Choreographer, teacher, performer and businesswoman - Suzanne Astley is a woman of many talents. She tells Fiona Finch why she wants to spread the message that dance and movement can bring wellbeing to all age groups and abilities.
Dance has shaped Suzanne Astley’s life.
From classes at a local dance school, to a Royal Ballet scholarship and later the West End stage she has carved a career that has included teaching, devising new courses and more recently dance therapy work.
The former UCLan lecturer and course leader, who also taught and set up a performing arts course at Lancaster and Morecambe College, has spent the last year working for the Royal Academy of Dance in London, but the lure of home life and Lancashire has brought her back to the northwest.
She is busy helping husband Nick establish the new coffee stop at their Bee Mill based stove business Fuelmizas in Ribchester.
She is also looking to build up her somatics practice and spread the message that dance is not only joyful but also life enhancing and good for you.
In addition Suzanne, mother to two grown up children, teaches an adult ballet class, which she describes as a mix of “contemporary ballet and Merce Cunningham”-a reference to the leading American dancer and choreographer who revolutionised contemporary dance in the 20th century.
The classes, currently held in the company’s stove showroom, provide a reminder that you are never too old to learn a new skill.
They were, she says inspired by an RAD (Royal Academy of Dance) Silver Swans Training Day: “I thought hopefully there will be some silver swans here in Preston or Lancashire.”
Her adult class, previously held in a church hall prior to her London year, attract all age groups: “One (student) is my daughter’s age, then there are people in their 20s, 50s or 60s.”
Suzanne also offers one to one sessions and somatic yoga classes , helping people discover new confidence and wellbeing through movement therapy.
With an MA in in dance somatics, health and wellbeing, she acknowledges that the term somatics is less well known in the UK than in America and mainland Europe.
Stressing how internal body health and external mobility are linked, she said: “It’s really about coming home to the body, destressing and letting the mind integrate and rest.”
Studying for her Masters at UCLan she says she had the luxury of being able to make study visits to New York and Germany. Suzanne was supervised by a German specialist somatics practitioner and other U.K. experts.
She has been able to further develop her specialism through her recent work with the Royal Academy of Dance. She said: “I was there to support and look after disability and wellbeing for the whole of RAD and lectured in dance for them - it was pretty full on.”
She has recently written a course for the RAD for neurological patients, for example those with Parkinson’s disease and dementia whom she advises will benefit from movement therapy.
Suzanne is also writing a course entitled 'Managing Wellbeing'. Those courses will have a global impact across the whole RAD community.
Her practice has she says shown her how on a one to one or small group basis movement therapy can help people with depression, anxiety, back pain and other conditions.
Looking back over her career she says: “I was really lucky. I’ve managed to make an income from dance.”
Suzanne, whose home is in Hurst Green, near Longridge, is grateful for training in earlier and better funded times and notes with dismay: “A lot of the degree programmes in dance have closed. There needs to be more investment in the arts.”
She has witnessed cutbacks in dance education in schools and says she fears only the elite is getting access to the arts now.
The seeds of her own dance career were sown at her local ballet school in Blackburn: “My parents were not particularly well off, not middle class. They did without things to make sure I could go to my ballet class. That’s where my love of dance originated.”
At 10 she won a Royal Ballet school scholarship, which meant she had to travel to London regularly for classes,while attending St Augustines’s school at Billington, near Whalley. At 16 she won another scholarship to the Laine Theatre Arts school.
Her high school was, she recalls, very supportive of performing arts and encouraged her career - she began performing professionally around the age of 11.
On tour she still had to study. She danced in classical ballet at the Royal Festival Hall and appeared elsewhere in productions starring notables from Lionel Blair and Wayne Sleep to Bonnie Langford and Billy Dainty.
She said: “I also performed in the West End at Drury Lane. We were in a variety show of all the different shows. I lived in London from the age of 16. It was when (the film) ‘Fame ‘came out ..I was living the life of ‘Fame’.”
When her children were young Suzanne decided to return to academia to study for a degree in drama and dance at what is now the University of Winchester and also worked for Swindon Dance.Later she also qualified as a primary school teacher.
She concludes: “I could see the benefits at RAD.in the wellbeing I was giving to student ... and I would like to bring that to the north of England and offer support to people and help them. Everybody should have a freedom to move, to feel better in their own bodies.”
* Suzanne's website is www.mindfulmovementbysue.co.uk.