Philippa Willitts finds out how today’s practitioners of disability dance are breaking new ground…
Dance is an artform that encompasses a huge range of disciplines, from sultry salsa to traditional ballroom, taking in lively waltz, energetic jive and graceful ballet along the way. It can be enjoyed in nightclubs, community halls, professional theatres and even your own bedroom, and can contribute to one’s level of overall fitness, personal mobility and overall sense of well-being.
Dancing can be a freeing and fun activity for everyone from toddlers to pensioners. There is an ever-growing number of dance groups and classes that are open to disabled people, but for many, it can still seem like an activity that’s out of reach.
Building better relationships
Whether it’s due to inaccessible premises, or instructors who aren’t confident working with disabled people who have a range of impairments, barriers do exist. Yet many of the barriers preventing disabled people from getting involved are attitudinal. Embarking on a new activity can feel intimidating, especially if someone is unsure if their body will behave in the way they want it to.
If you can’t move your legs, have trouble co-ordinating your movement, can’t hear music or have weakness in your arms, is it really possible to take part in dance classes – or even consider pursuing it as a career?
“Absolutely!” says Isolte Avila. Isolte is International Collaborations Director and a performer with the award-winning Signdance Collective performance theatre company. Originally founded in 1987, Signdance performs around the world while also encouraging disabled people to get involved in the performing arts.
Isolte Avila credits her sense of freedom and creativity to her involvement in dancing, which she adds gives her a physical and spiritual high. When asked about the benefits of her participation in Signdance performances, she replies, “I dance differently, and I believe that diversity makes for great art.”
Dance offers disabled people a wide range of benefits beyond the obvious improvements in co-ordination and physical fitness. Regular dance training can lead to strengthened muscle tone, help to maintain concentration and focus and build a person’s sense of self-confidence. You can almost guarantee that a child or adult’s well-being will be given a boost by discovering that they can move their bodies to music with skill and grace in ways they could never have previously imagined. Dance can also provide a valuable outlet for self-expression that can be enormously beneficial for people who might have difficulty communicating in other ways, thus reducing their sense of frustration and enabling them to build better relationships with people.
Exhilarating and comforting
Lucy Bennett is Artistic Director at Stopgap Dance Company, a group that creates dance productions performed by a mix of disabled and non-disabled dancers. She enjoys the boost in fitness and flexibility that dancing gives her, but has found the sense of camaraderie amongst company’s dancers to be the part she values most, commenting that, “The sensation of dancing together and being part of a community can be both exhilarating and comforting.”
Seeing dance in purely therapeutic terms, however, is to diminish its status as a serious, artistic discipline. When non-disabled people engage in hobbies or artistic pursuits, it’s rarely remarked upon. When disabled people do the same thing, however, such activities are often framed as a type of physio or other form of therapy, rather than being down to just having a keen interest, or even serious artistic aspirations.
Happily though, disabled dancers are being taken increasingly seriously, showing themselves to be not only adept at their art, but genuinely remarkable artists. Dancers whose bodies work differently are demonstrating that they have the ability, in what is often a competitive field, to express their art in ways that sometimes non-disabled dancers are unable to achieve.
Rather than mimicking the approach and movements of able-bodied dancers, disabled dancers are increasingly making individual and unique contributions of their own to the productions they’re involved in. Freelance choreographer Mark Smith, for instance, incorporates sign language into his choreography, both as a connection with his own Deafness, and an original and new way of communicating with audiences through the medium of dance.
In Lucy Bennett’s view, the days of bland chorus lines are now long gone, replaced by something far more innovative; an approach that frees dancers from prescribed moves that suit certain bodies more than others and opts instead for new forms of artistic expression. “When the dancers are asked to create something that has never been seen before, disabled dancers can often find beautiful, rare and unusual movement that will excite audiences.” she says.
Lucy is also keen to highlight the need for more disabled dance professionals and teachers, stating that this is something the industry “Desperately wants”. As far as she is concerned, the younger people are when they embark on dance training the better, as this helps dancers begin to understand their bodies and how they can translate movement in new and pioneering ways as early as possible.
Audiences too are welcoming opportunities see a more diverse range of performers when attending dance productions. Disabled dance can challenge audiences and critique the way in which people are conditioned to expect professional dance performers to be tall, slim, toned and muscular. When a disabled dancer takes centre stage, the audience is encouraged to watch his or her body, breaking the unwritten social convention that says ‘people shouldn’t stare’. When witnessing a disabled or deformed dancer moving in what may be an unfamiliar way, this invitation to stare can feel unsettling – but also liberating, for both audiences and dancers alike.
Diversifying the discipline
Every dancer is unique, and any impairments they may have will vary hugely in terms how they impact their ability to move. Bodies that move differently, and minds that interpret the world in a different or distinct ways, are also more than capable of expressing art and diversifying this particular discipline in innumerable ways.
Just as dance can have many benefits for disabled people, so disabled people can bring many new and inventive approaches to dance in return. With an increasing number of professional dancers, choreographers and production companies seeking to involve a diverse range of artists in their work, the field is becoming richer and more rewarding to explore than ever before.
“Audiences aren’t as shocked or surprised”
Katy Nicholson is 31, lives in Islington and took up dance three years ago
How did you first get into dance?
I came across a disabled talent agent online who she got me my first job with Graeae Theatre Company. We did a show called the Rhinestone Rollers Present Sequins and Snowballs directed by Jenny Sealey, and it was fantastic – I really felt at home. There were lots of other people in the same situation as me, and deaf and blind people in the cast as well, and we all had a brilliant time.
I then met Becky Sharpe, a freelance director and producer, who was creating a short film at the Tate Modern based around A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She was looking for a couple of people in wheelchairs to add some variety to a dance piece, so me and another girl were cast and developed the choreography ourselves. It was quite unusual, but still lots of fun to do. My previous dance work has also led to jobs with some major broadcasters, and I was recently featured in an advert dancing in my chair.
How often do you train or practice?
I’ve attended contemporary dance classes at Sadler’s Wells, and go to musical theatre classes at Diorama Arts Studio in Euston once a week that are run through City Academy. There’s a performance at the end of the year that we’ll all do together.
What impact, if any, does your condition have on your experience at the classes?
I’m the only person at the classes in a wheelchair, but everyone’s really good. If there’s something the other guys are doing that I can’t, it’s just a case of adapting the dance moves to make it so that I can join in too.
Nowadays there are many more wheelchair dancers. Audiences aren’t as shocked or surprised to see it, so people feel less frightened to get involved. There’s less of a sense that you’re different from everybody else – especially when you’re with a group of people that you’re used to dancing with, who know your limits and what you can and can’t do.
What advice would you give for someone else wanting to take up wheelchair dance themselves?
If it’s something you’re really into, you have to find out which category you fit into best and what you want to do. In my case, there aren’t many disabled dance classes where I live, which was a problem at first – but there’s actually lots of things you do and get involved in, as long as the people you’re doing it with are prepared to have an open mind.
Stopgap Dance Company
01252 745 443 www.stopgapdance.com
Graeae Theatre Company
020 7613 6900 www.graeae.org