Integration in dance training, it's potential pitfalls and prizes.
By Adam Benjamin
Dance Theatre Journal. Summer, 1995
Despite my resistance to the phrase 'integrated dance’, I have fallen into its usage as a short hand or recognizable term for describing dance that involves both disabled and non-disabled people. Interestingly 'integrated' is a word that is rarely used amongst the members of CandoCo, where we tend to view ourselves simply as a dance company. Ironically, a word that means complete and whole has come to be used a bit like a road sign warning the unsuspecting of the presence of wheelchairs. As I wrote when we applied for our first funding, the need to describe the company as integrated is a reflection of a society that is itself in many ways dis-integrated. However much we may dislike labels ‘integration’
( bringing together the separate parts of a whole) continues to be something we need to understand on many levels. My hope is that this paper will throw some light on the relevance of integration in dance, why I believe it to be such an important development and how it is to be more fully accomplished
As my interest has shifted towards dance provision in higher education, I have begun working with others in the field to develop an 'integrated dance degree'. Our aim is to provide students with physical disabilities and or sensory impairments a viable, accredited pathway through existing courses. This is to be accomplished through the range of techniques offered and the flexibility of departmental programming. The resulting degrees will be in Dance or the Performing Arts and not, it should be stressed, in a new hybrid, 'Integrated Dance', a development which would once again only serve to segregate disabled students.
As dancers and dance teachers our medium is the body and our mode of appreciation, aesthetics. Put simply, our business is bodies; we more than anyone else define and redefine who and what is beautiful. This places those who challenge everyday prejudices about human physicality not in a separate and safely labeled category of their own, but somewhere very near the top of our philosophical agenda. Discussion that concern the body and aesthetics cannot proceed without an understanding of how we perceive, describe and treat different bodies culturally and politically. Why for example has one group of people with a particular body type been given the stage, whilst another has been denied access to the theatre, and indeed kept out of public sight altogether? Why is it acceptable in dance to represent every kind of human disability, be it emotional, intellectual or physical yet only through a perfectly shaped and trained body, whilst those portrayed may only perform within the de-valued aesthetic of the circus or side-show? What do each of these observations tell us about our own sensibilities and about the politics of aesthetics, a field some would lead us to believe should not be muddied by such considerations?
The history, social and cultural treatment of the physically disabled may not yet appear on the curriculum of our dance schools, but on closer examination this subject may prove to be in no small part the shadow or flip-side of the history of Western dance. No matter how much we all dream of quite and isolated studios in which to work, dance does not take place in a vacuum.
There is at times a particular magic that takes place in workshops when trained dancers - the elite of the body world - meet and dance with their disabled contemporaries. This is not to do with our current limited notions of 'therapy' but to do with the healing of a wider rift that stretches back over history and that effects us all. The word 'segregation' evokes images of walls and barriers but its origin refers to being deprived of touch. Whilst the disabled community have been kept behind closed doors, the non-disabled have lost touch with a corporeal vision grounded in reality, the search for ever more perfect and unnatural refinement in dance has led in the more extreme cases to a new disablement of dancers minds and bodies.
If we are to talk of a new dance ecology then we ignore these issues at our peril, for if the word ecology demands anything of us it is the responsibility to review our connections with each other and our environment, and this includes the environments we choose to place each other within, and exclude each other from.
I would argue that disabled dancers continues an evolution of thought and action that reaches back through the experimentations of X6, to the post-modern and modern dance pioneers. The first dancers to cast off their pointe shoes began an investigation not only into the way that dancers had been trained to move, but into the settings and structures, both physical and political, in which they worked. This questioning has seen a progression of generations of dancers reclaiming ownership of dance, and in the process reclaiming their personal voice as dance artists. It was within the context of this search for new meaning and relevance that 'found movement' was introduced into contemporary dance, a phrase coined by Yvonne Rainer to describe ordinary movement of everyday people, (the term often used to describe this movement was, interestingly, pedestrian ; a person traveling on foot.) The innovation resulting from the entry of disabled dancers into the still-exclusive world of professional dance, is in direct line with this progression of ideas. The unique body movement that is owned by the disabled dancer was not 'found' at the time, perhaps because it was still not visible (there was minimal access to the majority of public spaces). Had it been found, it could not have been imitated or used by trained dancers, for disabled dancers too have had to find and speak with their own, authentic voice. The struggle to find a language to describe this 'unfound' movement today, our awkwardness and hesitancy around using the right words is in itself an eloquent expression of progress into a new field. One that speaks of readjustments and ultimately of re-visioning.
