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Animated Edition - Winter 2006
A journey to Bangladesh
Dancer Charlotte Darbyshire on a Lisa Ullman Travelling Scholarship Fund-supported visit to Bangladesh making connections with dance, disabled people, and communities of people recovering from illness or injury
A brief background: The Sreepur Village (SPP), a community for destitute women and children, in Bangladesh, contacted the Lisa Ullman Travelling Scholarship Fund (LUTSF), requesting some guidance in introducing a more integrated approach to dance. Traditional Bengali dance already played an enormous part in their daily lives, but they were eager to find ways in which the disabled children could also be involved. I was a member of CandoCo Dance Company from 1992 to 1999 with experience in creating opportunities for disabled and non-disabled people to make and experience dance together, so was asked to apply. Luckily I was successful and awarded a scholarship to go there.

Shortly afterwards, I caught an interview on the news with Valerie Taylor OBE, a physiotherapist who founded the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP), in Savar, just outside Dhaka in 1979. She seemed an extraordinary woman, and hearing her talk, I felt sure that I could offer and learn something there too. I tracked her down and arranged to divide my time between the two sites. It seemed obvious though, that a disabled artist would be an invaluable role-model for such a project and cheekily asked LUTSF if they had the funds to extend the scholarship so that a friend, artist and wheelchair user could come with me. Juliet Robson is a visual-artist. She has a background in dance and is a trained opera singer. We met through the education programme of CandoCo Dance Company and have taught together and collaborated on our own projects many times. Thanks to the fund left by Ellinor Hinks in her will, we were able to go together. We had the most fabulous time, working and playing across two sites.

The CRP was the perfect environment for integrated dance and arts of all disciplines. The centre is huge and has been slowly developing under the rigorous eye of Valerie Taylor, a physiotherapist who was originally sent to East Pakistan by Voluntary Services Overseas, 25 years ago. It is the most inspiring place and a perfect example of a truly inclusive community. The hospital, staffed with fully trained nurses, doctors, physiotherapists and occupational therapists, deals mainly with disability caused by spinal injury or disease, although out-patient clinics include treatment for cerebral palsy, polio, stroke and accident victims. In addition to hospital treatment, CRP houses its own school which also has a Special School within it, their own workshops where they tailor-make wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs, supports etc and a variety of accommodation purpose-built in a style similar to their environment at home. Patients live here temporarily when they leave hospital and prepare to live as independently as possible, after they leave CRP.

The patients, staff and students often meet for art and craft workshops, sports and games, and to learn new skills, such as sewing, making fishing nets or paper bags, so it did not take long to gather a group of interested people, both disabled and non-disabled, to join in a dance workshop. It took a little longer to establish that you didn't need to be a wheelchair-user to join in!!! It was not the first time in my life, but certainly no less astounding that nearly half the participants got out of their chairs and walked away at the end of the session. This was not the result of a miracle, but simply, one of many communication issues. Our session had been translated as 'wheelchair dancing', which implied, that you needed one and suggests something closer to formation dancing or synchronised swimming. The next hurdle then, was to encourage and facilitate individuals to make their own creative decisions, and to develop those ideas into something they could present. This process proved to be the most enlightening and rewarding for us all.

The written guidelines we were sent before we arrived, said that 'the Western sense of urgency of 'wanting to get things done' is very different from the Bangladeshi laid back, calm approach, (often interpreted by westerners as laziness).' This advice became increasingly helpful and clear. In true Bangladeshi style, we ran around at the last minute inviting people to watch our last class. This turned out to be an impromptu performance to over 200 patients and staff. The basketball court that we usually worked in had been transformed; a carpeted stage erected, with huge ramps on either side and a sea of chairs and spaces that were soon filled by patients in their wheelie beds. The dancers had a momentary panic: 'how can we do a performance, when we haven't prepared anything?', but soon felt the strength of what they had made. Juliet lifted it from an open class to a beautiful performance by singing live for their duets. It was a real success and most excitingly inspired the group to continue to meet after Juliet and I had left. At first, they were rehearsing the same material to perform at a fund-raising event in Dhaka, in collaboration with the children from Sreepur village, but I have since heard that they continue to meet and explore creative approaches to moving together.

To be honest, Juliet and I were in complete shock for the first few days and it took a week to calm down enough to absorb our surroundings, and to sense a way that we could involve ourselves and actually offer something that would be relevant. We managed this by abandoning any premeditated plans, and just 'hung out' with various people in the centre. After a while, Juliet and I found the confidence to separate from each other and seek out our individual interests. Juliet spent a lot of time going around the wards and chatting to patients and their families. This seemed invaluable to both parties. A lot of patients apparently accept their condition as being the will of Allah, or believe that if they had enough money, they could travel to the West, for an operation and be cured. Juliet spoke to them of her life in England since her accident nearly 20 years ago, and of all the opportunities she has as a disabled person. She certainly inspired a few young men and women and became a bit of a celebrity being asked to present the awards for their Sports Tournament. She also led some art classes and spent some time in the workshop where all the wheelchairs are made. Once a week, a sculptor comes to the centre and made the most crazy objects out of bits of old chairs. Juliet loved them and would have made her own, if she had had more time. We did both find time though, to join a papier-mâché class and made and decorated some tiny chairs for the children in the cerebral palsy unit. Great fun and very messy.

