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     Volume 4 Issue 36 | March 4 , 2005 |

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Dance for the Disabled

Kavita Charanji

"No one is more special than anybody else"
-- Charlotte Darbyshire

There most certainly is life after disability. Everyday we come across acts of courage, discover new talents and abilities among those in danger of being written off by society. With painstaking efforts, many physically and mentally challenged individuals have rehabilitated themselves. In the process, they have amply proved that they have the potential to be productive citizens of the country.

The credit for this metamorphosis must go to numerous dedicated people and institutions that work in tandem with the challenged. One such indefatigable personality is Charlotte Darbyshire, a UK-based dance artiste who performs, teaches and choreographs for both the able bodied and disabled. Currently she is teaching dance at Laban University, in Southeast London. This is one of the leading contemporary dance schools in Europe. Along with her colleague Juliet Robson, she was recently in the country for three weeks to work with the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP) in Savar and an orphanage called Shishu Polli Plus in Sreepur, 100 kms from Savar.

"My first aim was to create an atmosphere where everybody could enjoy dance and creativity," says Charlotte. "The by-products were to help the body in terms of mobility, stability, and stamina. It affects your psychological states such as self awareness, self esteem, social skills, spatial awareness."

Explaining her modus operandi, she says that Juliet and she worked closely with members of CRP and Shishu Polli. Using the genre of contemporary dance, the aim was to build a relationship of trust, drawing on techniques such as contact improvisation (a technique based on touch, using each other's weight to make a movement). "Basically we started to learn and listen to each other's bodies. We developed our own movement language," she says.

Amplifying on this theme, they targeted a group of 14 people from CRP. Half of these were disabled and the other half able-bodied. The disabled people were a mixture of staff and patients. The able--bodied were a mixture of students from CRP's Bangladesh Health Professionals Institute, students of physiotherapy, occupational therapy-- and special needs staff.

In Shishu Polli, they worked--with a group of about 40 (a mix of able bodied and six disabled). The first element that is necessary, says Charlotte, is to create a good working atmosphere. As she asserts, "I strive to build an environment where there is mutual respect for each other. In sum, surroundings which are safe, encouraging, supportive and respectful."

The results are almost immediate. Take the case of the 20-year-old Shahnaz (not her real name), from CRP who used to hide from public view because of her disability. "When she began moving, we discovered that she was a beautiful dancer. She had never danced before, certainly not creative dance. She certainly never choreographed before. She formulated a duet with a patient. Now when I see her around CRP, she is so proud and confident," recollects Charlotte.

Citing another case, she says, there was a group of two deaf children, two visually impaired and two wheelchair users along with 13 able-bodied children at Shishu Polli. Within five minutes of beginning the special exercises, says Charlotte, it was impossible to tell the difference between the able -bodied and disabled. By the end of the session, they were ready to perform.

Their talents, together with members of CRP, were on view on February 17 at a fund-raising evening at Heritage restaurant in Dhaka. This occasion featured a contemporary dance performed by the children and residents of CRP and Shishu Polli. Charlotte and Juliet choreographed the dance. This programme was held on the heels of a performance by CRP in mid-January and Shishu Polli in late January.

The response at CRP, according to Charlotte, was "simply fantastic". A major success was an exercise about using different parts of the body to write one's name. In one of the early sessions a couple of weeks ago, the team of 14 from CRP had completed a warm up. "The energy was really good and I decided to start creative choreography. I said I am going to teach you a way to write your names with any part of your body not just hands," recalls Charlotte. Starting with writing her own name with different parts of her body--chosen by the children--such as her head, hands, hips and knees, she wrote 'Charlie'. "This was just a small creative exercise to create movement, increase awareness and use of the whole body," points out Charlotte.

It was trickier to get the children to likewise follow suit with their own names. The initially unresponsive and silent children had to be coaxed into action, Charlotte reminisces. " I suddenly realised that despite their fine learning minds, no one had ever solved a creative problem independently before. After much effort, a girl called Shilpi wrote her name with her whole body and used her chair as well. Her courage infected the room. Suddenly the whole group was working and getting excited and creating their own plays. We had four such classes, this was the second session which was my favourite, " says Charlotte.

Asked why she chose integrated dance rather than special classes for the disabled, Charlotte points out, "The mix offers many more creative possibilities and I think that the able- bodied can learn from the disabled. It is more interesting when everybody is different, interprets their movement differently and shares their diverse experiences."

Where to from here? She plans to return to Bangladesh next year. Her target is a collaborative venture with Aniket Paul, a dancer. This team effort--which will culminate in a big performance in Dhaka--seeks to bring together the synergies of Paul, with his dancers, the women from the Gonokbari women's centre of CRP, a group from CRP and children from Shishu Polli Plus.

Charlotte also hopes to make more time for teaching dance to both the able bodied and disabled. She is not overly ambitious about numbers. As she says, " I would rather opt for quality than quantity. If one person understands it very deeply then they can work on it, instead of 20 people with an insufficient understanding. It will last six weeks and then die."

Indeed Charlotte's dedication to dance has proven that, whether able-bodied or disabled, new avenues of creativity are sure to open up for those with the will to learn dance.


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