Our overarching aim was to explore to what degree a ‘universal’ approach (informed by Universal Design of Instruction) and teaching methodologies developed for inclusive technique classes could be applied to the highly codified genre of ballet, thereby making it accessible to a wider diversity of dancers.
Being codified, ballet offers both clear definitions of movements as well as a highly structured and comprehensive way of practising and learning dance skills.
The overall goal was to establish a class format that goes through the main sections of a usual ballet class and works with core ballet material and teaching goals (see general principles below).
From the ballet vocabulary and class, we selected key elements around which to model an inclusive approach to ballet.
We were guided by the following research questions:
and, for each section, exercise or movement:
The research questions above were applied to sections of the class, e.g. what is the form and function of the barre, an adagio, as well as specific movements, e.g. what is the form and function of a plié, a dehors turn.
Ballet has accumulated a catalogue of specific movements over some four centuries from Renaissance dance forms to neoclassical Ballet and beyond. It can seem that ballet is a fixed set of material but it continues to develop, by responding to different influences from popular to theatre dances.
Choices about what movements to teach and which aspects of the form to emphasise change and are always only a selection of the overall body of work.
Ballet classes are traditionally structured into distinct sections moving from barre to centre and across the floor. The class builds from smaller articulations to using an increasingly bigger movement range, from a soft to a vigorous effort and from simple movements in multiple repetitions to complex choreographic structures. Material is introduced and developed so that the simpler starting material is related to and prepares for the more complex movements and choreography.
The barre section serves to warm up, prepare and focus the dancer. With the support of the barre, the dancers move within their own kinesphere, performing material in different directions, e.g. with the right or left side of their body nearest to, or facing, the barre.
The exercises tend to be detailed, practice-specific articulations in isolation, using repetition and variations in different directions to refine the execution, memorise and internalise the coordinated patterns and to develop strength, flexibility and awareness.
Revisiting the established movement material from the barre, progressing from the kinesphere into the area in the immediate general space.
The movement range moves more quickly from small to big, using the traditional directions (croisé, effacé, etc.) and also introduces increased choreographic complexity and a wider vocabulary including larger extensions, balances, turns and travelling material (Adagio phrases).
The centre also introduces preparation for jumping and jump combinations (petit allegro).
Travelling steps are introduced and practised across the diagonal; initially in single repetitions and, later, in more complex choreography. This section often includes Waltz combinations and larger jump combinations (grand allegro).
Conducting the research with a group of children we made the following considerations:
We always worked through warm up and progressed to dancing in the general space but, as the sessions tended to be shorter, we allowed a more flexible use of barre, centre and centre travel. Depending on the teaching content, a class may focus on one of these sections, use all three, start in the centre and progress to the barre, etc.
On advice from our RAD partners and teacher Linda Virgoe, we opted for three 60 minute slots per day, which makes it more of a dance holiday club, rather than the 30 – 45 minute weekly classes the dancers normally attend.
Having two sessions in the morning and one in the afternoon, we decided to have a 30 minute session to process the information and to allow for individual coaching (see: centre, processing and coaching) at the end of the morning. This proved to be hugely popular with the children and we recommend a similar approach for the weekly sessions in dance schools (see: coaching and tutorial).
Reflecting on the form and function of the barre for instance we ask:
Working with professional dancer Suzie Birchwood using a wheelchair, we decided together to work parallel to and near the barre and for Suzie to use and explore the wheelchair as support structure. E.g. barre: plié (professional).
This is not a hard and fast rule. For other dancers a stool, frame, crutches or the floor may serve the same purpose as the barre exploration and discussion of which mobility aid or other tool to use extended to other sections of the class as well.
This question became particularly relevant in the research week with children, where several were using a number of different devices.
As part of growing up and developing, the children are transitioning from using one device to another for their everyday life (e.g. from using a frame to using sticks, or from using a wheelchair to using a prosthetic). Also see: mobility devices (in Glossary).
For the barre we explored and defined specific individual set ups (barre set up), working with a range of walkers and crutches, but reconsidered different options for the centre and travelling sections.
These choices need to be reconsidered over time as the students develop, transition to different devices and mature as dancers.
Guiding questions are:
The same process is then also applied to the subsequent sections of the class:
This leads to important reflections on how to work in the kinesphere and the general space. What are for instance appropriate tempo, movement and space use for different dancers?
The reflection of form, function and intention was also applied to specific ballet vocabulary and is shown and discussed in the video section.
An example we include here is the plié as it’s one of the primary ballet movements.
What is its form? What does a plié look like?
Do we define the plié as a folding and extending of the legs in different support positions? Could we refer to the plié as a folding of the support structure and could this then also be the arms or the torso depending on the dancer?
What is its function of a plié? What do we do with a plié?
Depending on when we do the plié, our answer varies and includes: lowering and rising, warming up, strengthening, transferring weight, jumping, landing, generating momentum, preparation for turns, balances, etc.
Depending on our answer, we are foregrounding training, teaching or artistic goals and intentions in working with a plié.
Particularly with the plié, there are some very clear ideas of what a “correct” plié is in terms of its form.
When dancers have different alignments and/or transpose the function of the plié into different body parts, we need to reconsider some of these ideas and foreground the function and intention as well as basic anatomical safe practice over conventional aesthetic preferences.
Especially while working with the group of children, we started a conversation about what constitutes an anatomically sound placement, weight distribution and tracking of joints for individual dancers. Involving parents and, where in place, physiotherapists already working with a specific child is helpful.
Reflecting on the form and function of specific movements in the ballet vocabulary leads to important discussions with the participants about teaching goals and artistic intentions.
As important as this is for creating access, it is also important information for any dancer in a class, who should all be asking:
Considering these questions can only make each dancer (disabled or non-disabled) a better artist and performer.
There are no generic answers to these research questions. The form or function movements and individual ways to perform them vary from context to context and from dancer to dancer.
The video examples show specific material, relevant to the dancers that participated in the research and reflect their current understanding and level of training in ballet.
Whether the individualised material would be acceptable for examination purposes fell outside the parameters of this phase of research. It is something for future consideration by examining bodies. The Royal Academy of Dance provided the following statement to make their current position clear.
The Royal Academy of Dance invites applications from examination candidates requesting reasonable adjustments on the grounds of disability. The term ‘disabled’, for the purposes of the RAD’s examinations, encompasses any medically diagnosed physical, mental, learning or behavioural impairment which is likely to affect the candidate’s performance in the examination. Such conditions will normally be permanent or consistently recurring.
Candidates may wish to request for special arrangements or aids to be put in place to enable them to enter for and complete an examination. In these cases, we will make adjustments to administrative and/or examination procedures if such adjustments are judged to be reasonable, necessary and practicable.
Ballet, by its very nature, is a precise physical art concerned with shape, line, co-ordination, musical and performance qualities. It is within these parameters that the RAD welcomes candidates with disabilities or conditions for graded and vocational graded examinations. Although candidates may use the reasonable adjustment process to request changes to published syllabus requirements which they may wish to make due to a disability, and we will deal with such requests sensitively, ultimately all candidates taking an RAD exam will be assessed against the same criteria, which are defined by outcome rather than intention.
For further information, students, parents and teachers are advised to read the Reasonable adjustments and special consideration for examinations: policy and procedures available here: https://www.rad.org.uk/achieve/exams/teachers-entry-guide/reasonable-adjustment
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