Journey to Inclusion

Our Executive Producer Sho Shibata, sheds some light on Dancer Chris Pavia's dance journey and what he brings to the company as an artist, and more importantly, as an individual.

Chris Pavia dancing

Chris Pavia was born with Down’s syndrome in the early 80’s. As a teenager, Chris was an enthusiastic amateur, dancing to his favourite songs at home. A chance encounter with Stopgap Dance Company turned him into an internationally acclaimed dance artist.

As a performer Chris has toured in the UK and across the world, including Sweden, Switzerland, Japan and Albania. He has also made a series of works as a choreographer most notably ‘The Awakening’, which toured the UK outdoor festivals in 2014, culminating with a performance at The Southbank Centre as a part of Unlimited Festival. ‘The Awakening’ made Chris the first choreographer with Down’s syndrome to make a professional work for national touring.

In this article, I hope to shed some light on what Chris brings to Stopgap Dance Company as an artist and, more importantly, as an individual. The creative contribution of people with learning disabilities is well documented, but I believe there is an argument to be made for their contribution to building a progressive business culture.

Chris is a born dance artist with an immovable determination to achieve his dream. His journey started when he was spotted by Vicki Balaam, Stopgap’s founding Artistic Director, as he took part in a dance workshop she was running at Ridgeway School. Vicki saw his potential immediately and took him on as a trainee dancer 1997. Stopgap was the first company in the UK to integrate dancers with a learning disability, a physical disability and non-disabled dancers, proving that it was possible to develop dance technique and choreography to a professional level with such diverse dancers. It took them nearly ten years, but they eventually succeeded in getting recognition from the industry and Stopgap completed its first national tour in 2006.

Chris brings huge creative value to our company. Stopgap’s specialism is contemporary dance, which is an art form striving to discover new forms of physical expression. It started with rebel artists deconstructing traditional dance like ballet. Involving dancers with learning disabilities in the creative process is hugely valuable to us because they often move differently, which makes the resulting work more interesting and varied. People with learning disabilities can look at the world differently too and they can give surprising responses during the process, providing welcome contributions to making fresh and innovative works.

Chris brings much more than spontaneous responses and improvisation. Anyone who has worked with Chris will tell you that people with learning disabilities can be taught specialist skills. Chris is capable of memorising complex steps and is able to complete risky partnering work safely. Stopgap has also trained him to choreograph and to teach dance exercises. While it is true to say that training someone with a learning disability takes longer than training someone without, the process of training Chris has had a genuinely positive impact on everyone involved and, subsequently, on the whole company.

By making dance classes and rehearsals inclusive for Chris, our leaders have learned to be better at communicating with people. They are confident and supportive when working with a wide range of individuals. If you are leading a class or rehearsal which includes someone with Down’s syndrome you have to be patient. The group leaders repeat the same exercise and explain things in different ways in order to make sure the dance is fully understood. This is just the same in groups where there are no participants with a learning disability. Understanding this kind of inclusive working, enables our leaders to work with other people with disabilities and cross-culturally, often with people who speak no English. These are great skills to have within a company that works internationally!

Working with Chris has also taught our leaders to delegate focused tuition, when necessary, in a way that benefits the whole group. One of the ways to do this is to find a few people within the group who are more advanced and assign them to provide one-to-one support when needed. I think sustaining good leadership in any context relies on the ability to switch focus between micro and macro landscapes. If you get caught up in the micro, then the group will not work well and if you concentrate only on the macro, then you could fail to spot stragglers within the group, thereby making the team inefficient. Working with Chris has taught our leaders to be efficient at switching from micro to macro and back again.

Finally, our work with Chris has made us better at nurturing talent. Supporting someone with Down’s syndrome has given us the confidence and the willingness to support more individuals who have different abilities. We are acutely aware of the importance of inclusion. Chris has helped us to build an inclusive and supportive organisational culture. In the long run, this ensures we have a resilient and happy workforce. One-dimensional organisations are often less flexible when dealing with social change, thus reducing their organisational resilience.

Working with people with a learning disability requires extra time and resources, and achieving success with them has led Stopgap to discover how beneficial diversity can be in a professional environment and why it is so important. Working with Chris has allowed us to get a much sharper understanding of leadership, management and collaboration and create a healthy organisational culture. Chris has helped to make Stopgap approachable and open to a wider cross section of our society.

This article was originally published in Down's Syndrome Association's 'Journal' 135 Spring/Summer 2017.
Photo by Chris Parkes

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