It is only through shaking off the philanthropic notions and activities that have surrounded dance and disability, and replacing them with clear and well argued dance theory, that we will begin to establish the rational for providing access and training opportunities. Clearly if students with disabilities are given access to libraries and lecture halls, the academic curriculum should be capable of providing them the same headaches and highs it currently pose non-disabled students and there is little doubt that new perspectives will be thrown on the usual range of subjects such as dance history, politics, anatomy, choreography, notation etc.(of this more later) But it is within the practical realm of the dance studio that most concern is expressed amongst teachers and lecturers. This concern is “What constitutes ‘technique’ for a student with a physical disability, and how do you assess it?”
The emergence of this issue coincides with recent moves to review techniques and teaching practice throughout the profession and to ensure and encourage an all round 'healthier dancer'.
This increasingly holistic approach to dance training might be expressed as follows;
To know how our bodies work, to know and be comfortable with how they may differ and to know how they may (despite differences) be the vehicle for the fullest expression of what it means to be human.
This is a vision of dance training and dance education that incorporates the integrated philosophy that holism, by its very definition must seek to embrace.
There is little doubt that release work and contact improvisation provide the most appropriate and accessible techniques for teaching integrated groups. Both place high value on the individual student’s experience whilst supplying and promoting profound movement principles; both therefore allow learning to take place across a wide range of physicalities whilst valuing all equally. Assessments could be made accordingly based on individual development and achievement, and an ability to fulfill performance requirements. Auditioning and assessment were two areas that prompted much discussion at the recent Access and Excellence conference in Coventry and will be the subject of further research and reevaluation.
Many students entering a degree course will already be experienced in contact or New Dance, having encountered them through community dance projects led by such companies as Ludus, Motion House and CandoCo. New Dance and Contact Improvisation in particular, however, should not be considered a general dance panacea for the disabled student entering higher education, nor always the most appropriate technique for teaching or refining performance skills. On the contrary, every student's needs must be assessed individually in order to determine from which dance techniques he or she would most benefit. In this respect, disabled students' requirements of their tutors are no different from their non-disabled counterparts. It may for example be entirely appropriate for a wheelchair user to attend ballet class in order to improve arm and hand usage or a Humphrey/Limon class to learn the value of breath and about fall and recovery in the upper body..
At the same time it is important that we do not handicap students with disabilities by sending them to classes where the technique or the teacher is ill equipped, simply to satisfy some external appearance of ‘integration’.
Selective and intelligent use of technique can be extended still further by asking what additional approaches can be used to facilitate the progress of students with disabilities in their studies.
When we looked at the achievements of Celeste Dandeker, David Toole and Jon French from CandoCo Dance Company for example, it is evident that they possess not only a unique mastery of their bodies, but in addition a range of performance skills through which they are able to translate this physicality into outstandingly successful performance.
There will of course be disabled students who are fully committed and equipped to specialize in dance, and they should be given every assistance to do so. However it may be that placing a student within a Performing Arts course with the option of specializing or transferring to dance will provide a more engaging introduction to the performing arts, one that would provide a greater range of involvement than would be available through a straight dance degree.
It is in this light that I believe consideration should be given to extending disabled students’ skills into the area of theatre and the performing arts as a whole.
This will allow the opportunity to extend every performing skill ie., voice, mime, music and theatre - whilst using appropriate classes from the range of techniques and levels on offer in the dance department.
This pathway became evident through the New Educational Fund research recently carried out by CandoCo with Hereward College, Coventry Centre for Performing Arts, and Bretton Hall. Acknowledging the dearth of accessible college buildings in the country, let alone courses, the aim of the project was to see how the existing resources of each of these organizations might collectively constitute the components of an integrated pathway in further and higher education. Rather than waiting for the first purpose-built campus and performing arts block, our intention was quite simply, in their absence to build a route ourselves. The initial pilot project in November 1994, led to a triangular relationship being established between the three colleges. Coventry Centre for the Performing Arts is now helping Hereward produce it's own BTEC ND in Performing Arts. Students who successfully complete this course will be able to audition for the BA (Hons) in Dance at Bretton Hall College of the University of Leeds.
Until now the many highly talented disabled students we have worked with over the years have had no further avenue to pursue their interests or develop their skills. They have been participants, beneficiaries but ultimately captives of a community dance movement that has not recognized it's full educational imperative. Education means to lead out from . It is hard to imagine another field of dance or another section of the community where this function could be better used, or if ignored, more easily abused. Although it is possible for non-disabled students to study how to teach, help and care for people with disabilities through the medium of dance,there have as yet been no opportunities for the disabled and non-disabled to study and train together., as there have for example in the field of athletics. It is little wonder therefore that teachers graduating from such courses continue (albeit unintentionally) to reinforce attitudes of inequality, or that people with disabilities should, after their first dance session and the inevitable encounter bean-bags, parachute and squeezy foam balls, beat a dignified yet hasty retreat for the nearest door and become Olympic athletes.
