many people to lead more fulfilling lives. Avril has fuelled Magpie to develop a ground-breaking mentoring scheme for dancers with learning disabilities to profile their work in professional arts venues. Her passion and dedication has enabled Magpie to be recognised nationally for its pioneering and inspiring approach to inclusive dance. Today her work challenges perceptions surrounding disability and impacts on the wider world of dance, health and education. ‘Avril has done more to remove barriers and improve the lives of people with learning disabilities in dance than any other’ said one nominator.

We spoke with Avril after she won The Lifetime Achiever Award at The National Diversity Awards 2017. Here’s what she had to say:

What were your thoughts on the other shortlisted nominees within your category?

I thought that all the shortlisted nominees were all very deserving. There was a huge range of a variety of different organisations that all brought different perspectives from their work. It was a very strongly contested category, illustrated through the biographies of all the shortlisted nominees.

What were your thoughts after winning the Lifetime Achiever Award?

The whole thing was extraordinary; it’s taken me a good few days to take in. The whole event was amazing and simply incredible. It was a massive surprise and wonderful to have won the Lifetime Achiever Award.  I feel very honoured to have won the award and for all the lovely comments I have received. It feels like a lifetime’s work has been honoured!  I’m very grateful to everyone who voted for me in the category.

How do you think the work you have carried out has made a difference and changed perceptions?

I think the work I have done through Magpie has really helped to challenge assumptions of individuals with learning disabilities and what is perceived. Magpie Dance works with individuals with a wide range of learning disabilities. People can often have pre-conceived ideas about what dancers are ‘meant’ to look like.  Magpie’s performances by dancers with learning disabilities in leadership roles challenge audiences, and preconceptions of dancers on mainstages.  It has made a difference to people’s lives by being valued and respected, improving self-esteem, physical health and emotional wellbeing and creates positive role models and leaders. It has also helped improve communication from individuals with disabilities and non – disabled individuals.

What has been your biggest challenge so far and how have you overcome the barriers faced?

When I started as a volunteer over 30 years ago the challenge was simply doing the work as there was very little opportunity within the arts to support individuals with disabilities. There were few creative arts actives taking place, highlighting the importance and impact that participating in creative arts can have for individuals. There was a lack of role models to inspire me, as there was not many dance organisations doing the work that Magpie was. The other challenge has been raising money and obtaining funding. I had to learn very quickly how to apply to trusts and foundations for grants to enable the work to continue. I was determined to make it work so that people would have opportunities that would otherwise not be available. I have had to challenge the view that sometimes people with disabilities cannot be dancers simply because of what a dancer is and should look like; a challenge within the dance industry, which is gradually changing and shifting.  Magpie’s scheme, Highfliers, which develops dancers with learning disabilities and enables access to professional training, is helping to make changes. Society needs to continue to break the mould of what a dancer is by challenging perceptions.

What has the reaction been from your co-workers and supporters on winning a National Diversity Award?

They have all been incredibly pleased and thrilled for me. The whole organisation has received amazing congratulations from our supports and co-workers. Over social media we have also received many congratulations and messages of support and comments. We’ve received local news coverage and national news coverage specifically within dance, great coverage.

Who or what has been your inspiration?

My inspiration was initially Wolfgang Stange; he worked through dance with individuals with learning disabilities. I went along to his classes and watched his work and this inspired me and gave me the impetus to start working in this field. The many dancers that come through Magpie’s doors are my other inspiration; watching their talent and skills develop has consistently inspired me throughout my journey.

What were your thoughts on The National Diversity Awards Ceremony? Did you enjoy your evening?

Oh yes! Very much, I thought the whole night was very well run. I’ve been telling people it was like the Diversity Oscar’s Awards. Liverpool Cathedral was truly majestic, an incredible evening. Really great event.  Thank you!

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