16 September 2015
Sue Goodman, Step into Dance Programme and Artistic Director, discusses the refreshing openness of dancers with learning and physical impairments
Step into Dance was set up in 2007, when the Royal Academy of Dance was approached by the Jack Petchey Foundation with a vision of providing high-quality dance training for young people in state schools. It is now the UK's largest fully inclusive secondary school dance programme, delivering extra-curricular classes and performance opportunities to 200 mainstream and SEN schools per year across London and Essex.
Step into Dance, through its extended programme such as Watch this Step, Step into Battle, the Step into Dance Borough Events and its showcase end of the year event, Step LIVE! is responsible for creating over 20 unique, inclusive performance opportunities each year.
With the development of our three youth dance companies (jazz, contemporary and street) we have created our own gifted and talented dance provision, with weekly training held at the Royal Academy. As of September we are launching an Inclusive Youth Dance Company, which will involve young people with physical and learning disabilities dancing together with those in mainstream schools and colleges.
When working with young people with different learning and physical disabilities, setting up a safe and supportive environment, is paramount. A lead dance practitioner is usually assisted by a team of support workers who are either good dancers in their own right, or those who have never danced, plus any specialist support (such as a signer for deaf dancers) as required.
This team is vital to the success of the group and should be included in the process of creating work no matter what their level of experience. This sense that all contributions are valuable and valid is important. It is also vital that all participants are engaged and fully focused on the task in hand.
Working inclusively is sometimes difficult but always enlightening and more often than not, lots of fun. If there is an atmosphere created where ‘anything goes’ and there is a sense of freedom, then nobody feels judged. This results in dancers who are able to create without self-censorship, dancers who are able to help and support each other in the creative process and celebrate each other’s successes with generosity.
The advantages of inclusive dance are manifold. Barriers are broken down, friendships are made and there is much laughter. One of the teachers observed, ‘These guys are much more fun than normal guys!’ He had discovered that the lack of self-consciousness and the ability to ‘get stuck in’, demonstrated by the disabled members of the group, was a revelation.
Society should be more inclusive – we are all enriched. We see how those who ostensibly seem to have less than we do actually have a great deal to offer. I watched one of our dancers, who is deaf, communicating with another who has cerebral palsy. It was remarkable how they managed to ‘speak’ to each other using a fusion of signing, Makaton and mime.
A lesson to be learned for many of us, who faced with the same situation, would freeze up and feel quite helpless and inadequate. Dance of course is a language in itself and those who enjoy moving immediately have a sense of community.
As part of our programme at Step into Dance, we have an initiative called Step Together. This provides an opportunity for young people from mainstream schools and SEN dancers to dance and work together. The process is very illuminating. One would think that the SEN dancers would gain most, but this is not always the case.
More often when teenagers from mainstream schools see how disabled dancers execute their movements without self-consciousness, they feel empowered and do the same. The best side of their natures is brought to the fore. They become supportive, stop thinking about themselves and how they are feeling and focus on those with whom they are dancing.
For inclusive dance to gain more prominence, it is essential that practitioners are demanding so that all the dancers involved, can be the best that they can be. It is about growing what you CAN do and to develop from there. Like any activity for children and young people, it helps to have supportive parents. They are the final essential ingredient.