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Images and Perceptions :

Learning difficulties
Different aesthetic
Allowed to dance

I have recently completed a small-scale study of images and perceptions of performers with learning difficulties, considering the views of performers, practitioners and audiences.

During the course of my investigations I was privileged to spend time with 3 diverse groups of performers with learning difficulties. Although the backgrounds of the groups and the means of selection differed, from self-selection, a community group and selected groomed participants; in common was their integrity and enthusiasm for Dance and Drama and performance.

There has been an ongoing public debate from practitioners such as Benjamin (1993,1994,1997, 2000), Bird (2000), Thompson- Stewart (2000), Aggiss (2000) etc in Dance Theatre Journal, Animated and the South Bank Summer events 1999 to 2001, discoursing the need for a different aesthetic. I would strongly endorse Leash (1999) and Bird (2000)'s contention for renaming people with learning difficulties and disabilities as differently abled and to accept their quality and contribution to the media of dance and drama as a genre unique to their approach and skills. Tomlinson (1992) felt that people with learning difficulties and/or disabilities had as much right to perform as their able bodied peers but it always seemed to be judged on able-bodied terms. Just as other styles of dance, (Ballet, Contemporary, Jazz etc) respond to the common human desire to communicate and express oneself through movement, so does the work of performers with learning difficulties. Bartel and Ne'eman (1975) see the body as an instrument which creates its own language, but I feel that it must not be at the expense of the elements which are imperative to ANY good performance. Adair (1992) stresses it must not be on the terms of "Aren't they wonderful" or as overcoming adversity (Cumberbatch and Negrine 1992) No favours are done if the audience's response is benevolent pity to excuse unimaginative and poorly rehearsed work. It must not become exclusive and excused. Poor quality is unacceptable whoever the performer is. Integrity of the performers is paramount. Pasch is convinced that there is an "untapped potential" which is only just coming to light, in recent years through channels such as original choreography by people with learning difficulties. Peter Brinson (1992) was unsure if it was right to expose people with disabilities on stage, but was his a judgement about imperfection and the expectations of audiences? The emphasis for many years has been on perfect bodies achieving technical excellence (Aalten 1995) sadly usually interpreted as thin bodies. Whereas Cooper- Albright (1997) sees dance by people with disabilities as a statement, but the impression I received from my study is that most performers are doing it for themselves not to make political points. It is practitioners who see the potential who want to share and disseminate the experiences and good practice. The enthusiasm of the performers cannot be doubted but we have to be aware of and avoid encouraging acquiescence and the desire to please the group leader. As with any group, performers require leadership but it must be sensitive to the participants' abilities and expressive talents so their own voices are not subjugated but encouraged to develop. We need to guide and give direction to enable people to develop and extend style and experiences but we must uncover and nurture the 'something unique' which must not be smothered.

Recently watching Ballet Frankfurt I was struck by the beautifully trained bodies of the performers. They had extended their range of rotations and articulations to include movements and shapes which people with cerebral palsy and other athetoid conditions have as part of their normal functioning and for which they have often been regarded with disdain. I am not being disparaging about Forsyth's work but applauding the inclusion of a whole range of movements which were previously excluded and dismissed as part of the medical manifestation of 'disabled' and not considered 'aesthetically' pleasing. Contemporary dance in the early part of the 20th century was subject to criticism for using movements which did not fit into the accepted norm of classical technique, now these movements are part of every respected dance company's repertoire.

There were interesting responses from the dance students in my study. They were totally absorbed in their own training (as any student is or should be). There was a general attitude towards performers with disabilities and learning difficulties, that they should be "allowed to dance", as if it was in anybody's gift! They cannot be stopped! The issue is whether their performances are recognised outside of the circle of the 'converted'. Not by the enthusiasts who campaign on their behalf, but by those who don't attend performances and who are selective about what they see.(as we all are.) The issue is also of invisibility in society in general, and this is not just in the Arts. The entrenched attitude of "didn't they do well" and being treated and regarded as children, needs tackling. With the advent of new anti-discrimination legislation people with disabilities and/or learning difficulties are gradually gaining credibility and acceptance, perhaps respect will take longer.

Patsy Golding

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