As the new academic year begins and sixth forms and colleges around the country embark on their admission processes with open days and option evenings, Creative Learning Manager Belinda Preston spoke with Co-Artistic Director Laura Jones to reflect on her experience of taking A-level Dance as a wheelchair user and to offer advice for young disabled dancers and their teachers.
Listen to an audio version of this blog
At Stopgap, we are driven by our vision to create an inclusive world where diversity is not just accepted but pursued, a world where no one is limited by prejudice against Deaf, Disabled, or neurodivergent people. We advocate for the importance of removing barriers to give equal access to learning, opportunities and experiences.
In her previous blog ‘Diversity as a Creative Force” Laura wrote:
“Everyone is different, everyone brings different experiences, abilities, strengths and perspectives, and everyone should be valued for their uniqueness. Being disabled should make you no less valid or valued as part of society. After all, it’s the barriers that society has created for us that denies us access and opportunities to excel.”
For a lot of young people across the country, some important decisions are on the horizon, as they consider which A-levels and vocational qualifications are right for them. We were approached by AQA to contribute to a document about inclusivity in A-level Dance, which led to my discussion with Laura about her experience of taking the A-level as a disabled dancer.
Laura was the first wheelchair user to complete 100% of the AQA A-level Dance syllabus in 2001. Laura is now a fierce advocate for dance and disability, inclusion and equality, and is particularly passionate about empowering future generations of diverse dancers. She would love to see more young disabled people selecting dance as one of their subjects.
I share this desire. After spending 16 years’ as a secondary school teacher and a Creative Arts Curriculum Leader, I noticed throughout that time that it was uncommon for a disabled student to opt for dance. Leading me to wonder why it was so rare, and what could be done to encourage more uptake.
In this Q&A, Laura reflects on how she approached the A-level and offers tips to young disabled dancers and those supporting them, particularly their teachers.
Why did you want to take dance as an examination subject?
I was fairly young when I decided I wanted to pursue dance as a career, so A-level Dance seemed like part of the natural process to help me achieve my goal. Dancing made me feel a sense of freedom but also it’s a different type of discipline, working with my body, able to express myself and being creative physically. I really enjoyed dancing and also felt I was good at it, which is important when choosing your subjects. The advice given was to study A-level, then go to a dance school or university to study dance further. I had decided to pursue this pathway before I had my injury, which happened only a week before the start of my college courses. After a year in hospital, the reality and idea of me studying dance became a lot more challenging, and there was a huge decision to make, as to whether or not to go back to the Dance A-level.
When you decided you did want to continue with dance, who supported you with making this decision and did anyone try to put you off?
It took me a little bit of time to work out whether it was something I wanted to do because it was going to be a very different experience than before, dancing in a disabled body, and I wasn’t sure if I was still going to get the same enjoyment, but I gave it a go and I did. It was a lot of re-learning and a very new body to be dancing in, but I was really pleased to still be dancing.
My two tutors from college were very influential. They encouraged me to come back and were positive that we could make it work, even though they didn’t know exactly how. My family were really supportive too.
The resistance I experienced came from some of my medical professionals, particularly the physiotherapists, who were sceptical as to whether dance was something I should be doing, or whether I’d be strong enough. I am really glad I didn’t let them put me off trying. I don’t want to advocate not listening to medical advice, but I felt like they had quite a narrow perception of what dance was. And ultimately, it’s been beneficial for both my mental and physical wellbeing as I am more physically fit from dancing, while getting to know my body, and this helps me in my everyday life. Plus of course, I have a successful career from it, lasting over 20 years.
What strategies did you and your teachers put in place to support you?
We had to work it out, bit by bit, as to how to best tackle the curriculum. As I was the first wheelchair dancer to do 100% of the course, we did what we thought would work and kept seeking advice. The crucial factor was the communication between me and my tutors, and the exam board. Not everything was able to be done within the main lessons, so thankfully we were able to fit in some extra 1:1 sessions to allow a more bespoke approach to certain parts of the practical elements of the course. We also had some workshops with external experts in inclusive dance, and this was when I first met Vicki Balaam (Stopgap’s founder).
