Startup Diaries: Challenging Perceptions Of Ageing Through Dance

Simona Scotto, Founder of Counterpoint DanceAfter taking up ballet at the ripe old age of 19, Simona Scotto formed her own dance company three years ago as a way to challenge society’s perception of ageing.

Born in Sardinia, Italy, Simona Scotto came to London just over 20 years ago to study and become a professional dancer.  During the past six years she has been working for Sadler’s Wells Theatre where she became inspired by teaching and choreographing for the resident older people’s company.

Three years ago she formed her own dance company for the over 55's thanks to a BBC documentary by Alan Yentob featuring dance for older people and that became Counterpoint Dance.

This year is a significant milestone in my life. I’ve now been living in London for the same length of time that I lived in my home country of Sardinia... and I’m not quite sure what to make of this!  

Although this means I’ve been living in London for just over 20 years, to this very day I still miss the wonderful food and beautiful, warm blue seas of home! Yet, as an artist and businesswoman, I can’t imagine a better place to be than in London!  

I didn’t take the usual route to finding what I was really good at or finding the “dream job”, as it wasn’t until I was eighteen, had finished school and already started training as a lab technician that I found my passion for dance. “That’s a little too late to be getting started” some teachers would say but having watched the world's greatest ballerinas glide across the stage (along with watching Flashdance and Footloose - I’m an 80s girl at heart!) I was certain that this was the world I wanted to be part of. So I did the only reasonable thing and went back to school, literally!  

I joined a beginner's ballet class and at the ripe old age of 19 I started learning ballet for the very first time, with a class of dancers whose ages were all in the single digits!

I think it’s this kind of unwillingness to conform that has made it possible for me to do so many of the things in my life and forge forward in an area of dance that I wouldn’t have imagined back then. Little did I realise at the time but the rigid ideas about dance and age that I came up against then would be the same rigid thinking that I’d be challenging now!

So having learnt as much as I could about dance in Cagliari I decided it was time to take the next big step...  London here we come!  (Which, looking back, was a bigger step than I realised at the time.  My tiny island of Sardinia had a total population of 1.6m people with only 150,000 people in my home town, the capital!). In amongst the many, MANY people in London, I worked hard in cafes, restaurants and shops for years to fund myself through dance training and study and fairly soon was able to find a university course to study contemporary dance and choreography, graduating with pleasing results.

But I still felt that there was an underlying antagonism to my being “older than usual” in the dance world and felt a lack of acceptance.

However, about 10 years ago I stumbled upon a person during training that would introduce me to a different take on dance.  In fact if I really think about it, it’s from this initial encounter that I seemed to have stumbled into all the key people that led me to where I am today.

I had been dancing for a London based dance company and happened to dance with them at Sadler’s Wells where I bumped into a past teacher of mine, she introduced me to what Sadler’s Wells were doing with dance and choreography for the over 50s. And here began my journey into working with and creating dance works for the over 50s.

After a little more training and support from some key people, I was made Rehearsal Director for Sadler’s Wells’ Company of Elders and I’ve enjoyed taking the company around Europe and on to national television, as well as having my own choreographies performed by the company.  But I didn’t just want to stop there!

I wanted to use my dance works to challenge people’s idea of what it means to be older and to age and I wanted to challenge society's ideas about how they value the older person.  

You see, having grown up in a city that was more like a village, it was natural to have generations side by side and not have older aged people being seen as an inconvenience or incapable just based on their age. And so, Counterpoint Dance Company was born.

As a company of men and women over the age of 55, our aim is to challenge society’s view of ageing through dance, creativity and fun!  And we’ve been doing just that.  In the last couple of years the company has featured at prominent venues such as Sadler’s Wells’ Lilian Baylis Theater, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the IndigO2, at times being received with wild applause!  

We’re now at a new development stage where we are able to collaborate and are being invited by prominent dance companies to be part of their shows.

We’re involved in educational settings and are promoters of social change, working with a great variety of people. We are changing people’s perceptions of what older people can do by showing dances that are inspiring and available to others.

Perhaps as a child it’s very easy to take things for granted as you don’t know a life any different and even though the sea, sun and food of Sardinia have an almost visceral pull, the almost limitless possibilities available to me in London are what keep me here. I am so glad of what London has been able to give me and for what I hope is still to come!

But this success doesn't come without its difficulties and there have been four main challenges, the biggest of these being overwhelmingly the issue of how to understand, fit into and work in a different culture. It's more than simply understanding the language but actually trying to understand what's being said (or not said), what's implied by a particular tone of voice or a look or something that doesn't necessarily relate to the words being said and this continues to trip me up at times, even after 20 years! Thankfully the useful solution I found was to marry a native and seek his advice!  OK, I'm joking a little but this does encapsulate a principle that's been vital to my business success and that is to bring a great team around me, people that believe what I believe, understand the areas that I struggle with and work on those areas with me. 

Building a team around me that uses everybody's strengths has been vital to my success. Continuing to improve the team and learning to rely on them more will be one of my main focus points over the next 6-12 months.

As an artist first and foremost, I didn't know much about business processes at all and this was starting to hold the business back; I realised I would need to understand more of the business side of things to be able to communicate ideas and grow the business. I didn't want the business to get stuck just because I didn't understand something! One of the solutions was continuing professional development (CPD), so that I could strengthen some of my weaknesses and keep growing, in business as well as my art.

Again on the issue of growth, there came a point where I realised that I needed to grow revenue to make certain ideas a reality and one thing that I had neglected almost completely was marketing. It makes sense to me now that if a person isn't aware of your product then so far as they are concerned it doesn't exist and there'll be no sale! But I hadn't really realised the importance of this until after I took on a marketing consultant to start promoting my business and as a direct result I've seen significant increase in revenue in the last 6 months! 

So all I can say to the uninitiated is START STRATEGICALLY SHOUTING ABOUT YOUR PRODUCT! 

And if you’re unconvinced about the need to promote yourself, perhaps you’ll listen to Bill Gates who famously said; “If I only had two dollars left I would spend one dollar on PR”!

And finally, none of these challenges would have been overcome if I didn't simply KEEP GOING!  So to quote a certain well known English Gentleman; "Never give in. Never, never, never, never. In nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense".

Simona was born in Sardinia, Italy and came to London just over 20 years ago to study and become a professional dancer. She went to university and then out to work as a professional dancer, dancing for small companies and taking part in various contemporary dance projects. She soon realised that dance wasn’t actually paying the bills and started teaching children and adults alike whilst developing her choreographic skills. During the past six years she has been working for Sadler’s Wells Theatre and there she became inspired by teaching and choreographing for the resident older people’s company and how they moved and danced. Three years ago she had the opportunity to form a dance company for the over 55's thanks to a BBC documentary by Alan Yentob featuring dance for older people and that was soon to became her dance company Counterpoint Dance.

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