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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
The problem with steps
Animated, Autumn 1999. Changes in legislation, improved access and a positive approach to disability should mean that the rewards for all dance will be great. However, Adam Benjamin conjectures that the likely barrier keeping disabled students out of training in the future will not be concrete steps it will be technical ones, believing that technique will be the new ground over which access will be fought
"Because our presence is noted publicly, there is no place that I am going to walk in the door and not be noticed, it isn't going to happen. People will notice me, they will ponder me, they will think about me they will note my presence. If I do anything physically, their eyes will come back to me immediately, I've become a part of the landscape that they are paying attention to." (1)

The inescapable profile of many disabled people means they draw attention, not just to themselves but to the inequalities in the way our society is structured, inequalities some of us may not want to acknowledge. They may show up the inaccessibility of a public building, or the lack of thought of those who run schools or hotels. On a more subtle level they may remind us of other issues we may not choose to think about; the possibility that we will not he immune from the passing of time or changeability of life's circumstance. They may remind us that we are all travelling through life in that unpredictable and susceptible craft, the human body, and that whether we accept it or not, we are all wheelchair bound. The reality is that disabled people make most non-disabled people feel uncomfortable at one or all of these levels.

Thirty years ago the ability to challenge societal values, to disturb and question would have proven ideal qualities for a student at the London School of Contemporary dance. Generally regarded as the birth place of contemporary (and New Dance) in Britain, The Place in the late 60s was a hot bed of radical questioning. In 1969 Robin Howard, the man who financed the Martha Graham school (himself disabled) clearly understood that the purpose of dance was not to decorate society, but to shake it up.

The Place attracted an eclectic mix of artists from different fields, and it was the friction and excitement of these different groups that generated the sparks of X6 and set the New Dance agenda. It would on the surface appear to have been the ideal environment for disabled people to become involved in dance. What prevented any such involvement was not the inaccessibility of the buildings that were being used for dance, though indeed most were entirely inaccessible, it was quite simply the inaccessibility of the idea.

Thirty years down the road The Place is being refurbished and like many new buildings will soon have an accessible theatre, studios and restaurant. In the past the most common excuse used by dance schools in rejecting disabled students has been: 'Yes we would love to have you, but we do not think you would be able to manage the steps.' Today with so many newly adapted buildings we would expect a different response, but it is likely that message will stay the same. The harrier keeping disabled students out of training will not he concrete steps it will he technical ones. Technique' is the new ground over which access will be fought.

It is a fight that will have to be addressed because of changes in legislation which will see more and more disabled students making their way into the mainstream. These students will have a legal right to study dance as part of the National Curriculum. Soon schools will not be able to shut their doors with impunity and there will be a clamour for qualified teachers and accessible teaching approaches.

During recent years the controversy over dance having been placed within Physical Education in the National Curriculum has united the dance profession in its demand that we be reinstated as an artform. Yet despite this plea, the question that most frequently arises from the dance profession in regard to disabled students is: How do we assess difference? Perhaps whilst we bleat about our right to be treated as an artform we should remind ourselves exactly what it is that the arts have to offer in today's society and what it is that differentiates them form Physical Education. As Robin Howard so clearly expressed, we are not here to make the place look pretty, on the contrary, artists are society's antennae, supposedly alert to the insidious, creeping, greyness of modernity. As teachers in the arts we should be fostering by example, an approach to the body that celebrates difference and challenges conformity. As to the question: How do I assess difference? Is this really a question that a professional artist, or art teacher can pose and still be expected to be taken seriously? Is this a question that is really arising from a living artform or one that has slipped unknowingly into a state of rigor mortis?

In reality teachers in most settings are under pressure to maintain technical standards and many technique teachers struggling to process increasing numbers of students through their classes have neither the time not the inclination to begin considering what they would do with a disabled student. It is perhaps more an indictment of the system than of the teachers caught within it.

Yet there are interesting developments and pointers. Many disabled dancers are now also emphasising the importance of appropriate, or tailored technical training which takes account both of the structure, discipline and musicality that a good technique class provides; but is informed by professional advice from teachers knowledgeable about the human body (2). This implies an interdisciplinary approach which draws on the know how of different dance professionals. Dance UK's Healthier Dancer Programme is increasingly stressing the importance of individually tailored training and strengthening regimes for dancers and may well be a model for future development in this area.

