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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Inclusion, integration, intuition
Animated, Winter 2001. 'Independence' is seen as good, 'dependence' as bad. Yet if we can have support from people we are not disabled' (1), Blue Eyed Soul goes further than overcoming difficulties with inventive answers. Far from being restricted their dancers open up a huge range of options that a non-disabled company would not have. Here artistic director, Rachel Freeman talks about the company's work and the increased recognition it is gaining
I realize that the beauty of integrated work is the challenge that different bodies offer, no assumptions can be made, and new techniques have to be searched for. I am required to start at the beginning with each new dancer, disabled and non-disabled.

Blue Eyed Soul is an integrated community dance company that began in 1994 following a residency with CandoCo in Shrewsbury. I thought the initial flurry of interest would wane but six years on - I am proud and amazed to be running an integrated dance company. The diversity and enormity of the task has regularly pushed me into thinking about a change of career but the work has turned out to be addictive. In the moments when I witness something both incidental and profound, the laborious uncurling of a hand in unison with the group movement, the first duet, an improvised conversation - I understand what we are doing and I am seriously hooked.

Blue Eyed Soul's approach is not new and our methods are simply an accumulation of things adopted and adapted. The research I have been doing in the United States of America has broadened my perspective and relieved the constancy of the work. It has given me time to explore what it really means to live and work in an inclusive way, allowing me an intensive period to see what I am looking at and listen to the quietest of voices. The improvisation and image lab work has inspired me to play and to remember that there are many paths to the same end and that I am allowed to jump from one to the other.

Before we as an integrated company set foot (or wheel) on the stage or workshop floor it seems that our presence as a unified group is enough of a challenge for some. Promoters and hosts greet us and immediately the 'game' begins. Conversation is targeted at either myself as a non-disabled person or at my disabled colleagues - there is rarely a comfortable conversation between us all. Time after time we are treated differently and separately.

Why is it so important to separate us? Our apparent interdependence seems to fundamentally challenge a value system which relies on the terrible myth that we can all survive as individuals, competing with each other for scarce resources. "Independence" is seen as good, 'dependence' as bad. It seems that very dependent people make others feel very uncomfortable because they are visible reminders that this value system often lacks a basic humanitarian ethos. Segregation, of course, makes it easier. "If we can have support from people we are not disabled"(2)

And so for me inclusion and integration form the bedrock of the work, upon which everything else is built. Although that is not to say I always approach it from an 'arts for all, open door, lets all muck in' perspective. A jumble of people with a vast array of needs does not necessarily lead to creatively satisfying, high quality results for all. We are often invited to work with 'special needs' groups and on asking for more details I am told that the group includes "adults with learning difficulties, people in wheelchairs, someone who is blind and oh yes a few clients with mental health problems". What can we do? Nothing that would satisfy everybody.

I am growing a dislike for the term 'special needs' - what does it mean and who does not have them? Blue Eyed Soul has been referred to as 'special needs' which made me think that our work was considered an inferior if at all valid form within the arts sector. So we do not work with 'classic' dance bodies. In fact we do not conform to any of the classic ways because they are neither suitable nor relevant to what are seeking to achieve.

In the main Blue Eyed Soul's work is created for and with disabled (physical disability and sensory impairment) and non disabled people, which is often divided into youth (five to 18 plus) and adult (16 plus). In the same way there are times when we prioritise and segregate people with learning difficulties, behavioural problems or mental illness. Everyone's needs are different and to focus on a narrower range of needs leads to a deeper investigation, understanding and quality of the work.

Creative dance work with disabled and non disabled people needs to be inspiring and engaging for all involved, tapping into everybody's creative potential, developing a new dance language and/or communication. Within a small group of six participants there are 30 different duet relationships and if you then include solo, trio, quartet work, the number of different 'conversations' becomes far too many for me to calculate. With this in mind the work shifts from the aide/enabler and participant model to the integrated group which is truly inclusive.

