Lisa Simpson is seeking funding to support disabled choreographers using new technology developed by Adam Benjamin. Lisa and her colleague, Ray Rooney, have set up a social enterprise company to help disabled dancers and their teachers unlock similar potential. Sheila McWattie reports on the initiative
As a choreographer/workshop leader with quadriplegia cerebral palsy and no verbal communication, Lisa Simpson choreographs using her eponymous Simpson Board. Lisa describes the Simpson Board as “an inexpensive but invaluable tool that enables people who are disabled to choreograph their own work”.
Lisa and her colleague, Ray Rooney, have set up a social enterprise to help disabled dancers and their teachers unlock similar potential – and they’re looking for support from DAO’s networks to achieve their aim. Created in 1995 by Adam Benjamin, co-founder of CandoCo Dance Company, the Simpson Board was inspired by methods Lisa Simpson was using to produce visual artwork.
Adam explains: “As education director of CandoCo Dance Company, I was exploring how profoundly disabled students could be more fully involved in thinking about, understanding and creating dances – performance, choreography and appreciation – rather than simply 'taking part'. The Simpson Board was developed in response to the needs of profoundly disabled students who wish to communicate simple or complex ideas about movement. In particular, it was designed for students without speech and who have little voluntary control over the muscles of their own bodies.”
“If you are unable to speak and to control or direct the movement of your own muscles, how do you communicate even the most simple ideas about movement, let alone those of a complex nature, such as those used in the world of dance? Many profoundly disabled students and their teachers face this problem every day,” says Adam, who is a lecturer at Plymouth University and currently helping to build an integrated degree programme there. “In the demanding environment of inclusive dance classes or workshops, there is often insufficient time to establish more than the most rudimentary communication with those students most in need, leaving many as no more than silent, albeit willing, partners in dance activity.
“Apart from those with a visual impairment, eye movement/co-ordination is one aspect of movement over which most people have some control. For people with profound physical disabilities, this eloquent use of the eyes often becomes the principle channel of communication. The Simpson Board is designed to use and possibly extend this ability, with eye-direction or focus used to select words and symbols laid out on an A3 laminated sheet. The information on the board is dance-specific, consisting of body and movement concepts and illustrations. Its design has many advantages, including affordability,” Adam points out. “It isn’t reliant on expensive or complicated technology and it’s easily carried, or stored in the back of a wheelchair. And unlike cumbersome, expensive, and still painfully slow voice simulators, it doesn’t trap the user behind unwieldy machinery.
Adam Benjamin was impressed by Lisa Simpson’s perseverance on a fundamental level: “I named this choreographic board in recognition of Lisa, whose drive, creativity and hunger to express movement ideas has drawn us towards a previously unimagined dialogue about dance. “Involved in a personal, day-by-day, minute-by-minute struggle to determine the direction and control of her own limbs, Lisa demonstrated speed, sophistication and an almost tangible appetite for the art of making dances; for the freedom to select, organise and craft the movement of bodies in space.”
Now, the search is on for funding to help others who want to make similar waves in the dance world. Lisa and her colleague Ray Rooney, of the social enterprise Lisa Simpson Inclusive Dance, have recognised the capacity of the Simpson Board to unlock potential in budding choreographers and are now setting up a course that trains people how to use the Simpson Board to enhance their own dance practice or as teachers.
“We’re keen to train aspiring choreographers whose verbal communication is limited or non-existent and who have not had the opportunity to realise their true potential,” says Lisa. “I was prompted to set up the training course with my company after attending a week-long choreography course where I discovered that being assigned a helper with no Simpson Board training made my own choreographic process much slower. Towards the end of the course I was offered a different translator who had recently attended one of my Simpson Board workshops, in Plymouth. The difference in the quality of my experience and in what I was able to achieve was unbelievable. I decided that I didn’t want other disabled people who are exploring their potential as choreographers to experience the same limiting situation. So during that training week we began to discuss the need for a training course to help overcome some of these difficulties, using the Simpson Board.”
From October 2013, if sufficient funding is raised, Lisa Simpson Inclusive Dance aims to offer a one-day pilot course, managed by herself and a Co-facilitator, plus a follow-up day, designed for dance artists, dance students and teachers. The venue will be managed by Merseyside Dance Initiative. Foundation for Community Dance have confirmed that they will advertise the pilot on their website and all their relevent publications.
To run the pilot course, Lisa is aiming to raise just over £3,000. The company is using a donating website, GoFundMe.com, as well as applying for grant funding.
Lisa says: “The highly interactive Simpson Board really helps to boost the skills and confidence of aspiring choreographers whose speech is limited. The difference the training can make is highly significant and we appreciate any help to spread the word and signpost us to sources who can support this very exciting venture.”
You can contact Lisa Simpson Inclusive Dance through their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/LisaSimpsonInclusiveDanceLtd