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DanceWize: The peer led harm reduction service at music festivals

After two years of COVID lockdowns and travel restrictions, Australian music lovers are excited to finally attend festivals again. This summer there are plenty of festivals across the country showcasing a star-studded line up of national and international acts.

However, there is no denying that illicit drugs are also present at these events, which can compromise the safety of those attending these festivals. That's why it's important to have harm reduction measures in place. One program that has been delivering effective harm prevention services for over 25 years is DanceWize.

What is DanceWize?

In 1993, a program called RaveSafe began as part of NUAA’s Tribes project; a project funded by the NSW Ministry of Health designed to spread health promotion messages through various communities of people.

Two years later, a group of Melbourne ravers who wanted to address the potential harm of drugs used in the music festival and rave scene, also formed a crowd peer project called RaveSafe. Over time this crowd care model has evolved and is now known as DanceWize. This name change came about in 2008, but by 1999 this program became fully administered by Harm Reduction Victoria. DanceWize is also now funded by the Victorian Department of Health.

For over two decades DanceWize have been providing peer education, safe substance use resources and referrals for related mental & physical health and wellbeing issues in a non-judgemental way at music events and festivals throughout Victoria and Australia.

Current chief executive officer at HRVic, Sione Crawford said that it's the volunteers and small number of paid staff that have allowed DanceWize to provide this quality care at festivals for so long.

“Having people with lived experience taking care of other people who use drugs is at the heart of the program,” said Sione.

“It is a testament to what peers in the community can achieve.”

Not only has the network of volunteers allowed DanceWize to expand within Victoria, but it has also allowed the program to spread their knowledge of harm reduction at festivals across the country.

“DanceWize is happy to share our knowledge, when appropriate, with other states and territories.”

“Once again it is our volunteers who do a great job of spreading our message because they have their own community of people across the country.”

The expansion of DanceWize

In 2017, DanceWize was adopted in NSW and is administered by one of Rethink Addiction’s partners NUAA. Erica Franklin is the current program lead for DanceWize NSW and has been a part of the program since its NSW inception. .

“I was aware of DW in Victoria and almost moved down to work for them because I wanted to work within this peer-based HR space. The moment it came to NSW I was straight on the ball and put my hand up to be a volunteer,” Erica said.

When Erica first started as a volunteer, she was working with less than 30 people with little to no experience of formally volunteering in the peer led harm reduction space. They also had limited equipment and resources which they would store at a volunteers garage.

However, over the last five years the program has expanded rapidly, with over 300 volunteers working across multiple festivals. With the funding they have received they have also been able to set up multiple care stations at consecutive and concurrent festivals.

“Very quickly in NSW, promoters saw the value in peer-based harm reduction, especially from people with lived experience.”

“We’ve sort of gone from this small hippy group of people with very limited funding to a large scale state based program which is feeding into advocacy legislation. We are seen as an integral part of music festivals now.”

DanceWize inspiring a program in the Northern Territory

Seeing the value in having a peer led harm reduction service at festivals, fellow Rethink Addiction partner AADANT reached out to DanceWize in 2019 to help them coordinate their own peer led program.

AADANT Executive Officer, Peter Burnheim worked alongside DanceWize NSW and Victoria to launch a pilot at the Bass in the Grass festival in 2018.

“We had both DanceWize programs come up and lead a team of us here to coordinate volunteers to deliver the service on the ground,” Peter said.

“The following year we set up a drug action team to look at an NT led version of DW. We contracted Vic and NSW to provide program support and sent a few staff for the event.”

Over the two year pilot there were significant benefits to the Bass in the Grass festival.

“In the first year we only had a couple of drug and alcohol related ambulance transports and last year we had none. So, within two years we have already gone down to zero ambulance transports.”

“Crowd behaviour improved and we had rovers engaging with the crowd, which helped prevent issues from escalating or from occuring in the first place.”

Kylie Stevenson was hired to be the project lead for DanceWize NT and said it was a great learning experience.

“It was really good using the DW model, they have 30 years of history and experience,” Kylie said.

Moving forward, Peter and Kylie are looking to establish their own peer led harm reduction service, separate from DanceWize so they can cater to the specific needs of volunteers and festival goers in the Northern Territory.

“We are very thankful to DanceWize for the resources they provided us. We learnt a lot from having hands-on experience and we have done a good job adapting it to create our own program.”


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