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Animated Edition - Autumn 2004
Snakes and ladders/Reflecting on learning
September 2004 is a landmark occasion in the provision of professional dance training, when the first students embark on the UK's first Foundation Course in Dance for disabled students. CandoCo's Sue Smith and Stine Nilsen share with us their hopes, aspirations and challenges for the future
Snakes and ladders

There are those of us out here who get a little bit frustrated when talking about dance, disabled people and training, particularly when having to convince the training sector that it can be done and it is worth it. Even with the weight of legislation to swing at the debate, it is sometimes hard to believe that anything is ever going to change. It's a bit like a game of snakes and ladders. We know the ladders are there, but snakes keep getting in the way.

Of course we do need to create opportunity for debate, raising profile and challenging practice, but for CandoCo and many of the hard-working, long-running companies and individuals working in the field it would also be nice to be able to just get on with the other aspects of our jobs...like dancing. Part of this 'getting on with it' would involve a recruitment process that did not mean a depressing re-run of the previous recruitment process, uncovering once again, a major dearth of professionally trained disabled dancers. It would be a delightful relief to receive as many applications from disabled as we do non-disabled dancers.

This is a symptom of a significant gap in the employment market. Something not to be sniffed at in the dance sector. I have heard representatives from vocational schools question that there is a 'demand' for disabled performers. They are concerned that producing disabled graduates will have a negative effect on their employment data. In fact, this is an area where there seems to be a genuine demand for trained artists. Maybe employment statistics could be boosted?

It seems to be less of a challenge for people to understand how a music, acting or art course could be made more inclusive. Many of the dance vocational courses have regimented assessment methods and physical benchmarks for both audition and measuring progress, making it seem impossible to adapt. The very nature of these courses is that they are competitive and discriminatory in order to ensure the most talented are recruited. Inclusion on these courses, in a sector that suffers from the hang-up of homogeneity, raises complex and sensitive issues about aesthetics, excellence and the market they supply. In fact, they are so numerous and emotive that I am taking a swift bypass to avoid the possibility that I never actually reach the point of this article.

In recent years CandoCo has recruited disabled dancers from Japan, New Zealand and Australia. Most of the British disabled dancers trained with the company, similarly to many others within their companies nationwide. There is a very small pool of disabled dance artists working at professional level internationally and while integrated dance activities at a local level are increasing and should be celebrated, we cannot ignore that there is something wrong with the route from inspiration in the community to vocational training and employment. In time I am sure we will see the benefit of today's disabled dancers as role models, cultural ambassadors and accomplished artists inspiring a new generation of disabled dancers who choose dance as a career without having to attend a conference to prove that it can be done.

Often the outcome of conferences and consultations is a piece of research, and while I have been guilty of the, 'oh no not another research project' response, I do of course acknowledge that it is useful because it 'proves' that there is a need for change and presents suggestions for change that funding bodies can respond to. So, when the Department for Education and Skills asked CandoCo to develop flexible provision for disabled dancers, including a Foundation course, we were ready. It's also very exciting to have the financial support to finally put ideas into practice.

Later this month our first students embark on the UK's first Foundation Course in Dance for disabled students. So, what do they need to know? They need to be prepared to go on to further dance training and education particularly in the vocational sector. Just like any foundation course, the students will receive a core programme of technique. For us, this will be in contemporary and ballet. Designing a unique programme like this one is incredibly exciting. Shaping the thoughts, knowledge and experience the company has about training and approaches to training and discussing aspects of the course with many people across the sector has been inspiring and I have received overwhelming support from everyone I have spoken to: the most commonly heard comment was, 'about time'.

One of the important issues we face is finding the students that will benefit most from this course. This is where you come in. Word of mouth has a vital role to play in making sure that this course is available to talented disabled people across the country. If you have contact with an organisation, day centre, college, individual or group that you think might be interested in this course please pass on our details.

The course runs for one academic year, is open to disabled people and there is no upper age limit. It is wonderful to be talking to a 56 year old disabled woman about her aspirations to be a dancer and to be able to offer her a realistic opportunity to begin her dance education. This is a chance to make some really positive changes to the dance ecology as we know it.

It will be vital that the students are offered strategies for negotiating their way through mainstream teaching on other courses. If a student is well informed about technical terminology, movement principles and qualities and how to work successfully in class, they are more likely to dance with confidence, respond with intelligence and to discuss their progress productively with their tutors.

