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Goucestershire Dance Awakenings: Awakenings Five

Awakenings in Cheltenham

Mainstream Primary

An integrated dance project for pupils with special needs from Bettridge School and St. James School, Cheltenham
A Report by the Organisers: Gloucestershire Dance
(This is the complete text of the report by Sarah Shaw; some photographs, drawings and children's writing have been omitted.)

Gloucestershire Dance has been delighted to be able organise this fifth Awakenings project, this time in the Cheltenham area.

Awakenings was set up as an Integrated Dance Project that involved children with severe learning difficulties from Bettridge School working with children from the neighbouring mainstream St. James School. They were brought together in dance workshops that took place throughout the week of May 21 st - May 25th 2001.

Project Leaders

The Project was extremely fortunate to have leaders who had a wealth of expertise in work of this kind, and have led the previous Awakenings projects. A professional dancer Jasmine Pasch, was accompanied by lan Stewart, an experienced musician, and they came to Cheltenham from London to lead this exciting project. With their skill and caring, they used dance and music to develop and improve the skills of co-operation, trust and sensitivity between the children.

These experienced practitioners empowered all the young people to listen through watching and touching, and to use movement to communicate with each other.

This way of working broke down the barriers that can be caused through disability, and removed the difficulties that can be encountered when speech, movement and behaviour are different from the norm.

The Schools

Bettridge School decided to involve their 3 classes from Key Stage 2 together with pupils from a year 7 class from KS3. They also included 3 profoundly disabled students that they thought would enjoy and benefit from the experience. This gave a total of 27 children. By mixing the classes, Bettridge was able to give both their pupils and staff the chance to integrate not only with St. James, but also with different classes and staff from within their own school, and this opportunity was much appreciated and worked well.
St. James involved 33 pupils - mainly from Year 5 but with the addition of seven Year 6 pupils.

Setting Up the Project

A timetable had been carefully constructed to ensure that the young people always worked in the same groups, so enabling all the children within these groupings to get to know each other. We were concerned therefore when it was realised that this information had not been disseminated and so on one occasion the wrong groups were working together. This problem was soon spotted however, and the groups re-established for the rest of the week.

This way of working, keeping the same groups of children together is a important part of the positive nature of the project. This extremely successful format means that the children from each school that work together in their groups can build up understanding and friendship. It had been decided by the staff at St. James to do the minimum of preparation with their pupils about what the forthcoming week and the pupils from Bettridge might be like. They felt that it was important that their pupils should have as few pre-conceptions as possible. This was reflected in many of the comments by the St. James pupils about how they had viewed the project before it started:
"At the start of the week Ifelt extremely nervous. I had no idea what the children from Bettridge school would be like. But still, I couldn't wait to meet the children at Bettridge."
"I was a bit scared at first, although I wanted to do this dance and meet new people."
"I felt excited because we were doing something that you wouldn't normally do"
"Ifelt very nervous working with disabled people."

Therefore there was a very steep but positive learning curve for the pupils of St. James, which could be summed up by one pupils thoughts about the week:
"Ifelt a little frightened at first because I wondered about the people and I started asking questions to myself such as would I like them? or would they like me? Once I got started, I realized that they did like me. We played and I kept a smile on my face. The best part of the week was making new friends, in fact I loved it all."

This approach was clearly successful, as, despite understandable nervousness, the St. James pupils were ready to meet any situation with an open mind and were able to be free to work with any situation. It was very clear as the week progressed that the young people from St. James came to regard the pupils from Bettridge as new and much-valued friends. They became genuinely fond of each other as the week progressed. On their evaluation sheets, these comments were typical of the St. James' pupils:
"It was lovely, what was nice was to make new friends."
"Ithought they might be a bit naughty, but they were fine.I made a few new friends, it was really good."
"My best thing was making new friends and playing with Calum in the wheelchair."
"I felt happy to be with them. They were very smiley and kind."

It was clear also from the beginning that the Bettridge children were relating to the St. James children. They enjoyed getting to know them and being able to work with them. One of their staff wrote:
"It offered Bettridge the opportunity to mix and mingle: to share opportunities."
"... Bettridge pupils calling to friends from St. James when playing on the field."

The St. James' children were sensitive, mature and confident. From the outset they eagerly embraced the ideas given to them both in terms of the dance tasks, and also by fully integrating with the Bettridge pupils. Their behaviour was always entirely appropriate, and they were a credit to themselves and their school. Their class-teacher, Claire Margerison was a valued member of the team, with her encouraging support of all that we were doing, and her hard work, walking the children between the sites and joining in the sessions with humour, warmth and sensitivity. She allowed her own pupils the freedom to explore and experience their new situation, and clearly enjoying the experience of working with the Bettridge children. Many thanks to Mr. Robinson, headteacher of St. James, who covered Claire's class and so allowed her to be released for the whole week.