Whilst it is clear that disabled students will need this kind of training we should not be too eager simply to fit disabled students into the current system. Instead we should be looking at the new perspectives and opportunities for learning that disabled students bring to courses. Their presence should encourage us to review just how well current teaching methods serve those students already in the system - i.e. is dance really accessible to the majority of mainstream school students?

The accessibility of dance forms such as release and contact improvisation have already been proven and dance courses open to disabled students need to ensure that such techniques are available at all levels and not just to disabled students. Improvisation has been central to post-modern dance and remains the pillar of the making process for most of today's choreographers. If our improvisation and/or choreography teachers are not willing to work with disabled students they are effectively saying: 'I can work with any unknowns except those that apply to real human bodies. I will happily improvise in any make believe situation as long as I do not have to deal with the real world.' In dance the word disability is nothing more than the 'catch all' we use to cover the unknown territory - and unknown territory is the rightful terrain of the improviser...

Disability is where improvisers stop pretending and begin the real work; learning to apply their artform. It is no coincidence either that VTOL recently headhunted Lucy Moelwyn Hughes, previously of CandoCo Education Team and director of Tardis Dance Company, as their new education worker; nor that their two principle male dancers over the years had long standing CandoCo connections.

Today's companies are interested in more than technique and though the competition for jobs is fierce, the technical dancer who will succeed is the one who understands improvisation and may not fit the classic dancers mould. (DV8 's current auditions for Cultural Olympiad in Sydney ask for men and women "particularly those whose physique does not fit a typical dance stereotype". (3)) Sadly a great many students emerging from professional training courses continue to confuse improvisation with the opportunity to show off technique. It points to the fact that improvisation is being poorly or inadequately taught even at professional levels.

Every college or school that is interested in producing dancemakers should be teaching improvisation either alone or as a component for choreography. Schools interested in producing thinking dance artists should be throwing open their doors to new ideas and actively seeking students with different experience and different bodies.

There are encouraging signs. New Vic Sixth Form College in conjunction with East London Dance, has just launched their HND in Performing Arts in the Community, and an enthusiastic teaching team is settling in the first years intake. Graeae have just launched The Missing Link, a training specifically for disabled performers; though as Nabil Shaban commented at the launch, it is a reflection of how few teaching establishments have implemented their equal opportunities policies; that there is still a need for an independently run training 20 years after was first turned down as an aspiring drama strident. Employment prospects are often raised as another supposed obstacle for disabled students wishing to enter the arts. If we were to take this seriously we would not enrol any students into the performing arts. Besides, dance has shown perhaps more than any other artform that disabled people can find employment. Though recent figures showed that only one in 5000 people are employed in the arts it would appear that an increasing percentage of those who are finding work are doing so in dance and theatre. There is a real demand for qualified and experienced disabled practitioners in community and professional settings and it is a demand that I believe will continue to rise.

The current inertia within performing arts education in meeting the training needs of disabled students is no different to the stasis that faced the New Dance pioneers in the 60s and 70s, it is just that it is harder to spot because too many institutions, conformity and convey belt teaching now pass as normality.

New Dance ideology points unerringly to the expansion of dance to access 'all the people', not as beneficiaries but as partners in dance... and that means addressing current training issues and stretching our imaginations as well as our muscles.

Like any artform, dance is subject to stagnation - the objections now being voiced are the telltale signs of a rising tide of opinion which has the potential to invigorate the whole of dance. If we respond creatively to this challenge the rewards for all of dance in Britain will be great because students will be forced apply their imaginations on a daily basis. Times (and legislation) are changing, teaching establishments can either venture out to meet the challenge or be left trailing in its wake. Once an idea is made accessible there is very little that can resist it.

Adam Benjamin, independent dance artist. Contact

(1) Curtis, Bruce, independent dance artist and disability rights campaigner
(2) Bruce's approach was pioneered by Louise Katergea whilst teaching at Hereward College
(3) DV8, 1999.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001