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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
forWard motion!
Animated, Autumn 2001. How can dance engage with children and young people in hospital, those in bed, attached to medical equipment, perhaps in wheelchairs? What about those recovering or those able to move more freely? And what about their siblings? Here Rachel Elliott lifts the lid on forWard motion! the new work she directs for Green Candle Dance Company which fuses a diligent understanding of the context with high artistic ideals
It is a cold winter afternoon, a group of dancers enter a children's hospital ward. A variety of patients are sitting on chairs or propped up in bed ready to watch the 'show'. A 13-year-old boy is lying on his bed; his mother and older brother perched on the end. He refuses to sit up and watch. The dancers begin to perform to lively Caribbean music, children around the ward gently smiling enjoying the colour and energy. The boy remains lying. The piece ends and the dancers offer the children brightly coloured 'carnival sticks' and shakers and start to lead a simple workshop in small clusters around the ward. The boy does take hold of two 'carnival sticks' when offered by a dancer and still lying flat on his back starts to make minimal movements with them. Gradually over the next few minutes, a movement dialogue emerges between the boy and the dancer standing at the foot of his bed. They take it in turns to initiate and follow one another's movement making gentle eye contact. After some minutes the small clusters of children and dancers take turns to show the rest of the group some of the dancing they have been doing. Suddenly the boy sits up, gets out of bed, and makes his way into the middle of the ward space. He starts to perform his own sophisticated blend of Calypso and breakdance moves. Children, parents, nurses and dancers cheer him on! He sits down for a short pause, then gets up again calling out, 'follow me', and initiates a conga line around the ward down the corridor and back again! This was his 'window of energy' for the day - startling, remarkable and moving. After this display, he settles down on his bed to rest with a pile of snacks to watch the dancers perform their next piece and the rest of the workshop.

The creation of forWard motion! evolved from my experience of leading regular dance sessions with children in hospital since 1992, coupled with the company's 15 year track record of creating dance performances, workshops and projects for children. It was developed through a pilot project in 1999 with the Children's Hospital School at Great Ormond Street, in association with students from London Contemporary Dance School.

Although there is some dance activity with children in hospital in Britain - aside from the work of dance movement therapists most of it takes the form of one-off workshops, demonstrations or short-term residencies. There are few longer term, on-going projects and, as far as I am aware, to date no one has created a dance performance specifically for children in hospital. In 1998 I began to think how exciting it would be to create a performance designed from the start to fit into ward spaces with the children's physical, emotional, social and educational needs in mind. I felt that it should be fully integrated with workshop activities - rather than as two separate entities as is normally the case in order to have maximum impact and combine the benefits of experiencing live performance with those of taking part. From leading workshops with children in hospital I was aware that:

  • the age group of the audience/participants cannot be guaranteed - many children's wards can contain babies to 18 year-olds with a selection of ages in-between. The exact ages and numbers of children may not be known until shortly before the show or workshop starts
  • children may have to leave or arrive during the show due to appointments, operations or other medical procedures
  • where children have bursts of energy - these are likely to be short so that periods of workshop activity will need to be limited
  • sick children will give much less obvious feedback than the average group of non-hospitalised children as they are mostly feeling too ill to be demonstrative, they are in a strange situation, may be anxious or depressed, and are in a group of mostly strangers.

A brief emerged - the show and workshop should:

  • be vibrant, contemporary and urban in feel
  • fit into small ward spaces
  • be viewable from all sides (be able to be performed in the round)
  • be viewable to patients lying in beds as well as those seated in chairs
  • have a modular structure that could be adapted easily to the age and needs of children present
  • be a colourful, visual and rich sensory experience, with sound and touch being important too for those children with learning disabilities, visual impairments and other special educational needs
  • be accessible to children in bed, attached to medical equipment (eg. dialysis machines, drips), those in wheelchairs as well as those able to move about freely - such as children nearing discharge from hospital or visiting siblings
  • have live music - provided by a highly portable, versatile and appealing instrument - it is easier to hear, see and interact with than recorded music and would provide more flexibility for the workshop elements of the programme.

Due to forWard motion!'s modular structure, this seemed to provide an ideal opportunity to collaborate with other choreographers. I had been interested for sometime in Jonzi D's work and felt that his person-centred, dramatic and humorous style would work well in a piece aimed at teenagers. Fergus Early (Green Candle's artistic director) recommended Stephen Hughes' choreography, which he felt, was finely crafted, had wit and substance and would be appealing to children. Luckily, both Jonzi and Stephen were both interested in the project, available - just - and willing to work to the tight brief indicated above. Jonzi created Double Trouble a dynamic duet incorporating hip-hop, improvised movement and text showing the relationship between two friends whose competitive sparring sometimes gets out of control - Stephen's piece Josen Josen takes its inspiration from a popular Japanese children's song about an elephant which is sung during the dance (and which tells the story of a group of elephants and some cheeky fish). The other pieces in forWard motion! were choreographed by Fergus (the humorous and moving tale of the inseparable Oss and the Teaser) and me (the lively opener Carnival Caper and the gentle, relaxing Wind Spirit) - making five short pieces altogether. Any one presentation of forWard motion! includes four of them, which are interspersed with mini workshops featuring dance, creative movement and music activities to create a programme of approximately one hour in length.