By the nature of the special needs school, there were much higher staffing levels from Bettridge school and for each session there were at least 4 additional teachers and support staff. Many thanks to these staff also, for their commitment to the work being done during the week. They worked hard to embrace the idea given by Jasmine, and tried to stand back and allow their pupils to enjoy fully the new experiences being offered; not only the dance experiences but also the opportunity to work with mainstream pupils and make new friends. The staff worked subtly, supporting their children, yet doing their best to allow them to fully experience all that the week had to offer. It is not always easy for a teacher to stand back and give pupils freedom, especially when they have disabilities that normally require high levels of support, but on this occasion, it was a major aim that the children were given time and space to learn about each other and about what they were capable of physically and emotionally. It was also possible because the Bettridge children were able to look to the St. James children for ideas and support rather than to their teachers. This worked very successfully because, as Bettridge teacher put it:
"The St. James pupils were modelling such good behaviour that ours couldn't help but conform because they liked each other they were becoming friends!"


It was decided to use both schools as a venue, so as to give as wide a range of experience as possible to all the young people. This meant that the Bettridge children were presented with the challenge of working not only with many new people, both children and adults, but also in a new environment. They coped with all of this magnificently, and visibly grew in confidence day by day. They were supported throughout by their own staff who walked the children between venues, and especially at the end of the afternoon, it was not easy to get the young people back for the end of the day routines and taxis. However, it was felt that it was worthwhile using the two venues, and for the St. James pupils to have the opportunities to be the host in the afternoons.

Both schools could not have been more welcoming to the Awakenings Project, clearing their normal timetables so that we could have uninterrupted use of the halls.


Bettridge School's hospitality also extended to lunch hours, so that every day one of the St. James' groups were invited to stay and to eat their lunch with their new Bettridge friends. This was extremely successful and lifted the new friendships that were being made to higher level. Also popular was the chance for the St James pupiis to then play on the exciting outdoor equipment.
They also had the chance to use the soft play equipment. As Jasmine put it:
"I was thrilled to see the youngsters from St. James enjoying Bettridge's enviable play facilities, and shouts of 'Wicked' went up as they entered the soft play area on Friday."

We were all delighted with the way that the children from the two schools continued to stay with their new friends, although we realised that the lunchtime supervision staff had not been fully briefed and so were somewhat taken aback at these new arrangements. However, once the plans for lunch had been explained, all went very smoothly. It was very special to see how the children simply played together without worrying about differences that might have been a barrier to communication before the Awakenings Project.

The workshops

Jasmine is very focused about how she wants to use the workshops to give the young people a variety of experiences and to empower them through dance and music. The page overleaf is a summary of her thoughts.

Everyone was continually amazed and impressed with the way that Jasmine could work with the children, taking on board their ideas and enthusiasms, as well as adjusting smoothly and seamlessly to any difficulties that the young people might encounter. Jasmine's 'calm manner' was so influential in setting the empowering atmosphere of the sessions. She was wonderfully supported throughout by Ian, the musician and pianist who always accompanied her work with such sensitivity, creating music that fitted the constantly changing themes so well.
As one teacher put it:
"I loved your playing Ian, it was truly inspirational and so clever in the way you could interpret those movements and words into such evocative moods."

All the young people (and the teachers!) clearly enjoyed seeing such a talented person, a 'live' pianist at work. And so within this framework of dance, music and plenty of uncluttered time, the groups were gently and stimulatingly guided to explore, try out and allow their own ideas to develop. The workshops were a perfect blend of informality and yet had an underlying structure.
"Iloved the way that the sessions allowed the pupils to take over - to take responsibility for their actions."

Jasmine adopted a specific approach to take account of the large number of Bettridge children who were on the autistic spectrum. She felt that some information on the communication difficulties faced by these children might be enlightening for non-specialists reading this report. This extract is from a book called "Children with Autism and Asperger Syndrome" by Patricia Howlin (1998)

  • They are able to understand almost nothing of what is happening around them.
  • They are thrown daily into an ever-changing and unpredictable environment
  • They lack even the rudimentary verbal skills necessary to make their needs known.
  • They have no access to the internalised, imaginative facilities that are so crucial for dealing effectively with anxiety, uncertainty and distress.

Jasmine then continues:
"Given these social, communication and imaginative difficulties, the children on the autistic spectrum at Bettridge did remarkably well, and staff reported on how good their behaviour had been during the week, and how much they had enjoyed taking part even though such a week would have totally disrupted their normal regimes. The St. James' children were generous and considerate, and persisted in their efforts to communicate with youngsters who find communication so baffling Thank goodness for dance, then we can all tune into a different medium of communication and level out the playing field somewhat to start with."
Another teacher commented:
"Pupils were more able to express themselves in dance."

The value of dance as a wonderful medium through which children can communicate was appreciated by everyone involved in he Awakenings Project, including this Bettridge teacher:
"Dance is so lovely and basic in its communication roots. It is prelanguage. It is where a lot of our pupils are. It allows people to touch, explore all those nonverbal signals that tell us something about ourselves. It makes all children far more in touch with themselves."

Through dance therefore, pupils from both schools were able to benefit. So much of modern education is highly structured and targeted, with little time for the children to develop and explore at their own pace. This approach was also highly succussful in that it was very inclusive for all of the Bettridge pupils:
"All the children regardless of disability were able to join in."
"All the children could participate their appropriate levels."

