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Animated Edition - Autumn 2007
Routes to integration for learning disabled dancers
Susan Norwood, co-Artistic Director of Project Volume outlines her approach to the professional development of learning disabled dancers
This article has drawn from seventeen years of experience in this field, the professional accredited training I designed for the Anjali Dance Company and the research project at Brookes University looking at the potential equality of learning platforms, using dance. It will focus predominantly on the issue of integration at a professional level.

To fully address integration, we must initially address the fundamentals that equate equality. We can break this down into the specific components: each participant having access to an equal opportunity to contribute within any given creative process, a structure that actively supports different learning styles, and the use of a common language.

Equipping the dancer
A learning disabled dancer has the full capacity to integrate fully when equipped with an understanding of the language of dance. In this instance we can take the language of dance as meaning, the elements that construct our dance practice; choreographic concepts, performance skills and dance technique. Professional training for dancers with learning disabilities should aim to encourage and cultivate in each learning-disabled dancer the confidence, technical competence and assertiveness to enable him or her to achieve maximum ability and potential as a performer, a collaborator and/or a choreographer.

Teaching the language of dance
My experience in teaching the language of dance is built on two parallel lines of design and implementation. The first line of design is to build a training programme that mirrors contemporary dance practice; this ensures that training is relevant and rigorous to professional practice, that dancers begin with the discipline of dance technique and balances this with the understanding of the choreographic process. The second line, to fully exploit the kinaesthetic qualities within dance, and in particular draw from the contemporary dance scene which utilises music, sound scores, film, theatrical conventions and modern art.

The kinaesthetic qualities of dance naturally lend themselves to addressing different learning styles, without patronising the skill or intelligence of a learning-disabled dancer. I have always chosen teachers who are inspiring, charismatic choreographic leaders within their field and whose artistic vision, translates well to this kinaesthetic method of teaching. They have been encouraged to use visuals, film footage, and repetition of both physical tasks and the language of dance to consolidate their teaching, and to support the learner for whom the spoken and written aspects of language may prove to be a barrier to full understanding.

The learning of a common dance language
Language that is common to working in dance encompasses such words as dynamics, levels of movement and composition. The skill of breaking words open for understanding and interpretation can begin to equip the choreographer, with the skills to work with an integrated group of dancers. Let us look, for example, at the word dynamics: it might be explored through the use of different scores from music, to explore physically through hearing the different speeds and qualities within each musical composition. It can also be explored through looking at different examples of visual art, such as the 'explosive' Jackson Pollock, in contrast to the 'softer' Monet and as a way of seeing and responding physically through dance utilising the inherent qualities of dynamics.

Language can be opened up to understanding through illustrating its meaning, thereby enabling the learning-disabled dancer to engage with the tangible experience of the word. Through clarity of understanding the choreographic direction, full engagement and equality of contribution to the creative process, a learning-disabled dancer can be enabled.

"As with any person or group, each individual must repeatedly be offered different learning patterns and opportunities, in order not only to provide multifarious possibilities for them to experience the taught material, but also to develop that understanding both through further direction and independently" Suzette Neptune, choreographer and co-Artistic Director Project Volume.

The use of high quality artistic references to endorse diversity
Taking the concept of 'multifarious possibilities', we can as choreographers and teachers begin to address the structures we build when working with an integrated group of professionally trained dancers. In order to encourage and endorse integration one of our first tasks is to use artistic examples that embrace both diversity and difference. These examples can be used by a non-disabled choreographer/teacher or equally by a learning-disabled choreographer/teacher to illustrate the ideas and concepts behind the work. Two examples I recently have used were Fellini's film Eight and a Half and a series of paintings by Miro. Eight and a Half clearly depicts an array of different characters, demonstrating their individual characteristics through gesture, from which its narrative is built. Miro, in many of his paintings adopts variously sized shapes within his compositions.

These visual references both inspired movement vocabulary from which to build choreography and demonstrated that difference, in quality of dynamics and in scale of movement were key to the artistic vision. This provides a clear pathway of aspiration for a learning-disabled dancer as they identify with a clear message that difference can be beautiful and also vital to choreographic composition.

When using a visual, musical or a physical/actual prop as a reference point and as inspiration, that point may then in turn be explored further through the physical interpretation of the reference material. This physical reading of material can then create a shared movement vocabulary, equal to all dancers who are part of the process, disabled and non-disabled alike. This movement vocabulary can then form the basis of the choreography. The choreography is then formed from a true position of equality, as the vocabulary created is unique to the group of dancers who created it.

To conclude, for successful integration in dance at a professional level, for dancers with learning disabilities, we need to consider the following:
  • A rigorous training programme that mirrors and builds on contemporary dance practice, ensuring that learning- disabled dancers are equipped equally with the dance skills of their fellow non-disabled dancers
  • The full use of the kinaesthetic properties within dance to support different learning styles, whilst remaining relevant to the dance world at large
  • The skill of 'breaking open' language and concepts to support the tangible understanding of creative direction
  • The use of positive models of reference to support and endorse diversity and difference
  • To remember that integration and equality should be one and the same.
This work is part of a body of international creative professional opportunities for dancers with learning disabilities, being created by Project Volume, of which Susan Norwood and Suzette Neptune are Artistic Directors. For further information contact

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Animated: Autumn 2007