It’s International Dance Day so we chatted to Jess, a 13-year-old dancer, who was born with Bilateral PFFD. In this blog she talks about how she got into dance, what she loves about it and shares a couple of her performances.
I was born with a condition called Bilateral PFFD. It means that my thigh bones didn’t develop in the womb. I am also missing the fibula, one of the bones in the lower leg. I was born with feet but they were amputated when I was two and a half. I’ve also had a couple of other surgeries to fix a problem with the bone in my right leg.
I got into dance when I was about 11 because I’d been watching a TV show called The Next Step. I really enjoyed the concept of dance and how it impacted on people’s lives. So that was the start of everything. We have a dance hall at my school so during breaks and lunches I’d go in there. We also had dance classes in year 7 and 8, which I really enjoyed. I don’t have dance classes now that I’m in year 9 but on a Tuesday after school I go to a break dance club, then I go to a contemporary dance club. That’s really fun as well.
I don’t think about being disabled
With dance I like the way that you’re so free to move the way you want to and it’s just a really nice, free environment. I really like hip hop and break dance because that’s fun to mess around to. I like contemporary dance because you can show emotions through it and it’s easy to let your anger out or let your sadness out or whatever. I really like Candoco which is a dance company of disabled and non-disabled dancers. I’ve done a couple of things with them.
When I’m adapting my dancing, I just kind of figure it out as I go along. Like, when people are fully using their legs, I might mimic that with my hands or cancel that bit out and carry on with the arms. I’m pretty good at moving across the floor. Practice helps too. Once you’ve done it, especially when you’ve been at a club for a while and you know the choreographer’s style of dance, you can adapt the moves. A lot of my dance moves are improvised – I just move with the music.
I also do wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball. When I find a sport that I really like or I find that I can move really well with it, I stick with it. It’s nice because you don’t think about being disabled, everyone’s just the same.
Focus on what you can do
My school is pretty good in terms of inclusivity. They helped me get into sports and accommodated me. It might have been a little bit difficult getting involved in dance at first because I have to adapt it but all the people I dance with are really kind and nice so I’ve been quite lucky.
My advice for other disabled kids would be: focus on the stuff that you can do, not what you can’t do. I haven’t really experienced any negative attitudes but I’m sure there are people who have their doubts. A couple of years ago one of my friends from church, who’s a teacher, was having a conversation with her class about sport and the kids were saying “oh disabled people wouldn’t be able to do sports” that kind of thing. So I went in with my mum and had a conversation with the kids. It was good to be able to give them a different perspective.
Chris Fonseca is a deaf dancer and dance teacher. He has performed internationally and recently featured in Smirnoff’s advert – We’re Open #deafdancers.
As part of 30 Under 30, he shares his story and talks about changing perspectives, becoming a dance teacher and why more deaf dance role models are needed.
I became deaf through meningitis when I was two years old. At first I tried hearing aids but unfortunately they didn’t work for me. The next step was for me to try a Cochlear implant which I had when I was about five. In school, I had speech therapy but I didn’t like it because I felt quite embarrassed and quite isolated. The deaf world is really small and I grew up going to mainstream schools which was quite difficult. Eventually, I started meeting deaf people and I realised “oh these people are the same as me”.
Developing a passion for dance
I started listening to music through friends. I could feel the beat through my Cochlear implant and I’d look up the lyrics to understand the words. Then my Aunty gave me a video called Breaking 1984. I was obsessed with it and I taught myself how to dance. Just through repetition and practising at first. Then I decided that I wanted to improve my skills but having no deaf role models made it really difficult. So I stopped, unfortunately, and I just carried on with my life.
Then, in my second year of university, a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to get involved in a deaf dance group. Dance had been my dream for years, so I thought it would be amazing to get involved. It was fantastic because everyone was deaf and everyone had the same passion as me, and it was an opportunity to show both deaf and hearing communities that deaf people can dance. That nothing is impossible. We did a tour, then I left the group to focus on giving back to the deaf community.
What I love most about dance is the freedom and enjoyment. And it’s a stress release. It’s like when I’m dancing, I just kind of fall into my own world. Dance really is my best friend – it’s always there for me.
I started going to hearing dance classes in 2009. It was my first class ever. I went to the class and looked at all the people there and just noticed that their level was incredibly high. It made my confidence drop because hearing dancers are very, very fast. It’s fast paced and it’s not very accessible for deaf people. So I just focused on my skills and not on my deafness. There were a lot of mistakes to begin with but the mistakes just proved that I was trying. I just kept persevering with it over time.
I went to these classes regularly and when I struggled, I’d go up to the teacher in the breaks and say “can you please give me a cue?”. The teacher was like “You what, sorry?” and I’d say “I’m deaf so I could use a cue” and they’d be like “What? You’re deaf?”. I’m trying to show that, by getting these cues, a deaf person can dance.
I think a lot of hearing people are surprised because there’s a lot of stereotypes about deaf people and dance. They kind of look and go “Really? Deaf people can dance?” because a lot of hearing dancers connect to music through listening. But deaf people can dance in a different way. We feel the beat through vibrations and we look at the visual movement of dance. When I’m looking at choreography for example, I’m looking for visual movements and visual cues and then I feel the beat. And I guess that through telling hearing people that, you change their perception and they become more respectful.