I had fun joining in some of the classes in the Special Needs Unit. I hadn't expected to teach, at least not on my first visit, but suddenly everyone was looking at me expectantly, saying: 'now it's your turn.' This was my first lesson in how to teach without a translator: lots of animated facial expressions/gestures and noises; and coping with a Shalwar Kameez, and managing not to strangle myself while rolling, was quite a challenge! My favourite moment was when I had finally exhausted them and got them to relax on the floor. A guest actor/teacher spontaneously sang a Bengali lullaby and many of the children, and myself, drifted off. Apparently, this level of calm was a rare sight in the school and judging by the energy at the beginning, I can believe it.

I also joined in a children's Bengali Folk dance class and then offered a creative class in return. I struck a particular connection with the teacher: Aniket Paul, who is a professional dancer and brother of the Administrative Director at CRP. Though our training, experience and opportunities could not be more different, we found we shared some common aims and were excited by the same things. I spent a lot of time with him and his family, observed more of his classes and saw and discussed his choreography for hours. We were determined to work together again and hopefully to collaborate on a big production in Dhaka in the future.

After two weeks, Juliet and I were really at home at CRP and didn't really want to leave for SPP. We had heard that SPP were not used to hosting volunteers, and were a little anxious about the facilities for Juliet. We needn't have worried though. CRP had communicated all our needs, and they had adapted the bathroom and built portable ramps so that Julie could get wherever she wanted. We received the warmest welcome and were able to invent our own schedule as it was the Eid holiday and school was officially closed. The people who we had been liasing with though, were away, so it took a couple of days for our aims to be understood. At first, the teachers rounded up all their most 'talented' children and looked confused when we asked where the disabled students were and whether they would like to join in. Eventually, I was taken to the 'special needs' accommodation to recruit interested students. This felt a little daunting, as all the students were in one dark room, on mattresses on the floor. I spoke to them one by one, trying to muster some interest, via a translator who I felt sure was not convinced by the idea either. We ended up with five enthusiasts though and the next day, began working together in the way we had hoped. The children were fantastic; they quickly got over any inhibitions and were full of energy and ideas. The hardest challenge was with the staff. They were trying to be helpful, going around tidying up what the children had made and making it all uniform or similar. It took some time to communicate, that that wasn't necessary in this case and that we were more interested in the children's individuality and what that might bring to the group. Eventually, everyone had created their own solo and group piece.

Four group pieces were rehearsed long after we had left and performed with the group from CRP at a fund-raising event at The Heritage restaurant in Dhaka, in February. These pieces were performed to a mixture of live and recorded songs. Many of the children had beautiful voices and regular singing lessons, so they accompanied the dancing with their own song and three that Julie had taught them. We also taught them some English nursery rhymes and children's songs, and were amused when they volunteered that 'tigers' lived on Old Macdonald's Farm! We were sent a DVD of their performance, which apparently was a huge success.

It wasn't really until the final evening though, that I realised the success of the sessions. I snuck out for some air and bumped into a group of teenage lads that had been in the workshop. They whisked me into their dormitory, where the two disabled boys were bopping and breakin' away with the others. Nothing looked out of the ordinary, except that until now, they would have been asleep in a separate building on the other side of the village. Feeling too old and tired to join in, I was volunteered to DJ, or rather swap the tapes in the portable walkman, and eventually got roped into repeating the rap out loud, so that they could understand the words. My brothers would have died to hear me rapping so shamelessly. Finally, I'll leave you with one of the most magical moments of my experience in Bangladesh.

At one o'clock everyday, the call for prayer, summoned the men to the mosque and the women, including us, went inside for lunch. Everything quietened down or closed until three o'clock, so I took to sneaking onto the roof to do some yoga in the sunshine. I had discovered this spot, while hanging out the washing and had returned to it everyday as it was the only time in the whole three weeks that I was alone. Juliet and I shared a room and lived with several other volunteers. We were constantly looked after (which was wonderful but exhausting) and seemed to attract quite a crowd wherever we went. This secret place was on one of the highest buildings around and became my personal refuge. One day, I was warming up as usual, swinging my arms about admiring the view when I noticed a woman in full sari, about six or seven roof tops away, doing the same movements. At first I wondered if this was also her only hour to herself and a wonderful coincidence, but when I changed the pattern of what I was doing, so did she. I still wasn't quite sure of our connection, so I synchronised my rhythm with hers and stuck with it, giving her permission to lead. She did. I was laughing out loud with excitement as we took it in turns to add something new, all the time mirroring each other exactly. This duet went on for about half an hour, until she waved, picked up her washing and returned inside. I never saw her again and wouldn't recognise her if I had. I don't know if I have ever enjoyed a duet so much in my life!

Charlotte Darbyshire is an independant dance artist contact

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Animated: Winter 2006