One of the reasons for CandoCo’s success and continuation is that it is a group jointly led by disabled and non-disabled dancers; it is not a project for ‘the disabled’ led by the able-bodied. Such leadership is not just about personality, but is a reflection of training and experience, it is access to this shared experience of studying and working together that will create the bed-rock for further development and future success.
I am often asked what the prospects are, for disabled students following such a career path, when there is currently no guarantee of work even for the most talented students . To me this is a bit like asking why black students were given equal educational opportunities in the US South when no one was going to employ them when they graduated. It is a question of equipping young people with the tools to confront and change the future. In reality the arts are crying out for qualified, knowledgeable disabled practitioners, but in many instances are unable to find them. In all CandoCo’s travels teaching and performing throughout Europe, we rarely meet teachers who are themselves disabled. It is little wonder that students are reported to be achieving far above their usual levels when they are responding to examples set by disabled and non-disabled members of the company, all of whom share similarly high expectations.
The shift in levels of perception that disabled students will bring, and the issues that they themselves will raise, will no doubt serve to stimulate changes within course structures. This is a natural and desirable function of any new student intake, and one that serves to promote changes within the institution itself. The passage of the first students through such courses will I think, be far from easy; they will likely feel ill-supported and ill-understood, and they will in all probability be right. A teacher at a college we were working at recently attempting to ask me how many of the company were disabled, suddenly caught sight of David behind me in his wheelchair, and from a promising start trailed off into
"How many of your company are..um...have.........problems..?"
My honest but rather unhelpful reply was
"All of us."
Problems there will be aplenty, both in establishing a common language and a meaningful dance practice, but only through the successful resolution of these problems will a pathway be secured for students and teachers to follow in the future. The role of CandoCo and other like-minded people working in the field will be to provide teaching input, INSET courses and support and encouragement to all those engaged on this shared exploration of dance.
The change of a dance culture, takes place over time, and its influences, if real, permeate into society as a whole. The period of questioning and self-examination through which contemporary dance passed during the 60's and 70’s in Britain was seen by some as a necessary time of reevaluation, by others as a period of unforgivable self-indulgence leading to a dance culture that was irrelevant and inward-looking. Whatever the shortcomings of that period there can be no doubt that the potency which dance now has to reshape and re-vision our lives, owes much to those who were prepared to risk misunderstanding and even ridicule at that time.
The early New Dance pioneers in this country met and worked in a space which physically excluded most disabled people. The studio that took up the mantle of X6, Chisenhale Dance Space, remains inaccessible to this day. Yet the exploratory and pioneering work of dancers at that time; Steve Paxton, Fergus Early, Emilyn Claid, to name but a few, has directly and indirectly, twenty years hence, led to the studio doors of our schools and colleges opening to those who could not before have even dreamed of gaining access.
There are those concerned with the future development of professional dance in Britain who may still consider the issue of disability as remote and irrelevant, one that has no bearing on the 'high art' aesthetic. Perhaps it is worth remembering that two of the central British 'high art' choreographers today, Siobhan Davies and Richard Alston, were paint -dabbling experimentalists in the 60's and 70's. Both were part of an avante garde where contradictions were willingly embraced and uncertainties explored.... and if (and there currently seems some doubt) we are to achieve similar choreographic accomplishment in the future, then the unknown and the untried must once again be allowed to rub shoulders with established techniques and tested formulae, as it once did in the London School of Contemporary Dance under the patronage of Robin Howard. LCDT were not at any time prior to their dismantling accused of not being good enough dancers, quite the contrary (as their Olivier Award in 1994 proved. What they seemed to have lost was a lack of artistic direction. A lack of that excitement and expectation that comes from the meeting of new ideas.
To quote Chris de Marigny from an article he wrote in 1993 in Ballett International.
"It seems that the real excitement and energy is coming from the very edges of dance while the mainstream is struggling to reinvent itself in Great Britain."
The entry of disabled students into the most exclusive world of dance raises issues of aesthetics, politics, personality, sexuality -- the list is endless and and on every level contested. The ground for new creativity and the potential for learning that this brings is therefore both profound and exciting. This a subject that has an extraordinary history, one which continues to affect us all today, the lessons we learn, therefore will be more than academic; they will have an impact not only on dance as an art form, but on the way we perceive, treat and respect each other on as human beings. Surely this, in the end is the test of a vital, effective and truly contemporary art form.
Adam Benjamin @March 1995
First presented at Access and Excellence Conference - March 95
Published in abridged form in Dance Theatre Journal. Summer 1995