LEANNE PERO, FOUNDER OF THE MOVEMENT FACTORY AND COMMUNITY AMBASSADOR FOR PINEAPPLE DANCE STUDIOS, TAKES US THROUGH THE WHO, WHAT, WHY, WHERE, AND WHEN OF HER CAREER AS A DANCE ENTREPRENEUR TAKING DANCE TO THE HEART OF COMMUNITIES.
My name is Leanne Pero and I’m 32 years old. I left home at 13. I needed a physical outlet to help me deal with a lot of family stuff. I had been through quite a lot as a teen. I went through sexual abuse in my family home when I was quite young. I used to dance at a youth centre that was attached to my school, and that’s when I started dancing and found a love of it at 11 years old. I found that when I was going through this really difficult time, dancing really helped me express myself and do something positive. Those bad experiences could have turned me into a rebel, like a lot of my peers at the time doing all these negative things, but dance actually pushed me into positive thinking and positive mode. I knew I wanted to give back to and help the community because it did alot for me in a difficult time.
I started The Movement Factory when I was 15, and it was really something that existed to get young people off the streets. Dance allows you to express yourself, but it is also exercise, so it releases endorphins and makes you feel good too. Major parts of the work that I do today is around how physical exercise can make you feel good about yourself, and help with self-esteem. It’s a huge form of expression and you can be really artistic with dance, or you can do it for fun, or you can create something to share with others. I just found a happy medium. I got my first paid job teaching dance at 15 in a youth centre and then it all just really kicked off from there. It evolved from a few classes a week to five a week at 16 years old.
I had a whole programme of classes and I was being headhunted to work with organisations, because what I was doing was a unique blend of dance and youth work. I was actually using dance as a way to mentor the kids out of negative situations. I lived in Peckham on the same estate where Damilola Taylor was killed. I had been approached by so many television programmes, including the Secret Millionaire, to film with them and be in their programmes, but all they wanted to do was exploit the area and talk about the guns and the crime and I wasn’t interested in doing that.
Then a couple of months later, The Media Trust was looking for someone to work with a successful dance entrepreneur in a documentary, and it turned out it was Debbie Moore OBE, the owner of Pineapple Studios. So I did it and it was was the most surreal three weeks ever. Debbie is an amazing woman, and she mentored me and helped me rebrand the company. It was 2010, and the show launched to the press and the media, and it was great because it completely threw us out into the mainstream. Off the back of that, I set up a dance hall and began making a decent living out it. Debbie and I kept in contact and then Pineapple Studios employed me to set up their charity, and I became the Pineapple Studios Community Ambassador. In 2017, we were incorporated as a charity so I became the CEO, and I still am today, as well as owner of The Movement Factory.
For me, community dance is something that can help so many different people on different levels. Community dance is very important; dance and art are things that help people who have been through traumatic times. It’s been proven time and again that arts are a helping aid for that. People who have gone through trauma in different ways - through illness, family problems, childhood stuff - dance can help them get positive. One of my most rewarding pieces of work is going into the schools and seeing these children who have learning difficulties and are being bullied, suddenly transform into the most talented dancers. It brings them into a world that can change their life by changing how they think of themselves. Community dance is about everything but dance - it’s about all the skills you learn from doing it - confidence, soft skills, socialising, integration into communities, being a bit more streetwise. All of these skills are so important in our daily lives. When you are dancing, for that moment, you are very present, and nothing matters. If you’ve had a shitty day, you go into a class and you’re not thinking about anything else - just dancing - and you’re sweating, you’re socialising, and then when you come out, you feel better about yourself. It’s very therapeutic, and many people that took my classes as kids tell me that, if
It wasn’t for the dance classes they took as a teenager, they wouldn’t be where they were today. Most people that come to The Movement Factory don’t have any desire to be dancers, but the classes are their therapy. It gives them a mechanism to deal with some of the drama they’ve got going on in their lives, and for that moment while they are dancing, they are free.
The future of the charity and The Movement Factory is about sustaining what we are currently doing. I think that it’s really important to sustain it as it is. It’s difficult at the moment, because everything that’s in the volunteer sector is insecure due to the lack of funding. But we’re still here 17 years later, so we must be doing something right. Continuing to engage with young people that come through our doors is very, very important to me because we have a huge crisis at the moment with young people. There’s a whole host of things going on in our schools and we’re not tackling it head-on.
The Movement Factory has always been good at engaging young people but in these past few years, it’s been a struggle. Young people don’t actually want to come out of their houses because they’ve got YouTube and social media. They have couch potatoism - they’ve got all their social outlets on their phone and don’t feel they need to come to dance because they can dance in their houses. So that whole idea of coming to a class and socialising with new people has actually become quite alien.
When I talk to some of my youth providers in the area who’ve had their funding cut because of lack of attendance, they tell me they’re not able to engage young people enough to get them out of their houses and through their doors. We do a lot of work in this area. We go into schools and run workshops. We need to find ways to continuously engage young people, because that is exactly what lots of people are failing to do, and as a result funding has been cut to youth centres and youth services because they’re not attending.
I hear a lot of blame being put on the government for this, and they do have some responsibility - but a lot of the time it is the services themselves not getting out and connecting with the youth, not making their programmes youth-focussed enough to make people want to attend. They are also not connecting with grassroots organisations like us and other niche organisations to let us help them understand how to collaborate with young people. We have the skills and knowledge to help engage young people and bring them in.
Ultimately, I want to see young people take a bit more control, and start steering themselves more. When you actually talk to young people, you realise they already have a lot of the skills they need to do what they want to do. They know how social media game works, they know how to film videos, they know how to edit film, they know how to take great pictures. I like the idea of being really youth-focussed and getting these young people to start taking ownership, because we are really passionate about business, about dance, and about community - and to bring all those together would be perfect.
My next project is at Peckham Levels and is called Build Bridges Not Walls, using an ex-dancer of mine who is pretty big on social media, to try and get more young people through the doors. And I’m also setting up my own charity at the moment, called the Leanne Pero Foundation, and that means I’m going to be doing a lot more business mentoring. I’ll also be doing a lot of work with cancer patients. So I’m very busy, and for me, I am already where I want to be - so it isn’t really about the destination, but more about the journey. I know where I am going, the question is what route I end up taking to get there.