There is so much to say about the process of developing this course. This year will be full of questions and discoveries; about expectation, achievement and balance, about the way the curriculum is developed and delivered and the importance of cultivating an inspiring environment where these dancers are nourished and given opportunity to explore their potential. This needs to be countered with a realistic approach to their progression after the course, links with other schools to provide a sense of community, encourage debate and to improve opportunities for continuing professional development for their staff.

This course is one new ladder, one new opportunity. An increase in opportunities for disabled dancers and a shift in perception about what a talented, employable dancer looks like needs to be addressed across the sector. My experience tells me that the only way to address this is to take whatever action is possible at the time (and to look out for snakes). What we have the chance to do now is build a bridge to vocational training and help provide a successful transition into that training. There is much more work to be done. But this will keep us busy for a while.

Sue Smith is Associate Director of CandoCo.

Reflecting on learning

My experience as a dancer and teacher at CandoCo has led me to reflect, question and debate what dance is - how I 'do' it and how I teach it. CandoCo is often approached to advise and comment on inclusive practice both by individuals and as part of national, strategic initiatives. I have found this intriguing and it has made me want to assert for myself what it was that I knew, or what others thought I knew, especially considering my involvement in developing the Foundation Course.

So what is different about working in a group that comprises disabled and non-disabled dancers? One disabled dancer once asked; what is it that makes it so hard to work with us? True, sometimes it is hard to find perfect solutions for working together, but that is probably when I feel most challenged and involved with my work. Often in dance we don't take the time to listen, understand before 'doing' because we are so concerned about moving. At the same time, talking can be more difficult and create more barriers to understanding, because language may be used in many different ways.

The more I thought about what I knew about integrated dance, the more I questioned what I knew. I also found that my thoughts were equally applicable to the integration of any dancer in a group of others. What makes a well balanced teaching experience? How is the individual catered for within a group? How do we encourage and get the best out of anyone we work with, regardless of physicality? What I have found is that there is not one specific blueprint.

Sometimes issues in inclusive environments are not about disability or ability but rather, about previous access to experience and training in dance and how to understand and interpret an exercise that is given. The Foundation Course will give students a chance to explore and understand a range of dance experiences in order to 'catch up' and develop the skills needed to start further training in dance. Improving access to higher/further education in dance will not change the majority of students, but it will help a minority find a coherent and useful way into learning.

The confidence of someone who has trained and feels 'qualified,' should not be underestimated. The feeling of not having the basic skills that others have can hinder the creative exploration of new movement vocabulary. Even though many choreographers have explored working with dancers with little or no training, excited about the 'raw' and 'natural' ways of moving that someone has, they still expect a certain amount of skill that can help the choreographic process, such as movement memory and accuracy, sense of direction and understanding of quality in movement.

The Foundation Course sets out to provide students with strategies for understanding their own bodies from a thorough, informed position. By focusing on a shared learner-teacher responsibility, the students will apply their existing knowledge and understanding of their body to new, guided exploration and more formal technique. Clarity, detail and demand for excellence and improvement is needed both from the teacher and the student. Disabled students will still be a minority in further training so the course should encourage a strong sense of self, confidence to make contributions to the group, a good understanding of their own physicality and above all, the ability to question.

For the training sector, I also have questions. Will this Course alleviate the pressure to make class content more accessible by helping to maintain the responsibility of disabled dancers to always make adaptations, to translate information to suit their particular body? Will teachers on vocational courses stay engaged in debate and in continuous professional development if they know CandoCo is relieving the pressure for another year? How will teachers prepare for the possibility that disabled students will soon be auditioning?

I hope that the impact of this course will be one of learning for all students and teachers about how we move, what we can achieve and how we achieve it. What is the most successful teaching-learning environment? What is the most successful way to produce the best performer? The expertise lies not in knowing the 'right' answers to all the questions but to know what questions could be useful to ask.

Stine Nilsen has been a member of CandoCo since 2000. She has been working on the development of the Foundation Course and is currently studying for an MA in Professional Practice at Middlesex University.

For more information on the Foundation Course email foundationcourse@candoco.co.uk or call 020 7704 6845. For more information on CandoCo see www.candoco.co.uk

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Animated: Autumn 2004