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Animated Edition - Summer 2007
Inclusive dance?
Ian Abbott, Youth Dance Co-ordinator for the South West, considers the needs of young disabled people dancing
As the regional youth dance co-ordinator for the South West, part of Next Steps funded by Youth Dance England in collaboration with Dance South West, my role entails leading the development and implementation of a regional development plan for youth dance, whilst building sustainable relationships and partnerships that enhance youth dance activity that is inclusive in practice, diverse in style and open to all. For this article, I've been exploring what opportunities are available to young dancers working in inclusive and exclusive environments in formal and informal training with or without a physical or learning disability.

As a result of this, it is my opinion that access to and support for all youth dance including integrated practice need to be increased, brought into the mainstream and made more visible. Michael Mitchell from Dance Aware recognises the need for dedicated training for disabled students: "CandoCo have started nationally recognised training by providing a full-time Foundation Course in Dance for disabled students but I'd like to see this devolved on a regional basis so we can start at the grass roots and get the information to young disabled dancers that dance is accessible and they can acquire technique. We should raise their skills and aspirations." Indeed, Luke Pell, the Education Manager for CandoCo Dance Company states "The most common challenge is that dance has a limited presence in mainstream schools and as such, teachers, parents or carers aren't able to offer an accurate picture of the possibilities that may be available to a non-disabled young person, let alone young disabled people interested in dance."

The lack of opportunity and information is echoed by young people themselves. Luke Collett (18), a member of Gloucestershire Dance led Velcro Dance Company, an integrated company, and a student at National Star College, Cheltenham, recalls it was only as he began his studies at college that he was opened up to dance. "It's important to make young people aware that dance is out there and it's not just something they dream about at night." says Luke. "I've worked with Yael Flexer with Velcro, attended workshops and helped lead workshops for younger dancers in special schools. Every day more opportunities are becoming available to young people and it seems to be getting better but I never had anyone tell me about how I could get involved before I went to college." Helen Cawston's experience is similar. A member of Gloucestershire Youth Dance Company (GYDC), Helen, (21) says: "My school didn't offer GCSE dance. Through GYDC, I've really built up my confidence and it's given me amazing opportunities to work with top choreographers and perform. I don't see a lot of young disabled dancers and perhaps this is due to the lack of opportunities available."

Of the dance provision that is available, there are still some challenges to be addressed and more needs to be done to integrate non-disabled and disabled dancers. Luke Pell states: "The challenge is that those who do find a dance group or technique class will often be excluded because of where it takes place or through teachers having little knowledge in adaptation and supporting disabled dancers. Ensuring young disabled people have the same prospects available to them as any other young person aspiring to a career in dance is crucial to nurturing tomorrow's talented disabled dance professionals."

Sue Smith, director of Company Pyke offers an insight into the challenges faced by incoming dance leaders: "We all dance for different reasons. There are groups that have grown out of social and peer support groups, groups that meet for cultural reasons or for the express reason that they want to move together without being 'integrated' into somebody else's group. There is something different about the balance of ownership and power when we as dance leaders enter an existing group's space. Groups may have formed for reasons other than dance and then become involved in dance when they're already established. This can create different challenges for the dance leader who may be more familiar with a dance-focussed group, or with adapting classes or methods to 'include' disabled people and it requires a different, responsive approach to the work. Teaching creatively allows us to be more inclusive. Reaching further into the community allows us to understand why groups of people like to work together and how we as dance leaders can successfully engage with the social and cultural etiquette of a group. I think this is true for any group."

Lack of opportunity and support hasn't held back wheelchair user Lorna Marsh who last summer became the first disabled student to be awarded a degree in dance at Coventry University. "It's true there's not enough advertisement or the use of role models for disabled dance so that young people can realise that if one person has done it so can they, but in my opinion, from the teachers point of view, there's a lack of understanding, equipment and facilities to support a disabled student properly. For me, translating a ballet move was tough, I was never going to be a ballerina but I learnt from a different position" Lorna goes on to say "There is a feeling in some places that if it hasn't been done before, they're not sure it can be done at all."

Sarah Whatley, Professor of Dance and Head of Performing Arts at Coventry University comments "There is a lot of nervousness within higher education about being able to provide a meaningful experience for the students and awareness that it isn't good enough to simply let the student get on with it themselves or sit out and watch when the same movement cannot be reproduced. Everything takes more time, effort and energy. This means that whilst there might be a desire to be inclusive, the practicalities prohibit it happening. We always make it clear to our disabled students that we are learning together and we will make mistakes but through developing a trusting relationship, we can chart our way through so that they achieve the best possible outcome and are prepared for the tough world beyond."

So are we getting any nearer to enhancing the infrastructure for young disabled dancers and providing more opportunities for integrated dance? It's certainly beginning, as Dance Aware with Gloucestershire Dance and Swindon Dance, propose to create a regional network in the South West for disabled dancers and CandoCo initiate their Student Associates Scheme with the aim of providing long-term support for emerging disabled artists.

Many of the young people I speak to think the integration of disabled young dancers into mainstream dance is improving slowly but it's recognised that there is still a long way to go in terms of making classes more accessible and suitable. Helen Cawston adds "Hopefully, awareness will continue to grow, with more opportunities made available for integrated youth dance and this will help inclusion and acceptance not only in dance but within everyday life." whilst Luke Collett concludes "At the moment, I feel dance is separated because you have non-disabled dancers who have so much access to a broad range of dance styles whilst disabled dancers have little access when I believe they're more than capable of getting involved. It's a great idea to bring dancers together but maybe we start by not calling it disabled and non-disabled dance - it is what it is, it's dance!"

In support of my enquiry, Dance South West recently commissioned research - aptly titled Fresh Recruits - into how they can support young people in dance through strategic intervention at crucial points; in school, youth dance, pre- and post graduation - and this includes disabled dancers.

contact ian.abbott@dancesouthwest.org.uk

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Animated: Summer 2007