Loosing the ties that bind
Who's Integrating Who?
By Adam Benjamin
From an article published in DICE magazine issue 15 April 1991
The short vertical is weak and in need; it cannot stand alone as a sign or a letter but it helps other letters come into being.... Thus that which began as weak and in need, ends by providing support for others... I call it the "helping hand".
Joel Rosenberg, Scribal Arts
It is a quiet snowy Saturday morning as I re-read this entry in my note book dated October 1990. I am again struck by its clarity and it's relevance to the work in which we are engaged. A perfect analogy for the transformative principle at the heart of integrated dance. The enabling process so often seen as flowing from able-bodied to disabled is here up-turned and we who are able bodied, now mysteriously supported and strengthened through the activity of dance, must reassess our role and our preconceptions.
For the latter part of 1990 I was working as artist in residence at the Mike Heaffey Centre, an integrated recreation centre attached to the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital; part of an initiative to introduce the arts into an otherwise sports orientated environment. It was here that I met Celeste Dandeker a committee member of ASPIRE (Association for Spinal Injury Research Rehabilitation and Reintegration.) the organization that had funded the building of the centre. Celeste had worked with Graeae as a designer and prior to an accident in the 70's had danced with London Contemporary Dance Theatre.
Before our meeting I had harbored growing doubts as to whether truly integrated work could be achieved via the framework of competitive sport. The skill of the wheelchair sports players was something that repeatedly drew me away from my painting yet it seemed that once a player had developed sufficient skill, he or she would then take part in competitive sports but for the greater part with other players in wheelchairs. The integration existed in the opportunities to use the facilities (access) to train and compete, but not within the activity itself. These remained segregated. Celeste and I began to discuss how dance might be used in a truly integrated way involving people of all levels of physical ability facing the challenge of moving and dancing together. For a number of weeks we exchanged ideas, articles and books, talked to people working in the field, and eventually, though not without trepidation, decided that between us we had the skills and experience to initiate something ourselves; to start our own integrated group.
There followed six weeks of experimentation to see if our ideas held water; a time in which I was to get to grips with the disabling effect a wheelchair has on a non-wheelchair user. I could remember as a child being told not to stare at people in wheelchairs. But to a child, to stare is to look with interest, a sign of curiosity that proceeds investigation, play and learning. I am sure that that message so widely and unthinkingly given to us as children stays with us and continues to colour our attitudes and our behaviour as adults. Thus when we meet someone in a wheelchair it is we the able bodied who act as though paralysed in thought and action, we who appear disabled by the encounter.
As our work progressed we became increasingly excited by the material and the techniques we were developing. The chair which initially separated us as dancers began to be involved as an extra element which we could choose to use or leave behind as we wished. Much of the early work pointed uncompromisingly toward choreography..... the act of a woman physically supporting a man is always an eloquent dance statement and one that cuts across the conventional male/female roles; how much more so when that woman is in a wheelchair. And so we started playing with social stereotypes not the least that which assumes that the person who is being looked after is necessarily the one seated in the chair.
This early experience encouraged us in our belief that what we were to establish would be a dance company that would work towards performance rather than as a therapy or disability awareness group.... awareness would come to those involved as it had to us through the joint venture of dancing and creating work together.
Until now the wheelchair has been the leitmotif of our work but gradually through writing, through talking, through images and through performing, other people facing other physical challenges will I hope get to hear about us and make us all as dancers grow, extend and develop our physical language still further.
It is certainly not a group for those wishing to help disabled people dance. Those who come with such an intention will be quickly disabused of any such notion. Everyone who comes is expected eventually to dance to his or her own limits, encouraged to find their own movement vocabulary, usurped as carers only to find themselves unexpectedly supported as I have been by a helping hand.