Most existing dance material and forms have been developed on and for non-disabled dancers. The training explores and pushes the movement possibilities a normative body has. The material relies on ableist assumptions about how body parts articulate, what the expected space use is (kinesphere and general space), what the ideal tempo and dynamic range is and how it is counted, structured and phrased.
Any phrase set and developed by a non-disabled teacher will have inherent ableist-traits or work with and make assumptions about the ability of the dancers with whom we are working.
There is a difference between the everyday use of a mobility device and the playful, creative use of it in a dance class, in the same way as there is a difference between walking down the high street and the playful skipping, prancing or sliding we use when dancing.
Non-disabled dancers are given more opportunities and encouragement to play and practice in this way and traditional dance material is very much set, developed and modelled on dancers with two legs. Disabled dancers, on the other hand, are often encouraged to practice and improve functional, everyday ways of moving and get fewer chances to be playful with their movement range or to copy and learn from people who share their specific movement range.
Whilst the standardised leg based variations can provide important reference points in order to examine form and function, we should also be aware that some aspects may be irrelevant to a certain dancer as it is not part of their movement range (e.g. wheelchairs do not actually leave the ground; propulsion tends to happen with a simultaneous push – alternating is possible but reduces the force, etc.).
On the other hand, both the teacher and the student should remain open to possibilities that are available to specific dancers’ movement ranges, which are not (yet) part of a codified ballet movement (e.g. both wheelchairs and Kaye frames have the possibility of very long glides that are not feasible on legs; crutches create a three-point support that can be played with).
Letting the dancers research and set their own material allows them to include movements we as teachers would not introduce. This gives the dancers an opportunity to demonstrate a different set of abilities. Learning material from their peers, rather than exclusively from the instructor, introduces a varied range of movement possibilities, including material from dancers with disabilities. This material introduced by the participants becomes teaching content on an equal level to the material introduced by the instructor.
Accumulating is a very helpful, compositional, creative and instructional device in setting material.
Accumulation is used in the teaching process when instructing and revising material. It involves performing the first movement, repeating it and adding the second movement, repeating from the start and adding the third movement. In series of numbers the process looks as follows: 1, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4 etc.
It is worth introducing and practising the accumulation process with the class, before asking students to use this process when setting their own material. This can be done through improvisation and a compositional workshop.
With a set phrase, ask the dancers to add movement material performed at the same time as the set phrase. Building on the principle of resolving, this can be entirely open (what are your possibilities at this point in the phrase?) or follow instructor set parameters (add a gesture while transferring, add a turn while travelling etc.).
With a set phrase, ask the dancers to add movement material in succession at specific points in the phrase. Building on the principle of resolving, this can be entirely open (“what are your possibilities at this point in the phrase?”) or follow instructor set parameters (add a turn, an extension, a transfer, etc.)
Alignment and placement are important for health and safety as well as stylistic or artistic reasons. Ballet is taught in an anatomically sound way; for instance, it respects and works with the natural turn out a dancer has rather than aiming for the idealised 180 degrees.
Overall, dance training aims to increase dancers’ awareness of their movement possibilities, develop strength, coordination, physical and artistic range.
In a UD informed class, I prioritise health and safety over aesthetic concerns and encourage the dancers to use consistent placement and tracking. For instance, for a dancer with tibial torsion, the tracking of the knee over the middle of the foot is anatomically neither possible or sound. We would identify the dancer’s natural tracking and aim to use this consistently throughout class. You may also want to discuss whether it is necessary to use the same amount of turn out on both supporting sides (symmetrical) or if it is alright to use however much turn out is available on either side.
When working with dancers with fundamentally different bodies, a teacher can’t always rely on their usual way of assessing correct and safe placement. It is a learning process that involves the teacher, student and possibly parent. Guiding principles and questions are:
Where necessary, I would seek advice from a physiotherapist to find out about a dancer’s safe alignment and best practice.
Video example: centre, narrow and wide – support positions for plié
Cataloguing is used as a step towards setting individual phrases. After exploring and improvising a task, the dancers are asked to differentiate, collect, remember and confirm their possibilities rather than finding new ones. In cataloguing, the dancers become increasingly aware of the various possibilities they have in performing a movement principle or task.
for example, initially, the concept of reaching/extending may be introduced and improvised around. Refining this, the dancers are then asked to explore and differentiate varying types of reaches; e.g. reaches using peripheral pathways to get to their most distant point (long, away from the body, like a tendu, grand battement or long back articulation) and reaches that use central pathways to get to their most distant point (bending to extend, near the body, like a developé, curve to lengthen).
The catalogue consists of a simple score of performing first one type of reach and then the next in order. By repeating this over a number of classes, the dancers develop, remember and refine their movement possibilities.
Video example: Centre: Turning Catalogue
In addition to regular classes it can be advantageous to offer coaching and tutorial sessions for students, including those with disabilities. This is consistent with dance studios offering extra coaching classes working with smaller groups of students preparing for examinations.
