I have grown up with the gift of Luke, my brother. Luke has Downs Syndrome. Being his older sister of 2 years I have been given a unique viewpoint of the world through sharing it with him.
Luke was a lively happy boy who had a smile that was impossible to resist. We played, we fought, we got into trouble and we loved each other, we were both equals, brother and sister. Luke and I went to the same infant and junior school and it was then that it became clear that Luke was treated differently and special allowances were made for him as he was integrated into the school. We were introduced to the whole school in assembly to ensure the children understood that Luke was special.
Most children had a wonderful time getting to know him, instinctively understanding the subtlety of giving him a little extra time and patience when learning or playing.
It struck me from a very early age that whilst Luke needed extra care from those around him, he also taught those people compassion, kindness and consideration for others. He brought out the best in people. Whilst completing a degree in dance, the other passion in my life, I noticed how my body changed through the hours of intensive dance training. I felt a newly inspired confidence growing inside me, sparked by developing full control of my body. Performing on stage has always been a liberating experience; it takes you out of the ‘everyday’ and challenges and focuses you to do your very best.
As I progressed though my degree I knew I wanted to be able to pass on this wonderful experience to others. When it came writing my dissertation, it was a natural progression for me to write about the benefits of dance and movement for people with learning disabilities.
During my research I discovered Sherborne Developmental Movement, which was the missing piece in the puzzle. Not only did it work on the physicality of a person, but also explored the effects movement had psychologically. I sent questionnaires to many Special Needs schools asking if they used SDM or dance activities, and their experience of them. The results of my research indicated that there was a real need for this kind of work within special needs education.
Upon graduating I worked as a dancer, choreographer and teacher in a diverse range of settings. This included touring Lithuania, Poland and Germany with Lithuanian company Aura Dance Theatre. I also had the pleasure of teaching BA Dance degree students and creating a full length works on them for performance and teaching evening classes at London Contemporary dance school, to name but a few experiences.
However, I wanted to unite my two passions in life. Inspired by the methods of Sherborne Developmental Movement I embarked on designing my own programme of dance and movement exercises that provide progressive physical development and foster a sense of equality between carer and student. The involvement of carers, means that everyone that enters the dance class is a participant, whether they are carers, parents, siblings, or health care professionals.
The partner exercises are designed with the intention of empowering the student with a learning disability so they may play a supporting role, something they may not experience in their every day life. The nature of a dance class requires the participant to learn self discipline in many areas; listening and responding to tasks, working closely with new people, learning new movement and concentrating on the task in hand.
The physicality of participating in dance makes it an activity that engages both the body, mind and spirit fully in the experience. Self awareness is amplified through the use of mirrors which reinforce the awareness of one’s own body in relation to others in space. Performance opportunities nurture feelings of personal victory and well being in the participants and unite them as a group. The results of the classes were more than I could ever have hoped for and the participants continue to surprise and astonish me with their strength of spirit and desire to learn.
In our high speed and high tech world of Facebook and Skype, personal connection and one-to-one interaction can become lost or sidelined. Our impatience to achieve the next goal or move onto the next task stifles the sense of community that previous generations enjoyed. Working with people with special needs brings me back to a baseline of honesty and truth that is found within this level of human interaction, a necessary reminder of how we can evolve as a civilisation. This awareness is fundamentally important to society today and this has been evident in audiences responses to performances involving the students I teach.