Read/Listen to the article written by Caroline Butterwick following a conversation she had with our Artistic Director, Rachael Lines and dancers Matt Byatt and David Jowett.
‘Disabled children need to know it is an option’: co-creating the future of dance’
FRONTLINEdance works in communities to remove barriers for disabled people and those with long-term health conditions – and there’s no distinction between teacher and learner
Several adults form a circle in a community hall, swerving their bodies and linking arms. One spirals around a chair, using it as part of their movement. This is Breakthrou’dance, a group in Stoke-on-Trent for disabled participants. They come together each week to do what Frontlinedance founder Rachael Lines calls “dancing with”, rather than the traditional model of following an instructor.
Co-creation – making work with people, rather than telling them what to do – is a concept many arts organisations aim for. Lines talks through a recent project that involved working with members of local disability groups. “We had conversations about different themes, challenges, things they would like to share, or to tell people about. We looked at the social model of disability, and how we could use that.”
The group explored movement together that emerged from the discussion, with Lines asking how the body might feel with different emotions. “They would generate the movement, and then I would develop that, keeping all the key themes and finding commonalities, what visually looked exciting,” says Lines, who co-founded Frontlinedance in 2001.
In developing one performance, visually impaired dancers shared how they get pushed in crowds, inspiring the choreography. “We created those barriers, the hustle and bustle, moving together with dropping, falling and catching, and knocking,” Lines explains. The raw experience of what it’s like to navigate public space as a blind person is reflected in those movements in a way that is visually interesting while highlighting something many don’t realise.
Co-creating brings together different viewpoints – “there’s a richness in everybody’s life,” says Lines. “Historically, disabled people have had less of a voice, and fewer opportunities to be makers, dancers and choreographers or even audience members.”
Lines trained at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds. In the mid-90s, during her studies, she watched the integrated dance company Candoco perform: “It was so fresh, nobody else was doing it.” Lines had a back injury, and she experiences hemiplegic migraines triggered by light, which led her to decide against making a career performing on stage and helped her see the challenges disabled dancers face.
She resolved to form an artist-led contemporary dance company that placed disabled people and those with long-term health conditions at the centre. She now runs projects everywhere from neurology wards to Stoke’s Potteries Museum, and in ongoing groups such as Breakthrou’dance, involving those who traditionally feel out of place in dance.
Frontline also works with local arts organisations, with disabled people advising on everything from audio description to physical accessibility. It’s helped create a community, with people coming together to attend shows and arts events they once felt excluded from.
Dancers from Frontline recently took part in The Pig Walk, a parade in the Stoke town of Longton. Dancers David and Matt tell me how being part of a shared experience – the walk attracted thousands of people – was empowering. “Proud,” David says, communicating through speech and Makaton.
Matt has been involved with Frontline for 21 years, starting as a dancer, receiving training which led to him supporting classes as a workshop assistant and creative enabler. “I’ve come a long way,” he says. “I love the work I do. I was proud when I got to paid status, that was a big achievement.”
Many dance training schemes require a level of academic attainment that excludes a lot of people, and Frontline is starting a new training programme that it hopes to launch next year, to address this. “We’re seeing Paralympians on Strictly, which is good,” says Lines. “But there’s still the barrier of it being seen as a possibility. We need more disabled children and young adults to see and know it can be an option for them.”
There are barriers to disabled people taking part in dance, from inaccessible rehearsal and performance spaces to attitudes about what disabled dancers are capable of. There are also challenges in meaningful co-creation: some dancers need concrete instructions, while others prefer the freedom to move how they want. Lines says tailoring to individuals and not making assumptions helps.
“The work we’re doing is breaking down negative preconceptions people have. And I think that’s a positive thing, even though it’s a frustrating thing, because, well, why don’t you think someone with a disability can achieve or be brilliant?” says Lines. It’s an ongoing question for disabled artists: how to highlight disabled voices and challenge negative ideas, without falling into tropes of “overcoming”.
Lines has seen the company’s impact on both dancers and audiences. When they perform in hospitals to people stuck in bed, “they say we made them feel like they were alive and part of the world, which is brilliant – I really can’t ask for more.”