During the Grade 2 research week, the coaching part was embedded in a 30 minute ‘centre processing and coaching’ session at the end of the morning. The individual coaching was done whilst the rest of the group processed the class practice in their notebooks, learning to keep a dancer’s dairy. This workshop approach allowed the teachers and the dance support worker to work with individual students and giving the rest of the group independent processing and practice time.
The coaching class allows for explorations and discussions of specific access and learning considerations that the teacher and the student discover and identify during the regular class. This could also serve as an introduction to dance classes for newly recruited dancers in a school, helping with: working out specific access solutions, addressing specific learning goals and strategies, practising individually set phrases, technical and performance skills, etc.
The coaching session is not a ‘special’ dance and disability class. It is an extension to the regular class, bringing together a group of students, both disabled and non-disabled, to meet with the teacher in the studio and work on individual tasks, independently and with rotating supervision.
DSWs are dance educators supporting teachers in creating access to dance studio practice. Support Workers are used in the British education system and the subsidised dance sector. They are dance trained and have specialised knowledge in dance and disability. For the Grade 2 Ballet research with children, we worked closely with a number of DSWs. This was necessary for the running of the relatively intense research period but also gave us the opportunity to train more DSWs for the Gloucester area where the research took place.
In preparation we had a dedicated session with the DSWs and a number of external teachers. This included having a shared understanding of the UD approach and defining clear roles in working together. During the research period, each DSW was allocated two to three dancers to work with more closely. Their main task was pedagogic support but they also assisted and supervised during break periods. This freed up the teachers to focus on the instructional material and, in this case, also on the logistics of filming.
The DSW had conversations with the dancers about the type of support they might need in and outside the studio to enable them to participate to their fullest. In terms of pedagogy, we discussed a number of strategies varying in degree of support including: observation, feedback and revising, performing individualised versions in front of or beside the dancer, minimal physical or verbal prompting, etc. The support is based on the principle of minimal help in order for the dancers to engage with the challenges set by the class to the greatest extent possible.
DSWs and teachers regularly exchanged observations and feedback to plan together for the next session.
Demonstrations inherently have the danger of establishing an instructor-set phrase that can be copied by some but not all of the dancers, and work with ableist assumptions.
On the other hand, demonstrations are also important in explaining the process and modelling the desired performance quality. Demonstrations also show the willingness of the instructor to go through the same process, to improvise, to practice and be vulnerable.
In order to avoid creating an instructor set phrase, I challenge myself to keep changing the material while demonstrating a task.
With a set phrase, ask one dancer to shadow their partner, gradually recognising and understanding the movement elements they use.
The shadowing partner then chooses a number of moments where they join the performance. They can copy the whole movement, a fragment or a transposed aspect. Dropping / not joining is just as important as it creates deliberate pauses in the phrase. The partners then swap roles.
Drop and join can of course also be played with improvised material. The shadowing partner has to make instantaneous choices of when and what to join. Rather than aiming for a synchronised shadowing, I would encourage working with a time lapse. It turns more into a following or echoing of the material.
The concept of drop and join is best introduced as an improvisational score, as it allows the dancers to grasp the concept in a playful and active way. On the other hand, an improvised version can also be seen as an advanced version where a sense of performance quality is required, while navigating a complex task.
Individualising is an approach that is widely used in regular school teaching. There is a large body of pedagogic research and experience available in terms of individualised teaching approaches.
Applying individualised teaching approaches in the class context moves away from disability specific approaches or working with ‘adapting’ movements for or by disabled dancers.
Working with individualised material in a dance class teaches all the students how to make the material relevant to their movement range and learning goals. It involves analysing, translating, composing, remembering and independent performance of the material.
Traditionally these skills were demanded of students with disabilities when working with adaptations. Here, we are aiming to make these skills relevant to the whole community of learners. Also see: Universal Design of Instruction,
In both research groups several of the dancers with a physical disability worked with one or more mobility devices (wheelchair, Kaye frame, crutches, etc.). Teachers and dancers discussed preferences and interests in working with these devices.
One consideration is: what mobility device does the dancer use in everyday life. Advantages are that they are familiar with the device and understand its possibilities in the everyday context. The dance context, however, shifts the use of the body and the device into a playful and aesthetic experience. An alternative consideration therefore is: which device provides the dancer with the greatest possible movement range in a dance context? There are, of course, also training needs, personal preferences a dancer may have and the teaching goals of a class to consider.
The decision regarding which specific device to work with may change depending on the answers to these questions. Some dancers with missing limbs prefer working without their prosthetic or other mobility device for most of the class. Depending on the travel or movement phrase, they may transition to working with a crutch or a wheelchair within the same session.
While supporting versatility and flexible use of devices in principle, this is weighed against managing different devices within the class period. Constant transitions between different pieces of equipment can interfere with the flow of the class and prevent the dancer from developing specific alignment, material and skills while working with same set up. Also see: set up for class (below).