In my experience past projects have 'failed' not because the disabled participants were unable to commit or create but because the non-disabled participants had not fully understood that it was a project for them as individual, not as aides. As a workshop leader my biggest challenge is often how to draw them into the project and tease out their creative potential. Carolyn Stewart from Touch Monkey, USA reflects on this: "I was as able to recognize in myself this year that unconsciously I had been assuming some kind of guilt and responsibility toward those needing help. That shifted to the understanding that we are each simply who we are with our unique characteristics, responsible to our circumstances and inter-related, co-creative, co-emergant. It made me consider how often I jump to conclusions about people that exclude their realities instead of playing to discover how we might meet."(3)

It may be that within an integrated project for people with and without learning difficulties there are people with physical disabilities. So work needs to be planned and presented as accessibly for all, therefore the participant with the most profound learning difficulty dictates the content and pace of the session, what is relevant is the level of cognitive understanding rather than the physical ability of participants. If someone does not understand an instruction (whether communicated verbally or physically) they will not be able to participate. If they understand but cannot do the task they can adapt and interpret the instruction to suit their own physicality. It boils down to being clear about who the workshop is for so that all participants have realistic expectations about their involvement.

In my work with Blue Eyed Soul we have designed projects specifically for disabled (physical disabilities and/or sensory impairment) and non-disabled people where the level of cognitive understanding, movement memory and articulation of thoughts is complex (relatively speaking that is).

Rather than perceive physical disability as a bar to dance, Blue Eyed Soul has worked with the performer's capabilities. Simple manoeuvres demand new techniques and lead to fascinating, quirky, beautiful and sometimes hilarious movement solutions. What does a gesture sequence become when you have no arms? How does a blind dancer find stage left? But the company goes further than overcoming difficulties with inventive answers. Far from being restricted our dancers open up a huge range of options that a non-disabled company would not have. Working with wheels and feet gives more possibilities when travelling across the space, just to start with. Confronting the issue of physical disability head on is also liberating and moving to watch. The purpose is not to create work that is about disability but that has an aesthetic value of its own.

We work with what we have in common: "I feel welcomed to explore my self rather than have to prove myself, invited to understand rather than compete with others. That is radical and important, even essential to healing our separation." (3)

I try to take time. So much more time is needed for people with complex communication needs. Initial time spent working out the language between you, whether it is with the eyes, a word board; basic mime and/or signing, etc. pays off in the long-term. It is the meeting times, break times, social times as well as within the creative process that a language develops, trust is built, laughter arrives and the relationships grow. The information tossed about by those with verbal language filters through quickly and easily; the same opportunity to share information is needed for those without verbal communication. There is never enough time!

Listening in its widest sense not only includes the hearing of words but a physical listening when every detail of movement can be 'heard', its dynamic, rhythm, energy and intention, where it comes from and where it is going to. Resensitising ourselves to the 'yes' and 'no' messages - the use of both being valid and constructive. Clarifying the dialogue between bodies can be like the fine-tuning of the radio when the signal changes from 'tuned in' to 'crystal clear'.

The bottom line from which the movement dialogue begins is the common ground we share, never working at something someone cannot do. If they want to sit out to watch, that is all right, but they should not need to say 'I can't do it'. If someone can only move his or her head and eyes that is the base of the workshop, the anchor that everything is fixed upon and develops from.

Pete has cerebral palsy, he has very limited movement and a great deal of muscular spasm all of the time. He has strength in his right foot and neck so we work with providing structures for him to push against. A hip pressing his foot, a hand on the back of his head allow him to propel himself and his wheelchair through space at varying speeds and distances. Pete is in control, he uses his eyes to direct his partner, and he makes the decisions on where and when to go. They dance together moving through space allowing the movements to have repercussions through each body.

As far as I can remember I have always aspired to work in an inclusive and integrated way. I continue to get things wrong and I delight at the amount there is still to learn.

Rachel Freeman, artistic director, Blue Eyed Soul Dance company. With the creative guidance of choreographers and dance workers Blue Eyed Soul provides a broad programme of integrated community dance work (performance, education and training) for disabled and non-disabled people of all ages in Shropshire and the West Midlands region. They are funded by West Midlands Arts. Contact +44 (0)1743 210830 or visit

1, 2 & 3 Stewart, Carolyn, non-disabled dancer, the Diverse Dance Research Retreat, 2000. Member of Touch Monkey, USA
1 Blackwell, Emery, disabled dancer, Joint Forces Dance Company, USA

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001