Sense Arts has been exploring imaginative ways of supporting people with complex disabilities to be dance leaders in the future. To develop this, a new partnership between Sense, pioneering disabled choreographer Lisa Simpson, and dancers from InterACTION are creating a new dance landscape.
One of the guiding principles of Lisa Simpson’s dance sessions is that there is equality between everyone taking part: between instructors and students, disabled and non-disabled. A dance session is co-created between everyone who is taking part, where each person is part of a bigger whole.
Lisa, who has cerebral palsy and no verbal communication, is deeply committed to creating opportunities for people with disabilities to dance and choreograph. She first fell in love with dance in 1995 when she met dancer Adam Benjamin who recognised that, with the right support, she had the potential to be a talented choreographer. Fast forward 25 years and Lisa is now Director of the Lisa Simpson Inclusive Dance Limited which runs workshops and courses around the UK. She has also developed the Simpson Board which has a wide range of symbols and directions which enable her to choreograph the dance of others.
“When I was at school I used to dream that I would physically be able to dance,” says Lisa. “The reason I set up a company was to help other disabled people who haven’t had the opportunity to discover their true potential. I find it very fulfilling.” She uses a transparent alphabet board to communicate by eye pointing at the letters she wants, which her support worker Sharon then reads out.
Recently she and Adam ran workshops for people with complex disabilities at Sense’s TouchBase Pears centre in Brimingham, with support from Suzanne and Becca who are freelance dance instructors who have worked with people from Sense for a number of years.
Leading by example, the first thing Lisa does is to be helped out of her wheelchair and onto the floor so that she can dance and interact closely with the other people on the course. She stretches and rolls across the floor, turning on her side and moving her leg to the music. Then she hooks her arm around Adam’s leg and they create shapes that move and change between them.
First to arrive for the session is Jessie. At first he doesn’t seem keen to join in, lying curled up on a cushion with his t-shirt pulled over his head. Adam mirrors this by lying on the cushion next to him and Lisa gently massages his feet. Suddenly Jessie pulls of his t-shirt and reaches out and takes Brian’s hand – then waves his arms excitedly as Brian pulls him around the room on the cushion.
Fozia has also joined the group and she laughs with excitement to see what is happening. She reaches out for the hand, and then the knee, of Becca and they develop a to-and-fro rocking movement between them, which Lisa responds to in her dance. The dancers have become like one organism – rolling, twisting, interacting, reflecting, and creating a new dance language.
“There was a lovely back and forwards in this session,” says Adam, “it’s really about creating physical movements in time and space. When you have a profound disability most choices about your own movement and everything around you is out of your hands – so being able to choose how you move is very liberating and empowering.”
After this, Caroline joins the dancers, who welcome her by tapping on the floor and snapping their fingers. “Yeah!” say Caroline and smiles. She seems very comfortable with taking part and this session has a quieter, more gentle feel to it. She strokes Adam’s neck and shoulders and then climbs onto his back. Adam sinks to the floor and they move slowly across the floor, with Caroline on his back as the group move around them, like a constantly evolving sculpture.
Then, after half an hour she decides to finish, and moves away from the others, who applaud her for making a choice and doing what she wants.
“These sessions have been a learning experience for all of us,” says Lisa, and Suzanne seconds this. “We have not worked in this way before,” she says. “It’s been a massive learning curve and given us lots to think about in terms of doing things in a different way in the future.”