The music was composed by Martina Schwarz and played on accordion, flute and percussion. The costumes are based on colourful urban wear designed to be familiar at the start of the show moving towards fantasy as it progresses. The show features the use of props in both performed dances and for workshop activities, including a beach ball, 'carnival sticks' (from JABADAO) and large pieces of stretch-lycra fabric. Besides being colourful, fun and uplifting, props promote movement, take the focus off the child's own body and create links between group members. They are instrumental in involving peripheral children in group activities, such as those who have restricted movement or who are resistant to touch. Children associate props with play, which helps them lose their inhibitions and move more freely. Props can provide a means of amplifying minimal movement, making it visible and giving it significance.

Preparation for the last tour included Disability Equality Training, talks from a hospital play specialist and teacher, an afternoon spent 'shadowing' play specialists and teachers at Great Ormond Street as well as a workshop session led by me on creative approaches to dance with children in hospital. However, although we felt that we were as thorough as possible in helping our performers to prepare, the task of performing the show was not only technically challenging, in that they were dancing in small and irregular shaped spaces with various floor coverings, but most significantly all performers found it 'emotionally draining' though, also, as one dancer put it, 'one of the best experiences for me as a performer.'

During the last tour, we found that siblings enjoyed the show as much as patients, as did primary school children during our open dress rehearsal. So, we are creating a version for children in schools partly to balance the demanding nature of working with young people in hospital by working with those who are well too. As we take the show on tour for the second time, we are developing the emotional support offered to performers. We will be working with Rachel Melville-Thomas, a child and adolescent psychotherapist based at the Middlesex Hospital, to provide 'supervision' for the performers. Rachel has a background as a dance movement therapist and I first got to know her when she acted as my supervisor for the dance work I do in hospital. Supervision is considered an essential professional support system for dance movement therapists although rarely occurs in community dance. It is not, as the name might suggest anything to do with quality control, in fact supervisors are not required to observe their client's work. Supervision provides a confidential space to reflect on the work and its emotional impact both on clients/participants and therapists/artists themselves. It allows you to become more aware of which emotional responses belong to you, and why, and which are 'transferred' from the people you work with.

The three central aims of forWard motion! are to:

  • be an enjoyable and memorable event for the children, families and staff who experience it
  • demonstrate how dance can help meet the emotional, social, physical and educational needs of children in hospital
  • act as a catalyst for the development of more and longer-term dance initiatives for children and young people in a wide variety of healthcare settings.

In order to work towards the latter two aims, alongside this show Green Candle offers training workshops for play specialists, teachers and other healthcare and arts professionals. People who have taken part have responded very positively, reporting that they have gained a better understanding of the benefits of dance for children in hospital as well as increasing their own confidence in incorporating creative movement into their own work. A senior play therapist at North Hampshire Hospital reiterates: 'The whole experience has made us as a team look at dance in a new light ... [dance] will be incorporated into our group work and also extended in the sensory room. We will investigate its use for our patients with cystic fibrosis from a physiotherapy point of view. (1) A member of the Care Team at Little Haven Children's Hospice in Essex went on to say: 'I learnt that dance is within the scope of everyone and gained a greater degree of confidence to encourage our children to be creative through dance movements. (2)

Promoting forWard motion! to hospitals is a challenging task even second time round. The arts in hospitals movement in this country is still in its early stages so there are few infrastructures in place and few funding opportunities. Many hospital staff can be quite nervous about what sounds as if it might be an 'invasion' of dancers onto their wards - even where an arts officer is offering to pay for the visit. Joy Dinnage, senior nurse - Paediatrics at Northampton General Hospital said: 'I have to admit to being rather dubious at first ... but was won round to agree to the visit by carefully supplied written materials, a video, conversations on the phone and ultimately by the show itself ... during the performances everyone relaxed and joined in with the music and dance, even the quietest child had a beaming smile! The children enjoyed the performances so much that several of them wangled a place at two sessions - [the show] lifted the spirits of the children and staff and were the source of much animated play and discussion ...'

But perhaps the strongest endorsement comes from the young people themselves echoed by a 12 year-old boy, at Northampton General Hospital who said in a local television interview: '[forWard motion!] gets you back into action ... it really makes you excited again!'

Rachel Elliott, Education Manager, Green Candle Dance Company and Director, forWard motion! Contact +44 (0) 20 7359 8776. Email info@greencandledance.com

Rachel Elliott is also author of Dancing in Hospital, animated, winter, 1996, and The Use of Dance in Child Psychiatry, Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, April 1998.

References
1. Senior play therapist, North Hampshire Hospital, 2001
2. A member of the Care Team at Little Haven Children's Hospice, Essex, 2001

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001