The Bettridge staff had given much thought as to which children to give this opportunity to and whether they should exclude some pupils from the experience, however, in the end it was decided to include everyone, and this proved to be the right decision:
"Our more difficult children coped exceedingly better than had been visualised."

Jasmine was delighted: "I was thrilled that all of the Bettridge children stayed on board, as there were doubts about who would cope. They all did, with some youngsters surprising their teachers' expectations."

In the sessions, opportunities were given for the pupils of both schools to take the lead. This was a particularly powerful experience for the Bettridge children, when even their smallest movement was carefully observed and reflected back by their St. James' partner.
"They do a little movement and others copy. It is valued."
Even the smallest movement was worthwhile - a smile, a shared moment of laughter was powerful and joyous. "Communication is far more subtle than just spoken language. We have experts in our (Bettridge) pupils."
But the St. James pupils too showed enormous sensitivity:
"The dancing was great fun and it really helped me understand and make friends with the Bettridge children."

The groups experienced a number of different dances, some led and taught by Jasmine, some using circles of elastic, streamers and scarves, and others made up by the children themselves. The staff as well as the children enjoyed this variety of dance experience as it gave them ideas that they will be able to develop for themselves when running future dance classes.

The children had their favourites too:
"The streamers were good because you could play with the other children and they would be having fun."
"I really liked making our own scenes because you really got to communicate with each other."
"I liked making shapes with the ribbons."

The Bettridge children had their own opinions as well when their teachers asked them for words that they could use about the dancing:

  • waving quick and slow touching
  • dancing noises like a fox
  • jumping sliding breathing
  • holding patting skipping with a partner tagging wheeeeeeee!!!
Sharing the Week's Work

By the end of the week each group had created their own unique set of dances that came together into a performance piece. There was much discussion about how the three groups should share these finished pieces. Finally it was decided on three separate group presentations, so that each group performed once and was watched by one other group. The first two were in the morning while the final performance was in the afternoon in front of a small additional audience of parents, governors, the head teachers and the whole Awakenings class from St. James. This format for the Friday worked very well, and the whole day had a strong celebratory feeling.

There was lots of documentation, photos and videos taken showing all the social interaction, communication, imaginative work and sheer enjoyment of the experience. The photos will be displayed in the schools, and a professionally edited video will be produced for the use of each school and Gloucestershire Dance.


Jasmine felt that during this Awakenings she was able to concentrate on stretching the children and the adults present, both creatively and imaginatively and that all the children were a joy to work with. Through the simple act of dancing together for a week, children forged new relationships, over came fears and worries about disability and differences with apparent ease, whilst showing a willingness to explore their thoughts and feelings with astonishing honesty and clarity. Both groups were seen to grow in confidence. and all the staff were delighted when even those children that they thought might struggle from both schools could be seen to be responding.

Jasmine and lan both feel that the strength of the Awakenings Project was the degree of flexibility that enables everyone to see new possibilities, different ways of doing things, and for staff and students to learn so much from one another. At the start of the project, everyone was undoubtedly nervous as to how it would all develop. However, even by the end of the first day, it was obvious that we were all involved in something that was quite extraordinary and very special. Many factors contributed to the success to the week, and led to an 'Awakening' of new possibilities and relationships for all involved.

Future Plans

All the staff enjoyed meeting and working with each other, and to have the opportunity to work with children from a different type of school. The feeling was unanimous that something so special had been started that it must be allowed to grow and continue. It is very much to be hoped that it will be possible to develop the links that have now been forged between these two schools and for this extraordinary and worthwhile work to continue.

Before the end of term, the schools are hoping to come together for a music and picnic event. In the longer term, Gloucestershire Dance will organise meetings in September to decide how the schools want to progress the integration that has been started. Ideas include asking Jasmine to teach at Bettridge and run an allied INSET course, and for an integrated group to work together on a dance that could be performed at 'Dance 2002 - The Festival' - the county's major dance Festival held at Cheltenham Town Hall over 4 days, and organised by Gloucestershire Dance.

When asked if they wanted to do something like this again, the children from St. James spoke loudly and clearly:
"I would like to do it again, it's very nice to meet up with children you haven't met before."
"l would like to because it is very fun working with Bettridge children."
"I would because I really liked working with the disabled children and making up dances because it was different to anything I've done before."
"I would like to do it again, I have had a great week."
and finally
"I sure would, it was SUPER!!"
Feedback from Staff and Pupils

The staff and pupils were generous in the time they gave, both talking about their experiences during, the week and writing down their thoughts. Many of these have been quoted in this report, and I am very grateful for these invaluable contributions.

The St. James pupils were also given time outside the dance sessions to talk about what the project was meaning to them. They were able to record some of their thoughts and feelings prompted by the cartoons of figures on a tree that Jasmine gave to them. Some of these are included in the following section. It is their words, more than anything that I can write that are the essence of the power and joy of the Awakenings Project.
"Through this week I've had my ups, my downs and my mediums, but through this experience I've found out that just because the Bettridge children are different does not mean that they're stupid. It means they're clever and if anyone is with the disabled they should remember they're still a kind human."

Sarah Shaw, Education Officer for Gloucestershire Dance,
Awakenings Co-ordinator

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