Reflections on an integrated dance & drama project by Helen Robertson

Reflections on an integrated disability dance & drama project with Phab Westminster

I really didn’t know what I had let myself in for when I responded to a Facebook request for a workshop leader for a disability drama & dance project at short notice; but I did some  research, the post was in a disability page, it was by a friend of a dance friend and the project co-ordinator responded straight away – so it was all good!

In fact, as the Project Co-ordinator said before I even got there “Westminster Phab residential week is something truly special.” And he turned out to be right…

‘The film clip from the previous year said it all… There was a real sense of integration between the sixth formers from the school and the PHAB members. I was really encouraged by this and could see I was going to have a great time working with my group of 18 ‘hosts’ and ‘guests’.

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Everyone was working together in mixed groups, the technical standard of the music work was amazing and so was the artwork. There were social events as well as the workshops and there didn’t seem to be any difference between the able bodied and the disabled – they were just people of various ages, taking part and enjoying paticipating in arts activities.

My direct experience of this project re-enforced the idea of integration as opposed to inclusion which was discussed in an article in the last Dance Renegades blog by Joop Oonk I’ve used the term integrated, as I feel its more of an arts term and implies working together, whereas ‘inclusion’ for me, tends to be used in schools and has different points of reference for me personally.

This year the theme was ‘James Bond – 007′ and around 180 Phab members took part in workshops in music, visual art, design & technology, photography and drama & dance.

Each student had volunteered to take part in the residential as an extra-curricular activity during their own time, as well as the teachers’ and staff from the school who gave up their own  holiday time. The hosts cared for individual guests on a 24hr basis, so they got a real sense of what it is like to live and study alongside a disabled person.

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The big challenge for me as workshop leader was finding drama and movement ideas that I could prepare beforehand that would be accessible to both able bodied and disabled group members. As I mainly work with improvisation and structure material from this, I felt comfortable with developing ideas with the group as the week progressed and finding the transitions that would link from one idea to the next. So,  I  prepared a phrase movement as a starting point for ideas. I tried to capture the essence of Bond as a character in a way that wasn’t  too dance-like or travelled too much, so I used gesture instead. For the drama scenes I was able to use ideas from Dorothy Heathcote’s ‘Mantle of the Expert’ and put the performers into role as James Bond. We took these initial improvs and worked on them in small groups for performance.

After an initial ‘get to know you session’ I delved straight in with a movement task that focused on ‘chase’ and use of character as James Bond. Ideas started flowing and we began to refine them. We looked at film clips, thought about storylines, discussed what special gadgets he might use, thought about the other key characters in Bond films like ‘Q’ and ‘M’. I was really pleased with our first day of work together. The second day was good too, but participants were tired by the afternoon and we had tried one section of material that wasn’t gelling together very well and decided not to use it. This left me with a challenge for the last full day, but after some thinking time and a day out at Hampton Court,  I knew we had made the right decision choreographically. It was tough preparing enough to go back into the studio on the final day and pull it all together…but we got there though teamwork and adjusting the session to allow for breaks to accommodate the energy level and concentration of the group.  I felt a great sense of relief by Saturday night and was able to happily boogie along at the Casino Royale dinner and disco. Finding the balance between challenging the physical capabilities of the group memebers, but retaining a sense of enjoyment throughout the week had been constantly on my mind. Furthermore, we were due to share our work with family and friends at the end of the week. This balance between process and product is always a tricky one to negotiate successfully as workshop leader.

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Interestingly, one of the guests who has cerebral palsy turned out to be an genuine expert on ‘Bond’. He could name every actor who had played him and knew most of the names to the Bond theme tunes from different era’s. I was impressed –  I’d been researching all weekend to get up to speed on Bond! This kind of enthusiasm was fantastic, it helped us develop improv scenes and created a sense of ownership and context for the work. I worked with this guest and his host to find different ways of moving on the floor. At the beginning of the week he just crawled without his walking frame. By the end of the week we had also explored movement with his torso and arms and  different ways of rolling. He ended up not using his walking frame for either the drama scenes or the dance performance, which I’m sure he found liberating and was a joy to see.

The wheelchair user in the group had limited speech and communicated mainly by gesture. Through constant communication and interpretation by her host and myself we managed to find ideas and movements that she was able to achieve in her chair. By thinking carefully about the placement of the dancers in group sections and use of spacial awareness from the whole group throughout their time on stage we created the opportunity for her to be seen as one of the group. The introduction that Juliette and Luke gave about the work at the final sharing really summed up their feelings about working in an integrated way and both being accepted as young people who dance.

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This unique personal experience of caring for a disabled person 24 hrs a day, facilitating and  supporting their enjoyment and learning throughout the workshops and visits to events like a West End Show and a day out at Hampton Court, was something that was clearly valued by the school as shown by the Headmaster’s comments on the school website.  I’ve since found out, that the project has been going for 40 years. That’s quite an acheivement in this day and age. How do they make it happen each year? Through sheer energy, enthusiasm, comittment and belief in the work they are doing and acknowledgement of the benefits for all involved, plus the support of their National Phab colleagues.

By the end of the week I understood this and came away with a real sense of how much this project means to the disabled people aged 8 – 80 years old who take part, the students, staff and workshop leaders. No wonder its the highlight of their social calendar. I’m looking forward to going back for next year’s special 40th Anniversary Celebrations too.

by Helen Robertson (Dance Artist)