How Hastings School of Contemporary Dance survived tough times. 

The pandemic hit small businesses hard, particularly those in the arts sector. Fortunately one at least has responded to a succession of unprecedented challenges with imagination and innovation and is emerging stronger.

Hastings School of Contemporary Dance (HSCD) was founded in 1978 by teacher and choreographer Sue Marshall and has been run by Francesca Grando since 2015.

Francesca Grando
CREDIT: Dave Young

A BA Hons graduate in Dance Studies from Middlesex University (one of the UK’s best regarded courses) Francesca is also a former HSCD pupil. Wishing to return to the town rather than tour or base herself in London where most performing opportunities are, Francesca had always wanted to run her own school and happily grasped the opportunity to become owner and principal.

Recreation and education

With over 100 pupils, HSCD offers dance classes to young people up to age 18. Currently classes for under fives are increasingly popular, enabling children to absorb the basics of coordination and musicality in structured, fun routines.

Primary age children are often attracted by the increasing popularity of dancing on TV, with contemporary dance particularly popular among newcomers to the area. Perhaps inevitably, although boys feature in the younger age range, by secondary school age, girls predominate.

CREDIT: Peter Mould

Pupils can participate simply for pleasure and exercise, but those wanting to benchmark the acquisition of performance skills and techniques such as dance, ballet and acrobatic arts can gain formal accreditation. HSCD claims to be the only local dance academy to teach a GSCE qualification outside of school for Years 9-12. It also offers Rambert contemporary grading from one of the best-known and most prestigious dance companies in the world. This is Ofqual recognised and can count towards ACAS points for university entry – helpful to less academically orientated applications.

Overall HSDC puts an emphasis on creativity and enjoyment and deliberately doesn’t enter children into contests, wanting to achieve high standards while removing an unnecessary competitive element.

Dance as a business

On the practical side, Francesca markets the business on social media, Instagram (for children)
and Facebook (their parents) along with banner, flyers and, most importantly, word of mouth. Administration – the bane of sole traders – is taken care of with specialist software called DanceBiz. In addition to classes at HSCD, Francesca also teaches dance at Battle School and can be found behind at the bar at the First In Last Out pub (there’s a family connection). “It’s good to be with adults…” says Francesca, who’s always had more than one job, “…it’s the Hastings way.”

Deciding not to expand the size of the HSCD, Francesca “wants the business to be about the children – not just how much I could make. I’m determined to remember why I enjoy dance, I don’t want to lose that for myself or the pupils.”

Tackling tough times

The advent of the pandemic not only led to the suspension of face-to-face classes, but also unfortunately coincided with the loss of The Croft, the HSDS premises for the last 40 years, whose owner sold up for redevelopment. 

A new home at Sacred Heart was then also closed because of Covid causing uncertainty for the future until the school finally found a new studio at the Y Centre, Hastings and Rother YMCA’s community and sports activity hub in St Pauls Road. “Lovely people, it’s so nice to be here,” says Francesca.

During the first lockdown, Francesca transferred classes to Zoom, initially providing them free, aware many parents were out of jobs and unable to pay but that dance would be a lifeline for the mental health of kids stuck at home.

Although bolstered by government wage support for the self-employed, the weight of and responsibility of ensuring the survival of 40 years of successful dance teaching was considerable. Fortunately Zoom classes kept the HSCD name alive during Lockdown 2 and they have now resumed, running on Saturday morning and three evenings a week.

HSCD – The movie

For many years the school has put on a highly-regarded annual show at the Stables – sadly cancelled for obvious reasons. Determined to ensure her pupils didn’t miss the chance to perform Francesca enlisted contacts and famous names, including director David Edwards, to capture nine dances (rehearsed on Zoom) in film. Three dance companies weighed in to offer sponsorship and help, including costumes. Shot at local locations and currently being edited, this will premiere later this or early next year – expect to read about it in HIP.

We hope you have enjoyed reading this article. The future of our volunteer led, non-profit publication would be far more secure with the aid of a small donation. You can also support local journalism by becoming a friend of HIP. It only takes a minute and we would be very grateful.