Sal McKeown looks at the growing international efforts to ensure dance is accessible to all

Dance is an excellent way to express creativity, yet for young people with disabilities there can be obstacles. Until recently it was often assumed that the physical demands would be too much for those in wheelchairs. Yet — as in the field of marathons — wheelchair dancers provide exciting and very different performances that can still thrill the crowds.

All around the world there are inspirational professional dance troupes that show that disability need not be a barrier. Here is a selection:

Members of the China Disabled People’s Performing Art Troupe can be seen on YouTube performing a Thousand Hand Bodhisattva. They are all profoundly deaf, yet despite being unable to hear the music, their choreography is noted for its split-second timing.

Candoco Dance Company is a contemporary dance company of disabled and non-disabled dancers with a slogan ’25 years, 60 countries, 500 performances, 7500 workshops, 400000 people’. Many people first heard of them when they represented the UK at the Handover Ceremonies at the Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games. Four years later they performed at both the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London. They promote inclusive dance and as well as their international performances they also run training for teacher training organisations, youth dance and professional companies.

Dançando com a Diferença is a Portuguese company that provides training and which has worked with numerous European partners on Grundtvig Lifelong Learning Programme, creating performances and lecturing to teachers and students.

Anjali Dance Company performs in the UK and Europe. It features dancers with learning disabilities who work with world-class dance artists and choreographers to produce original dance work. They also run a youth dance company, Young Anjali, and an Education and Outreach team of dancers with learning disabilities who teach and lead workshops.

For those interested in developing skills in inclusive dance DanceAbility is a key player. In 1987, Alito Alessi and his dance partner Karen Nelson began exploring mixed-abilities dance. Their company, Joint Forces Dance Company (JFDC), produced its first mixed-abilities workshop in 1987. Ten years later Alito ran the first DanceAbility Teacher Certification course. More than 300 dance artists have attended. They have come from 19 different countries and include people with disabilities and those interested in working with people with disabilities.

United Dance Organisation (UDO) is based in Cardiff, Wales. It is the largest street dance organisation in the world with over 75,000 members across 30 countries including Africa, Australia, Dubai, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands. UDO aims to ‘provide dancers of all ages, backgrounds, abilities and disabilities, a platform to positively display their creativity and love for Street Dance’. It provides teacher and dancer development programmes and accreditation including: street dance examinations to set standards and reward achievement and progression; guidance on techniques for training street dancers for a profession; accreditation, as a preparatory step towards the Level 2 Certificate in teaching street dance.

Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance runs a weekly movement, play and creative dance sessions for disabled children and their siblings.

Being accepted into the profession

Emma Redding from Dance Science, Trinity Laban in London was co-author of Barriers to Dance Training for Young People with Disabilities with Imogen J Aujia. Their 2013 literature review highlighted four main barriers: aesthetic, attitudinal, training-related and logistical in nature. They also noted that there were likely to be physical access barriers and a lack of knowledge or available information about opportunities.

They discovered that:

Many performing artists with disabilities take idiosyncratic routes into the profession; most commonly, training happens “on the job” within a disability-specific company rather than via mainstream training routes (Verrent, 2003). Indeed, most dance provision for young disabled people is recreational in nature, focusing on creativity and fun rather than specific technical development. As such there is a clear gap in provision between recreational participation and the profession.

Dance and technology

Dr Kim Dunphy

One of the issues dance practitioners face is how to record and measure progress. At a conference in April 2017, hosted in Darwin by the Australian Association of Special Education (AASE), Sue Mullane from the Sunshine Special Developmental School in Melbourne and Dr Kim Dunphy, a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Dance Movement at the Universities of Melbourne ran a session called ‘Understanding and Documenting Progress in Dance for Children with Special needs: Using new Technology to Enable Evidence based Assessment’.

They have created an app to record and standardise dance assessment for young people with special needs. Special World caught up with Dr Kim Dunphy to find out more about her work, the app and her contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Wellbeing.

How long have you been Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Dance Movement at Melbourne?

Since July 2016. I’ve been a dance movement therapist for a long time, but have only had this appointment more recently, after I finished my PhD in 2014.

How did you get into dance?