For the professional research group, Vicky Malin worked without a mobility device, in line with her everyday and professional dance practice. Suzie Birchwood, on the other hand, uses both crutches and a wheelchair in both circumstances. Due to the limitation of only having five days to develop and film the class material, we agreed on continuity and focusing on the wheelchair practice for the research project.
Working with a group of children, the same argument could have been made. However, unlike the professional dancers, many of the children were still finding out what happens in the dance class and which of their mobility devices gave them the widest movement range and their fullest dance experience.
I frequently use a sequentially set series of movement prompts to develop individualised movement phrases with the dancers.
Example: Travelling phrase on the diagonal:
Video Example: Centre: Waltz Phrase
The elements are introduced and explored individually and then accumulated into a phrase. The dancers rapidly move from exploring and improvising to cataloguing and setting. Alternatively, the dancers can be asked to continue improvising while keeping the sequential order of the elements (similar to a jazz riff with set chords).
There are, of course, unlimited ways to generate movement prompts:
I tend to use language informed by Choreology / Laban Movement Analysis for my movement prompts, working with abstract, aesthetic expressive movements. Imagery and evocative scores are just as effective and may work better for specific class environments to elicit rich and varied movement material. As an instructor, use your expertise and experience to inform your choices for movement prompts.
Resolve allows the class to work with set aspects and to find free developments of the material. It is a way to explore the inherent movement potential a position, articulation or principle offers to different dancers.
Example: First instruct and set the movement principle of a swing; the dancers then choose body parts to perform the swing and find their way of resolving the swing movement and momentum.
Ask the dancers to pair up and perform their material in juxtaposition and to observe differences, similarities, contrasts and connections. This can be done with improvised as well as set material.
When working with set material, ask the dancers to share the same time frames (not necessarily counted) for the corresponding movement elements; eventually developing a shared understanding for the timing and phrasing.
Replacing works as a development of an established drop and join phrase. Once both dancers are secure in performing the drop and join phrase with each other, they aim to replace the pauses with the corresponding elements in their original phrase.
Replace can be introduced and practised as an improvised score, where the dancers join phrase material from their partner and then replace the copying with performing their own material.
Any phrase that is performed live has both improvised and set aspects. Many formal ways of teaching favour more closely set and repeatable material. Improvisation and developing ever new ways of performing a task or a score is of course an important dance skill in itself. Valuing and teaching this, we do not always need and want to work towards setting the material, but to encourage and support the dancers in developing their range of improvisational skills.
When setting we can also work partially, setting a number of cornerstones, while other aspects remain improvised. Consider only setting the spatial structure, the time structure, some movement elements, the sequential order, etc. We can differentiate between phrases set by the participants and those set by the instructor (see below).
After exploring, improvising and defining a movement principle, the participants are asked to catalogue and then select their movement material that best represents the criteria set by the instructor. This is a composition task and the dancers are asked to select critically, reflect on their individual abilities and then remember the material independently.
The challenge for the teacher is: recognise and analyse the various versions of the emerging material; see to what degree it fits the set criteria and remains consistent in its performance.
As an instructor, I can set phrase material by introducing and accumulating a set of movement prompts. This is a more open and accessible setting.
Teaching a prepared, set phrase is a more traditional scenario, where the instructor presents a (basic) set phrase, which the participants (copy and) learn.
This runs the risk of working with ableist assumptions. Introducing set material in an inclusive class either requires the teacher to know the participants well, in order to select suitable elements, or for the students to be very familiar and comfortable with transposing material.
My recommendation for this way of working is: use it sparingly, use it for a specific section in the class (not the entire lesson) with groups that you are familiar with and with students that have a good grasp of analysing and transposing material. Keep the instructions fairly open and encourage and support the students in transposing.
Any new student in a dance class learns how to prepare and set up for class, what the basic studio rules are and the expected learning behaviour in the different sections of the class (barre, centre and centre travel). It is worthwhile unpicking these conventions and considering how best to instruct a student about their participation in class.
Many of these aspects are the same for all the students. Working with a student with a disability a conversation with the instructor may also include addressing individual adjustments to attire, footwear, which mobility devices to bring in, where to position these in the studio, how and where to position themselves in the studio for the different sections, how they best access audio and visual information, etc. Both collective and individual preparation and class set up can be covered in coaching and tutorial sessions.
Working with adaptions, dancers with disabilities often transpose/translate demonstrated material into their movement range. It is a term which is used in music when shifting a melody into a different key or from one instrument to another.
Transposing dance material is a skill that needs to be learnt and supported by the instructor. Working with this process as a whole class, the dancers take an improvised score or a set phrase and apply it in a different context, e.g. transposing material from one body part to another, from upright to the floor, from stationary to locomotion and vice versa.
Essentially, it works on the compositional form of theme and variation.
Video example: Centre Mirroring: Different Set up – Drop and Join