The second week of the Festival began this morning with a dance workshop for disabled people and their companions, led by Laura Jones with Freya Spencer of Stopgap Dance Company. Stopgap are one of the UK’s leading integrated dance companies, employing disabled and non-disabled dancers and creating exhilarating dance productions for national and international touring. Laura is currently their interim Artistic Director, so we were delighted she was able to lead the workshop herself.
The workshop took place as part of the Together! Dance Club, which we launched in September 2016 and meets on the 4th Monday of each month from 11am-2pm at Vicarage Lane Community Centre. The Dance Club uses improvisation techniques to create contemporary dance together, with a focus on creating dance for the screen. Together! Clubs are facilitated by mid-career artists, and aimed at disabled people; carers, support workers, PAs, family members, partners and friends are welcome as companions. Although we are Newham-based, we welcome participants from outside the borough; all of our activities are free and open to all.
Dance is still an art form that many disabled people are excluded from, both as professionals and as amateurs. Targeted sessions like ours enable disabled people to benefit from opportunities they’ve been excluded from elsewhere. Physical and attitudinal barriers are removed, and every participant is treated as an equal individual who is able to participate in their own way. Three of our participants had very high needs and were supported by their PAs, who also enjoyed participating. Two, one in their 30s and one in their 50s, had considerable dance experience, but struggle to find inclusive classes, particularly now that East London Dance, an organisation committed to inclusion, is no longer funded to provide classes. Two were young artists, facing growing exclusion from further education and training now that colleges receive more funding to put disabled students onto ‘independent living’ and ‘skills’ courses than qualifications courses.
Most of the participants today were wheelchair users, who find it hardest of all to access dance sessions – not least because many are held in inaccessible buildings. Clearly, athletic and gymnastic forms of dance are not for everyone, whether disabled or not. But everyone can dance, and improvisation techniques allow people to explore their abilities and strengths and create movement together. The numbers of disabled people with high needs present this morning shows there is an unmet demand for widening participation. We were pleased to welcome London Live to the workshop, who broadcast live twice from Vicarage Lane Community Centre and showed how popular it was.
Stopgap Dance Company have now developed their own inclusive dance syllabus, IRIS, which is aimed at under-18s. The IRIS syllabus allows groups of dancers, both disabled and non-disabled, to move at their own pace through four stages, Include, Respond, Integrate and Specialise. Together! 2012 CIC is supporting the development of IRIS in East London, in association with Stopgap Dance Company and East London Dance. We hope that this will result in many more opportunities for young disabled people to participate in dance in the future.
Many thanks to Laura Jones and Freya Spencer from Stopgap Dance Company; Manimala Gollapalli from Active Newham; Vicarage Lane Community Centre; and the Together! team.