I have been a dancer since I was a child, studying ballet, contemporary dance, jazz ballet, international folk dance, improvisation and most recently Zumba.

Have dance and the arts in general been cut in schools in Australia?

Not that I know of. In fact, in the new National Curriculum there is specific mention of arts for all children including dance for those with special needs.

What therapeutic benefit can young people gain from Dance Movement?

Dance Movement Therapists posit that it is the connection between mind and body that brings therapeutic benefit. It must be an enjoyable and stimulating experience and participants must be willing to engage. The benefits can occur across all five domains of wellbeing: physical, emotional, cognitive, cultural (creative expressive) and interpersonal.

Tell us about the work with Sunshine School

Sue Mullane is a special education teacher and a dance movement therapist at the Sunshine Special Developmental School. The children are below the 50 per cent percentile for IQ and have a diagnosis of special needs. The programme involves dance as recommended in the new National Curriculum, with the additional insights that a trained Dance Movement Therapist brings. This includes the development of self-knowledge and understanding and a focus on engagement and interaction with others through movement. We look for an expansion of movement range and the development of the skills and vocabulary as recommended by the National Curriculum.

Why is it important to assess and record dance?

As a teacher or therapists, we need to understand when and if change occurs. This helps us to report effectively on progress and to adapt and improve our programs to best meet needs. I want to help Dance Movement Therapists to develop skills in measuring change so together we can improve the evidence base for our profession. This will improve our profession’s standing and profile, improve our employment prospects and assist clients who may be benefited by Dance Movement more opportunities to access strong services.

How did people used to record dance progress and skills?

Teachers have historically used time-consuming processes of writing, cutting and pasting reports in hard copy matching students’ progress to curriculum goals. Dance therapists have also done this but without the benefit of agreed outcomes or programme goals that are established across the profession or field. Each practitioner then spent a lot of time making decisions about what to report and how and not having the benefit of shared understandings of change that might be expected and how this might be measured.

What does the app offer?

Marking the Moves is the world’s first iPad app for dance movement therapy assessment. It lets teachers and therapists collect data on the go and build up an assessment in the five domains previously mentioned: physical, cognitive, emotional, interpersonal and expressive/aesthetic. It helps therapists do a more effective job and contributes to the evidence base for practitioners across the world.

The app is very easy to use. Staff can quickly store client personal data such as name, photo, contact details, information about health. It will keep attendance records so it is easy to monitor participation in a programme, including the number of sessions the client has attended compared with the total number of sessions on offer. Client records can be organised into groups or classes.

It can be administered by trained therapists and support staff and uses plain language so program managers, funders, and the clients themselves can understand the results. Now, instead of copying data from notes to computers to assessment reports, all the relevant information is collected together and staff  can quickly identify progress and compare clients or groups of clients.

We continue to develop the app so that it is a tool that is useful in a range of educational and therapeutic contexts. I am working with Dance Movement Therapists in Canada, Australia New Zealand and China to trial it in different clinical and community contexts and with dancers from different cultural backgrounds.

We are delighted that we have already won two awards for our work developing the app. In 2014, we received an ACER [Australian Council for Educational Research] and Teachers’ Mutual Bank Award for an outstanding presentation at ACER’s Excellence in Professional Practice Conference in Melbourne, Australia. In 2015 the American Dance Therapy Association gave us its Innovation Award at its conference in San Diego, USA.

Tell us about the book you have contributed to.

The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Wellbeing is scheduled to be published in October. It offers quantitative, qualitative, and arts-based research and includes perspectives from practitioners and academics, from the point of view of neuroscience and health, community and education, and psychology and sociology. Our chapter — Dance Movement Therapy, Student Learning and Wellbeing in Special Education — is about how Dance Movement Therapy contributes to wellbeing for children with special needs, across that spectrum of physical, emotional, cognitive, cultural (creative expressive) and interpersonal domains of wellbeing.


About Contributors

Sal McKeown is a freelance journalist and author of several books, most recently Brilliant Ideas for using ICT in the Inclusive Classroom. Prior to this she was a lecturer and in the special needs team at Becta, the UK’s former government agency for technology in education.

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