I have been working as an inclusive dance practitioner for 18 years and for Magpie Dance for 15 years; starting as Assistant Director of the then newly formed youth group and now in the role of Co Artistic Director. In that time, there has been a great deal of change at Magpie Dance and in the ‘inclusive dance world’ in general.
My early work was largely for Candoco Dance Company and in special schools. The work created, when watched by an audience, challenged the preconception of ‘a dancer’s body’. When I joined Magpie Dance my focus shifted to dance specifically for people with learning disabilities. We presented the same question of ‘a dancer’s body’ but ‘what someone with learning disabilities could achieve’ became an area I was also keen to explore, when challenging participants and audiences.
Throughout my career, when I tell people what I do, I have often been met with the response “that must be so rewarding”. This is usually well-intended, but it suggests I am doing a great community service and that people with learning disabilities are limited as to what they can achieve. However, when I ask myself the question “is my work rewarding?” – yes, it is. It is rewarding when I see someone achieve something in a dance class or on stage that may be an extraordinary achievement for them. It is rewarding when I see that through dance, the people I work with develop their communication skills and work more confidently than before. It is rewarding to change the opinion of someone who previously “didn’t know they could do that”. I adore having a job where I get to see people’s ideas of what is possible challenged, be it a parent who has been told what their child’s limitations are for so long that they believe it, or someone who happens across our work, seeing something they didn’t know existed. Yes – all of that is rewarding.
I have mentioned community dance participation challenging preconceptions, but there is also the issue of limited professional dance opportunities for people with disabilities. In a time when the arts are given even less importance in education and with curriculum dance often taught by PE teachers, it seems we have made little progress in challenging or supporting any change to education since I first started out 18 years ago. Professional training for people with disabilities, in order to pursue a career in dance, is still largely left to dance companies to provide as on the job training. This gap in training opportunities makes it all the more challenging to show what dancers with disabilities can achieve as professionals.
On a positive note, I have seen over the years more organisations placing importance on up-skilling their students and staff, to be able to cater for the needs of disabled individuals in their classes. Magpie Dance delivers inclusive dance CPD (endorsed by CDET). Our delivery has broadened over the past few years to include prestigious dance conservatoires, high profile dance companies and universities, as well as a number of individual practitioners who have undertaken our intensive training programme. It is encouraging to see that more organisations and individual practitioners want to develop their inclusive dance skills and seem to be seeking opportunities to do so.
Another positive change I have seen is that organisations/ companies are creating more formal partnerships to work together to achieve common goals. One such example is the Linked consortium, which sees Magpie Dance, Candoco Dance Company, Trinity Laban and Greenwich Dance working together to support disabled children and their families in south east London to enjoy dance. Unions such as this are certainly heading us in the right direction and creating unity.
Avril Hitman BEM, who in July 2017 stepped down as Founding Artistic Director of Magpie Dance after 32 years, taught both myself and my fellow Co Artistic Director Alison Ferrao a great deal when it comes to resilience and being change-makers. Alongside Thalie Martini, Magpie Dance’s Chief Executive and the rest of the Magpie Dance team, we will strive forward with our vision of ‘A world where a learning disability is no barrier to personal and artistic success in dance’.
Hopefully when the next person says my work “must be rewarding” I’ll have a more concise reply. I believe that every ‘body’ can dance -for enjoyment, for art or as a career. Yes, dance is rewarding and yes, promoting inclusion and challenging preconceptions is rewarding.
What I hope the most is that the more we challenge, create opportunity and educate, the less we will find ourselves compelled to justify our work in inclusive dance.
Magpie Dance Co Artistic Director – Youth, Education & Training