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Animated Edition - Autumn 2007
Dance not disability, professionalism not therapy
Susie Cox, Course Director of CandoCo's Foundation Course for disabled dancers, describes the approach taken in this groundbreaking initiative that sought to prepare disabled students to access mainstream vocational training in dance
"Dance not disability, professionalism not therapy". Celeste Dandeker OBE, Artistic Director of CandoCo Dance Company, has always maintained this as the ethos of the company. When the Foundation Course in dance for Disabled People commenced in 2004, this was the principle that underpinned its framework and helped to inform the teaching strategies necessary to deliver a specialist one year full-time training course.

The course was designed to offer high quality training to equip disabled students with the necessary skills to bring them in line with their non-disabled peers and thus offer them the opportunity to move onto further dance training at vocational schools and ultimately a career in dance.

The course content, in line with any other Foundation Course, was full and covered a wide range subjects from technique to contextual studies to movement analysis. Students came to us with a broad range of previous experience, but rarely with extensive dance experience.

What then, was the best way in which each individual student could learn, progress and move forward with clarity and confidence of themselves as a dancer? Crucially, how could we ensure that after just one year’s training, the students would be able to access the same mainstream vocational training as their peers? The course required a strategy that would support the teaching, be adaptable for each individual and that could also act as a bridge across all areas of the course to give coherence and unity. The answer? A new role: Dance Support Specialists (DSS) - who have proved invaluable to the strategic development of the course and the learning of each individual.

This article is my first attempt to define what it is about this new role that has made such a significant impact on the development of the students, and I have identified a number of key skills:
  • Knowledge and implementation of dance and other associated movement based techniques
  • Ability to act as interface between tutors and students
  • Ability to act as peer to the students.
The Foundation Course made technique a core component for the course - an essential area for the students, in order to have a language that they could use and recognise in other dance environments, such as attending an open class or working with other dancers. Yet many of the students who accessed the course had little if any previous technical dance training. How to adapt to all their different needs and in the space of just one year, develop their skills to match those of their non-disabled peers?

Each DSS is a trained dancer and their knowledge of dance technique, combined with a curiosity about movement adaptation became essential. A background in dance training was a valuable tool that each DSS drew upon to assist in the development of students. Through knowing how a certain step should be executed the DSS could break it down for the student as required; through an internal understanding of the intention behind the movement, they could assist the students in identifying a way to adapt to their needs whilst retaining the core aim of the exercise.

With just one year, we also needed to ensure that students were progressing quickly from week to week. Here the DSS were able to assist the students in making connections across subjects. Coupled with this, the regular presence of the DSS in a range of contexts made learning more streamlined.

Working with such a range of abilities on the course, issues around pace of sessions, common to all class teaching, were magnified and additional time was needed for the students to progress steadily and competently. For some students a seemingly simple movement could become quite complex and take time to adapt. The DSS would draw on their knowledge to be sure that the individual was focusing on the most relevant part of the given material and to pull the focus back to its core aims and intention.

Parallel to a technical understanding, curiosity and a creative approach from both DSS and student were valuable in the search to find a way into movement. How do you tackle a travelling sequence of falls and rolls if you are a wheelchair user? A pirouette if visually impaired? The DSS encouraged continual dialogue, searching and questioning, which led to students finding their own technical vocabulary that could be used in, for example, a contemporary or ballet class. The DSS helped to create a supportive space that valued experimentation, and through this the student could explore their physical potential.

Our DSS also had additional skills in physiotherapy, Pilates and yoga. Having this in-depth knowledge proved to be enormously valuable in technique classes where they were able to hone in on specific areas and get right to the point. Taken further in one-to-one sessions, the students, tutor and DSS identified areas that needed particular work - the use of breath, posture, or ways into exploring and identifying new ranges of movement. The sessions would focus on such specific areas in greater detail than was possible in a class situation and strategies were developed to help the students work more independently in a class setting. These sessions were mini investigations between DSS and students, mutually learning what worked, what was possible and what was not. Some astonishing results emerged: one student developed the skills and confidence to transfer from her chair unassisted; another through developing more movement and control of her hips and articulation in her spine, found the confidence to work with one of the arms from her chair removed which gave greater space in which to move; another entered the course walking, and finished it running!

The focus of the DSS on one individual at a time meant that we had the luxury of seeing minute developments emerge and give immediate positive feedback. The tutor, who was focussing on the whole class or may have only seen the group once a week, might have missed these small milestones. The encouragement and recognition from the DSS gave the students confidence in their own knowledge of their capabilities as a dancer and how to articulate these to others - a tool that was encouraged when working with visiting tutors.

The role of the DSS does not exist within CandoCo's regular education work. In these workshops the emphasis is directed towards an artistic experience through inclusive teaching, rather than on one-one supported training. The company is keen to retain this focus in that work, in its belief that true inclusion is possible.

The company is interested to see how this role can develop in the vocational training context however, and we are now embarking on a year-long project in partnership with Urdang Academy, funded by the Learning and Skills Council. The focus of this new project is to identify young talented disabled dancers in schools in local London boroughs. We hope that the skills that have been discussed in this article will support students and staff in this project. In time we hope to extend the project's geographic boundaries beyond London, and we are looking forward to seeing how the DSS role develops in these projects.

Susie Cox can be contacted on susie@candoco.co.uk

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Animated: Autumn 2007