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Disability Dance Training Opportunities

by Kien Bee Ong

July 2005

[Kien Bee Ong is Access Marketing Officer for the Council for Dance Education and Training -- ed.]

Dance involving disabled performers is not a recent phenomenon in the UK.  Amici Dance Theatre Company is 25 years old this year. Companies such as Anjali, Blue Eyed Soul and CandoCo have been in existence for more than a decade and many more have survived the initial teething stages to become established institutions in their own right. The increasing prominence of these companies translates to a developing need for trained disabled performers. Gone are the days when disabled performers were taken as tokenistic figures in performances, put on stage either to evoke some kind of emotional sentiment from the audience or to gain funding for companies. Instead, their contribution to the dance community brings to the stage a different view of techniques and/or aesthetics, a view that enriches the experience of performance for both artists and audiences.

There is much sensitivity surrounding the use of the term ‘disability’ especially in the current climate of political correctness. The case is not helped by the wide range of impairments that fall under the term disability. Each impairment, in turn, impacts upon different individuals to varying degrees. The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995 has levelled the playing field for all. The DDA defines disability as "a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long term effect on an individual’s ability to carry out normal day to day activities … if it affects mobility, manual dexterity, physical coordination, continence, ability to lift or carry or otherwise move everyday objects, speech, hearing, eyesight (unless correctable by spectacles), memory or ability to concentrate or learn or understand, perception of the risk of danger or perception by others". The recently passed Disability Discrimination Bill enters legislation as the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and widens the definition of disability to include people with progressive conditions. Depending on how one looks at disability, the statistics of disabled people are staggering.

The push to level the playing field for performers, disabled or not, now sees increasing numbers of participants jumping on the bandwagon of dance education and vocational training for disabled performers.

In addition to the DDA definition, the Council for Dance Education and Training (CDET) also defers to the British Council of Disabled People’s social definition of disability being "the disadvantage of restriction of activity caused by a society which takes little or no account of people who have impairments and so excludes them from mainstream activity". This definition focuses more on the function of the society and the need to eliminate the notion of ‘them’ (being disabled performers and those working closely with them) versus ‘us’ (who are in the so-called mainstream dance community).

Sean Williams, the Director of CDET adds that "the Council is entirely committed to increasing opportunities for dancers of all abilities within the professional world. The recent full-time appointment of an Access Marketing Officer means the Council is now able to work much more closely with integrated dancers, choreographers and companies to ensure innovation in training and practice is shared and available to all. The Council has worked with Adam Benjamin (co-founder of CandoCo) to design Far Reaches, an initiative that brings choreographers of world standing together with integrated dancers to create innovative work and learning programmes. It is a project of high priority and designed to have maximum impact within the dance and education world".

Aside from Far Reaches, a number of ongoing initiatives contribute to widening access to dance training. CDET’s Auditioning and Interviewing Code of Practice for Dance and Drama Courses has recently been updated to take account of the relevant equal opportunities legislation including the DDA and its Special Educational Needs and Disability Act amendments. The Council is in contact with disability-specific and integrated companies to build bridges between vocational dance schools which have expertise in dance training with those which have expertise in inclusive practices. 

The Learning and Skills Council (LSC) has also been busy promoting greater access to dance training for all. For instance, its administration of the Dance and Drama Awards (D&DA) now includes a stipulation that vocational dance schools administering the Awards be required to actively promote opportunities for talented disabled students. The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) also commissioned research into disability within the awards which  resulted in the publication of Guidance on Access and Disability Equality training for schools.

Additionally, a number of exciting training projects are funded through the Awards to “ensure students who, due to their disability, cannot study in a mainstream training environment have an opportunity to work and study with a disability-specific company in an appropriate and suitable environment”. The projects ensure schools “deliver bespoke training to suit the individual’s needs and requirements, draw up a learning agreement which enables progression to be measured and equip students with the skills needed to go on to further training or relevant employment and, where appropriate, gain the relevant qualifications”. Companies involved include Mind the Gap, Big House Theatre Company, GRAEAE and CandoCo - through the development of its foundation course for disabled dancers.

Mara de Witt, Course Leader for CandoCo’s Foundation Course, says "there is much talent and creative potential among (young) people with disabilities, but limited access to professional/vocational training to realise this potential. Educational provision aimed at meeting the specific learning and teaching requirements for students with disabilities is key to opening up the possibility of pursuing a career, or further training and study in dance or performing arts. The aims of the Foundation Course are to encourage and support students to identify their individual strengths, to gain a good understanding of technique and artistry and to prepare them for more advanced training". The first cohort of students graduates this July and second cohort starts training in September.

In addition to CandoCo many other companies now offer education and training opportunities. For example, Hampshire Dance conducts accredited training course for those interested in dance work with disabled people and Anjali has accredited dance courses for adults with learning disabilities. Increasingly, too, disability related dance classes are on offer from the Royal Academy of Dance and Royal Opera House Education. A quick search for disability dance courses now brings up a mountain of information from schools and companies offering a variety of classes.

The ‘mainstream’ vocational sector has, at times, been charged with not doing enough to increase access to training. This misconception is exacerbated by the turtle steps that some schools take to widen access. There are still issues to be sorted, among them the continuing debate on the concept of bodily beauty especially for ballet, the lack of confidence on the parts of both students and teachers, health and safety concerns and the need for adaptation to training methods and rigour. Added to this list is the frustration of getting students to self-disclose any hidden disability they may have as it is commonly acknowledged that the number of students with disabilities is often higher than reflected in official records.

A disabled student at a leading training school attributed it to fear of being singled out and worse, of having doors of opportunities closed to them. While there may be considerable enthusiasm or pressure to be more inclusive in training, the notion of ‘employability’ still affects both the teacher and student. The volatile nature of dance as a career demands that schools equip their students with as many advantages as possible and the student, too, is conscious of the need to maximise opportunities to secure gainful employment. Recent years have seen anticipatory investments in educating the teachers, improving physical facilities, increasing accessibility to marketing materials, greater student support and increased outreach initiatives. 

There is still much to be done before the dance community becomes fully integrated and we all - schools, employers and audiences - have our parts to play. In the meantime, we should celebrate achievements such as Amici’s 25th birthday and look forward to more milestones in the years ahead.


Edited by Staff.

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