Radical Inclusion (Or, Scottish Youth Dance's Horizons)

Back during Fulbright Orientation, someone told me to say “yes” to everything. Even if it has nothing to do with your inquiry project, just say yes. Someone wants you to observe a pre-K physical education class? Say yes. Someone wants you to observe professional development for social workers? Say yes. While I don’t have a university education department scheduling my observations for me, I use the same mantra when I’m reaching out to organizations. I downloaded a list of recently funded organizations from Creative Scotland and visited all of their websites. From there, I identified a few that looked interesting and asked if I could come in for observations.

Scottish Youth Dance (YDance) was one of them. They sparked my interest because of their involvement in Let’s Dance, a project where four countries (Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland) come together to create a collaborative movement work about migration. YDance’s Horizons company had signed on to the project and had already participated in two international exchanges. While YDance has many different programs (including the elite National Youth Dance Company of Scotland), Horizons focuses on inclusive community dance. I didn’t know much about inclusive dance; my research focuses more on cross-race/class projects, as opposed to cross-ability. But I decided that the two fields were closely enough related that Horizons was worth a visit.

Everyone working in educational equity should study inclusive arts programs. As my last school moved towards serving a special education (SPED) heavy population, with collaborative team teaching classes and a variety of push-in/pull-out services, I kept feeling like we were trying to slam square pegs into round holes. We have an incredible SPED support team that advocates relentlessly for our students — writing detailed individualized education plans, providing professional development for our teachers, and having the patience of an entire parthenon of saints. But with our school’s rigid rules (for instance, “stand in straight, silent, single-file lines in the hallways and track forward”), I kept feeling like we were setting our students up for a kind of failure that had nothing to do with low academic expectations.

Inclusive dance isn’t about working around what students can’t do; it’s about focusing on what students can do. As Marta (one of the Spanish Let’s Dance participants) told me, “We all have different needs.” One dancer might only have four months of contemporary training, compared to her peers from the conservatory with years of experience. One dancer might be in a wheelchair; another might dance with crutches. One dancer might be fluent in Spanish and be able to communicate with the choreographer, while another might require the aid of a translator. Everyone has different strengths. It’s up to us, as educators, to use these strengths to create transformative art. In the words of Wilfried Van Poppel (the German dance company director): “I don’t work with handicaps; I work with people.”

Kelly, the director of the Horizons program, does an extraordinary job meeting all of her students where they are — but then pushing them to become the best dancers possible. When I observed Horizons at their home theatre (Tramway on Glasgow’s Southside), I noticed that she used a lot of Teach like a Champion techniques in her workshops. When she was warming her students up, one of her learning disabled students moved into “starfish” position instead of “ball.” Instead of leaving him alone to stretch, she demonstrated “right is right” — giving him specific and clear verbal corrections so that he could join the rest of the ensemble. She also demonstrated “no opt out,” providing a chair for a physically disabled student to lean on while getting up for a standing exercise, but not letting her “opt out” of trying it. When I asked Kelly about her teaching philosophy afterwards, she said that she maintained high expectations for her disabled students and didn’t treat them any differently than her other dancers; she made sure that they were pushing themselves to their individual best. She said that too many educators leave disabled students alone in the classroom in order “to be nice” instead of giving them corrections and further instruction. However, Kelly avoids giving specific modifications when she can because the disabled dancers “know their bodies better than [she’ll] ever know them,” so she trusts them to make the best decisions for themselves. For instance, one of their dancers with cerebral palsy does her pliés with her feet pointed inwards or sometimes only works on the arm motions for a specific part of the class. These modifications (that she selects for herself) make it possible for her to participate in every component of the class.

Horizons meets once a month, and every class involves an hour-long stretching segment followed by creative work. At the Tramway rehearsal, students made a pathway of four different points (their floorplan) and then were told to freeze. During the freeze, students labeled #1 made an interesting shape with their bodies, while students labeled #2 had to continue on their floorplan and find an interesting way to get around any obstructions (the #1s). Students explored new ways of not only interacting with bodies but also interacting with wheelchairs and crutches. Afterwards, students were told to pick a partner that they don’t usually work with and then given body parts that needed to touch while they created movement (like hand-to-hand, back-to-back, shoulder-to-elbow, finger-to-nose, etc.). Students experimented freely with the limits of their movement — rolling around with their partner on the floor, jumping on their partner, etc. Students were clearly comfortable physically interacting with each other in an intimate manner; there was a ton of trust demonstrated in the rehearsal studio. Kelly also encouraged students to be aware of what other members of the ensemble were doing, giving the direction “if you see something that you think is gorgeous, start doing it.” This created moments of synchronized movement in the improvisation and helped build a more unified company. (I noticed that most of the synchronized moments revolved around movements that every member of the ensemble could complete, like floor-work.)

One of the consistent themes that I’ve heard in the UK is “work from what students can do, don’t work around what they can’t.” A few years ago, I attended an Uncommon PD on strengths-based leadership. This philosophy says that we should work on developing our strengths, on moving from good to great, because students are more likely to be engaged (9% vs. 73%, according to Gallup), and they can “grow” their strengths much more quickly than their weaknesses. UK arts education seems to focus on strengths-based leadership, developing new devised works with their students that respond to their abilities and their interests. This allows students from different skill-levels and backgrounds to work together in a meaningful way. I used to think that a national youth theatre should be composed of the most talented students from across the country; now, I’m wondering if building a company based on diversity of experience (instead of who can perform the best monologue) might be a better approach.


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