When I initially came back, we thought I might just do the theory elements, but as the course went on, I started to feel I could do the physical assessments and we discussed ways to make various curriculum aspects work for me. It was very much taking it bit by bit, finding out what was possible.
We had to make adjustments to the set studies repertoire, for example timing, as it wasn’t physically possible for me to do everything to the set counts, because, for example, it takes a lot longer to turn when in a wheelchair than standing. I did what I could and then we found ways to adapt the rest. Stopgap now refers to translating movement, but at the time adapting was all we knew.
Why was taking the A-level so important to you?
I think just the fact I was dancing. The fact I was able to continue, albeit in a very different way to how I was dancing before and was able to still get fulfilment and enjoyment from moving was so important. That’s not to say it wasn’t challenging in many different ways, but it felt so good to still be dancing. That development and learning about my body that started during my A-level, has continued throughout my dance career. The more I’ve danced and moved, the more I’ve understood and mastered my body.
What adversities did you have to overcome?
I struggled initially with fatigue, sometimes falling asleep in class, as I was still in recovery, and feeling the effects of the medication I was on. There were numerous challenges with co-ordinating my morning care and mini-bus collection just to get me to college on time. Understanding the bigger picture surrounding someone’s disability is really important, as it’s not just what goes on within the classroom. This routine took time to put in place with the council and my carers. I was also given student support, which gave me the security I needed when at college.
The positive attitude that my teachers had, helped in terms of my peers, as they accepted me as a diverse dancer, and in some situations even advocated for me. However, as the only dancer with a difference, the only dancer in a wheelchair, I did feel isolated at times and singled out. I didn’t always feel catered for, or that things were relevant to me. That is part of the reason the 1:1 sessions were so important.
Also, I was using quite a heavy wheelchair to start with, which was tough work to dance in. For the second year, I got a lightweight wheelchair with adjustable wheels to improve manoeuvrability. This made quite a difference.
What advice would you give your 17-year-old self, knowing what you do now?
Be curious, be bold and explore your possibilities. Know that what you’re doing is good enough. It’s not about what other people can do, and comparing yourself to them, as that way things become focused on what you can’t do. It’s about focusing on what you can do, and what is interesting or unique about your own physicality. Appreciate the possibilities that you have.
I would definitely still tell myself to take A-level Dance and I would advise myself to be bolder. When you already feel like you are the “other” person, then you try not to bring any more attention to that or to yourself. However, having the confidence to ask more questions to gain a better understanding of what is being asked is really important, particularly if you feel it doesn’t fit your own way of moving, physicality or way of learning.
What pieces of encouragement would you give to a disabled young person, wanting to study dance?
Again, explore and be curious. There are definitely many more examples of professional disabled and diverse dancers now, and there’s so much more information on the internet, so explore because it can feel a bit lonely. It’s important to find other people who have been through similar experiences and can show you examples of the things you can achieve. Find role models of disabled dancers, as when I studied, there was certainly a lack of these.
What are your top tips for young disabled dancers and their teachers?
- Always open up a two-way conversation – as the teacher, you will have the understanding of the syllabus and the skills, but as the disabled dancer you are the expert in your body. So, it is always about opening up the conversation and exploring things together.
- Appreciate that as a young dancer, you are likely to still be growing and changing physically. Find ways to support that curiosity, to discover new things and keep learning.
- Share the intention of your movement. Translation of a movement may be needed and there needs to be the understanding that it’s ok that the movement might not look the same as the non-disabled dancers’ versions. What’s important is that the intention and goal behind the movement is shared and worked towards.
- Not everyone has all the answers – and that’s ok. It’s also ok to be honest about your limitations. Look for outside support, as there is so much more available now. Find positive role models and explore diversity in dance together, making it an opportunity to develop your dance practice with fresh ideas.
- Never fit into a mould or compare to the others in the classroom. It’s not about who can kick their leg the highest – for a few individuals with a specific physicality and talent, that will see them through – but for the majority, it is about creativity, embodiment, and expression, as well as all of the transferable skills that dance offers.
- Aim for excellence.
Interview conducted in June 2023 by Laura Jones (Co-Artistic Director) and Belinda Preston (Creative Learning Manager) of Stopgap Dance Company.