Let’s face the music and dance


Dance can be defined as the rhythmic movement of the body, often
performed in time to music or the accompaniment of a song. The
first Indian book on dancing, the Natya Sastra existed a millennium
before the first European institution, L’Academie Royale de
Dance, founded by Louis XIV in 1661. Since then dance has typified
periods in history, such as the waltz in the nineteenth century,
disco-dancing in the 1970s (as popularised by John Travolta in
1978’s ‘Saturday Night Fever’) and break-dancing in the

With its many forms, dance unifies through inclusiveness. And as
such it has been cutting a rug through social care. For the
socially excluded and those with disabilities or mental health
needs dance offers a way to improve confidence and self-esteem, and
can provide a sense of achievement and worth. It also celebrates
personal creativity. It’s healthy. And it’s good

Internationally renowned choreographer and artistic director of
Amici dance company, Wolfgang Strange, believes that “dance is
positive wherever and there should be no exclusion. It gives
something special to all people and doesn’t exclude the
onlooker and participants.” Strange is highly committed to
recognising dance as “a sharing process of integrating non-disabled
people with people with learning difficulties. At Amici we do not
see our users as weaker than non-disabled people. We are all

In workshops, Strange explains how “the users are constantly
decision-making and are often encouraged to take part in
choreography, which gives them a sense of line, space and shape.”
This strong collaboration with other art forms stresses a symbolic
“sharing process”, crucial to any lead-up to a performance, since
the users and employees of Amici are “comfortable not imposing
something on somebody else”.

When it comes to the actual performance, Strange provides an
insight into the user’s approach and manner, which are
integral to their unique practice of dance: “People with learning
difficulties are not clouded by ‘yes’ and
‘no’, which makes them very direct and honest. Their
performance is not as fluent as trained dancers, but there is
clarity of their own movement. They are not doing it for show.”

Anjali dance company (the name is Sanskrit for “joining hands”),
founded by artistic director and performance arts tutor, Nicole
Thomson, has created the opportunity for people with learning
difficulties to use their creative ideas and energies. “They gain a
host of benefits such as training, health and fitness,
co-ordination, confidence, working in a team, understanding social
awareness, integration and so on,” says Thomson. “In terms of the
movement of dance, we don’t impose movement but we help to
shape their movement by allowing the users to have an understanding
of what they are.”

Anjali’s last tour included ‘Through New Eyes’, a
production choreographed and directed by the company itself. There
are also company-led workshops which dancers run themselves.
Thomson says they recently choreographed another group, which
“enabled us to impart skills on other people and inspire other

Dancing undoubtedly has a confidence-boosting effect on people
with learning difficulties. One person, according to Thomson, “who
was very shy and who wouldn’t speak to anybody has now
blossomed into a fantastic dancer who can remember intricate
choreography.” This shows the striking effect that dance carries in
cultivating self-confidence in people with learning difficulties by
“giving them a platform to express themselves”.

‘Learning to Dance’ by Dale Brown is a personal story of
Dale’s experiences as a disabled child learning to dance.
Dale had problems with her sight, hearing and co-ordination. She
describes her early experiences: “My body didn’t do what it
was supposed to do. It felt far away and I’d reach and
concentrate to get my heavy, awkward arms and legs to move
correctly. Sometimes the teacher would say, ‘Dale don’t
do that. Do this instead’. He’d show me what I was
doing wrong and then show me how to do it right. Why did he do the
same thing both times? I couldn’t understand it. Now I know
that I couldn’t visually perceive the difference. But back
then, I thought he was fooling me.”

Dale explains her struggle in overcoming her learning
disability: “As a child, I had learned not to show emotion, I never
cried, but always felt tears behind my eyes. Sometimes, in class, a
few tears would squeeze out of the corners of my eyes. It released
the pressure and felt good, especially the coolness of the tears on
my cheek. But I didn’t want anyone to notice. Nobody said
anything about it. I was embarrassed so often, I was numb to the

When Dale was moved from the intermediate class to the
beginner’s class, she was ashamed of being in a class with
younger children but she was not in an environment suited to her
needs. But neither did she share her disability with those without
disabilities. The strength of dance companies such as Amici and
Anjali is that they combine able-bodied and disabled dancers
together and allow the people to pool their creative ideas and

Despite the shame and anger, Dale concludes: “I am glad that I
took modern dance, though. The perceptual-motor training helped me.
My dance teacher was more helpful than many of my other teachers.
I’m not sure why and how, but I think he cared for me and
tried to help me learn. And caring helps disabled people most of

The Association for Dance Movement Therapy UK focuses on using
dance and movement as a form of therapy to a range of people
including those with mental health problems. Senior dance movement
therapist, Nina Papadopoulos, works in health, education and
private practice. Due to the varied range of clients of dance
movement therapy (DMT), dance in its broadest sense, including
creative movement, exercise and many specific forms of dance may be
included in the therapeutic session. According to Papadopoulos,
“when working with elderly patients with dementia and
Alzheimer’s disease, DMTs (Dance Movement Therapists) may use
English country dance music and patients may engage in this sort of
regular structured dance form. On the other hand, when working with
children with behavioural difficulties, DMTs may suggest that the
children bring in their favourite music and they may create dances
together to this music. When working with patients who suffer from
various psychiatric disorders, gentle stretches and exercise or
purely creative movement may be the only form of dance that is used
during the session.”

Naturally, dance and movement will help different people with
mental health needs in different ways, since the complexity of any
illness will require its own form of psychotherapeutic treatment.
By allowing patients to address and confront their mental health
problems through movement and dance, people such as Papadopoulos
offer an alternative path to recovery. For clients suffering from
ME, panic attacks or the effects of abuse, Papadopoulos suggests
that “DMT may allow these people to enter their psychological
worlds through the creative medium of movement and dance, which
sometimes enables these clients to begin to see and experience
themselves differently and so change becomes possible.” People
suffering from schizophrenia, which includes symptoms such as
delusions, hallucinations, disorganised speech or grossly
disorganised or catatonic behaviour can benefit from movement and
dance as it “often provides a grounding experience for them that is
helpful in allowing them to connect in more appropriate ways with
the ‘shared reality’; with other people and their own

In relation to people suffering from dementia, Papadopoulos
suggests that by “connecting with movement, dance, rhythm and the
body some level of normative interaction is possible as these
functions tend to be less affected by the dementia.” Also, people
who suffer from depression, who can often seem passive and
withdrawn, can respond positively to dance and movement exercises.
Papadopoulos says that once those in a group have trust with each
other, “they begin to explore movement together with other group
members through mirroring movement, moving to different kinds of
music, engaging in different movement activities with different
props such as balls and balloons, as well as creating movement

People with mental health problems or physical illnesses or
those who simply have an interest in it can have the opportunity to
take part in this practice-based therapy and use dance as a step
towards positive mental health.

Jackie Ryan and June Patterson are two members of the weekly
class for people with learning difficulties run by Corali dance
company at Sadler’s Wells theatre. They explained how their
dance classes acted as a stepping stone to securing confidence,
acceptance and trust. And how there is a severe lack of dance
companies for people with special needs, yet there are ample
resources available for people without. “There are a lot of dance
companies but as soon as you say I’ve got a learning
disability they don’t want to know you, which makes us feel
small and makes us feel that we are not wanted,” says Jackie.
Whereas at Corali, according to June, “there is no pressure, they
don’t judge you for what you are or who you are.” Confidently
and tellingly, June adds: “It doesn’t matter if you have a
disability or not. People should have a chance to have a go.”

So, how does dance help? “It is the same as everybody else,”
says June, “it doesn’t matter if you have a learning
disability or not. No-one’s perfect. You just watch, learn
and listen and copy what they do. You’re not just going to
say ‘I am going to put my head in the oven’ –
that’s what gives you the confidence.”

Jackie and June also take great pride in working with young
children. They say it feels a great honour to show younger people
their movements and more so from the children learning from them.
“The movements we do help people with learning difficulties to show
their emotions physically as they don’t know how to express
themselves emotionally,’ says Jackie.

The artistic director of StopGap dance company, Vicki Balaam
agrees: as a form of communication, dance is “sacred” for people
with learning difficulties since the dancers are “able to
communicate without getting tied up with verbal communication”. She
says dance can offer the “healthy release of ‘just’
moving’, which applies to all of us, not just people with
learning difficulties”. In particular, Balaam talks about Chris, a
dancer at StopGap who has Down’s syndrome. Not only has Chris
advanced his verbal communication and comprehension, but also, “he
has developed a clear sense of responsibility, and has developed
into being a professional dancer and workshop leader.” This has
given him the independence and strength to resist from referring to
himself as disabled.

In a way we can associate body language with dance or even argue
that as movement it is a form of dance. And movement as dance or
body language is a method of communication and expression. Whether
one is expressing love, hatred, anger, sympathy, joy or misery,
dance can function as a physical movement of emotions. Therefore,
surely the practice of dance, which can illustrate emotion as
movement and expression, goes hand-in-hand in the attempt to
communicate and connect with others. As an old friend once said to
me at a long overdue reunion: “Life’s like a dance floor so
let’s take to the stage and dance!”


Amici Dance Company

Turtle Key Arts

Ladbroke Hall

79 Barlby Rd

W10 6AZ

Tel: 020 7385 1327

Artistic Director – Wolfgang Strange

Anjali Dance Company

The Mill Arts Centre,

Spiceball Park,


OX16 5QE

Tel / Fax: 01295251909

Artistic Director – Nicole Thomson

E-mail: info@anjali.co.uk


Disabilities OnLine: First Person – Learning to Dance

Corali Dance Company

Sadlers Wells

Lilian Baylis Theatre

Rosebery Avenue


For more information on booking: Wieke Eringa

Tel: 020 7863 8128

Education Training Officer – Bridget Chew

Tel: 020 7231 8889

E-mail: office.corali@virgin.net

Thanks to users of Corali Dance Company:

Jackie Ryan

June Patterson

Sarah Charles

StopGAP Dance Company




GU22 9BF

Artistic Director – Vicki Balaam

Tel: 01784741740

E-mail: vick@stopgap.uk.com

The Professional Association for Dance Movement Therapy
in the United Kingdom

ADMT UK c/o Quaker Meeting House,

Wedmore Vale,



E-mail: query@admt.org.uk

Senior Dance Movement Therapist – Nina Papadopoulos

Tel: 020 8556 3180

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