I became a dance teacher to make dance accessible to deaf people
I started trying to get my friends to come to the hearing dance classes I was going to but they were like “no no no, it’s too scary, it’s not accessible”. I’d had the same experience so I encouraged them to just push through the barriers but they didn’t want to. I got home and thought what we really need here is a deaf dance teacher. So I decided to become one.
I went to an academy and learnt the skills and different methods of how to teach, how people’s learning processes work. Naturally, deaf and hearing people have different learning processes. Deaf people are reliant on counts, whereas for a hearing person most of it is sound. So I started teaching my class in 2013 and it’s still going now. It’s a huge passion of mine – teaching and dancing.
Being involved in the Smirnoff advert is one of my proudest achievements
Since I left the dance group, I really just focused on improving my own skills and teaching. Trying to break in as a deaf dancer is hard and you just kind of get ignored, so I really had to push to sell myself and bother a lot of people to get my work recognised.
Then, one day, I got a random email. I read it and I was like “Is this spam or not?” so I emailed them and asked them to clarify the information. I read all the information about the project and I thought “wow, this is incredible”. It was an amazing opportunity to create a platform to celebrate deaf culture and also help to change hearing people’s perspective.
Since then, time has gone really fast. I auditioned, did the shooting day back in January, then we released the advert in March and there’s been lots of promotion through social media and billboards all around the UK. It’s been one of my proudest achievements. The advert helps to change hearing people’s perspective about deaf people and show that they can do anything except hear.
People have said that I’ve inspired them a lot and I’ve received a lot of positive messages which has been really lovely and heart-warming. My aim is to give something back to the deaf community and get more recognition of sign language. I want to show the importance of deaf culture and get hearing people interested.
We need more deaf dance role models
Teaching is my passion. I like sharing my knowledge and my passion with other dancer. I’ve noticed that lots of the younger generations are excited about getting involved with dance, they just need that little bit more encouragement.
When I gave up dancing, it was mainly because there were no deaf role models. Everybody has their dreams when they’re young but the first thing you need when you have that dream is a role model to give you that motivation, something to aim for. I went through a lot of struggles and barriers trying to learn in the hearing world, but now they don’t have to do that. I can pass what I’ve learnt on to them.
The deaf world is quite small and the deaf dance world is even smaller. Over time, I’ve tried to research and go out and perform in different places like Europe. One of my favourite things was when I went to perform at the Click Festival – a deaf film festival in France. It’s an opportunity for deaf people all over the world to come together at this one festival and I managed to meet some deaf international dancers there. It’s a great networking opportunity.
There’s obviously a lot of hearing role models for anyone who wants to be a dancer, but now, I think we need to have deaf dance role models too. My next step is to go on tour. I have more work to do to continue inspiring and breaking barriers. And I have lots of exciting projects to get involved in. All will be announced very soon!
Sarah has worked at Scope’s Beaumont College since 2007 and was originally employed as Dance Artist in Residence. She was blown away by the students, their ability and potential, so she studied to become a tutor and is now a Pathway Coordinator for Independent Lifestyles and Vocational Skills, with a focus on creative arts.
She teaches and makes sure the students are maximising their opportunity at Beaumont as well as having plans for when they graduate.
Part of my challenge here in Lancaster is to develop more opportunities for young people with learning and physical disabilities within the arts. I do this by developing links with arts organisations, which is how I became involved with The Big Dance.
Here at Beaumont, we’ve taken part in The Big Dance since 2012. A group of students from the college who have since graduated, learnt and then performed The Big Dance choreography. They were invited to perform it in a short film at the Olympic Village in London, and it was played across the world as the dance premiered.
This partnership led to further discussions with Richard Parr, the Producer from People Dancing, to think more about accessibility. These changes could really be seen in 2014’s choreography, where a broader range of people were included in the launch film.
Every year, here at the college we’ve adapted and interpreted this fantastic opportunity to dance and it has brought the community together to enjoy sharing movement. We have worked with local schools, community centres and brought a little bit of sparkle to the everyday grind in corridors at the college too.
This year, I was invited to be a Guest Artist Adviser as part of the creative process, in which they choreograph the Big Dance and the Schools Pledge. You can watch Akram Khan, internationally acclaimed choreographer talk about why he wants everyone to embrace dance.
“I work in an outstanding college”
Fortunately I work in an outstanding college that supports and values innovation. I sit amongst many ‘Change Makers’, so I was supported to be able to impact on this national campaign. I hope also that it will help others who don’t identify with being a ‘dancer’ to get involved and have a go at expressing themselves.
On 6 November, after a 4am start, three trains and a long walk in the rain, I arrived at the dance studio in Roehampton University where I met Akram Khan and 30 dance students. They insisted that I participate in the warm up which was a great way to break the ice and fortunately not any of my muscles! After the warm up, I was able to watch The Big Dance choreography for the first time. It was a very rare treat.
But what could I offer? Well, that’s what I worried about to begin with. I’m a dance tutor at a specialist college in little old Lancaster and I’m not disabled myself. However, I could advocate for all the young people I’ve adapted choreography with and for. Young people who are unable to voice their own passions and needs.
Young people who explore their own physical capabilities, explore techniques and develop their creative and physical voice every day. I’ve learnt so much about dance through working at Beaumont, about the value and power of all movement and the contribution of all bodies as different, but equal.
I talked to Akram Khan about this and asked about what was important in his choreography.
I saw a change of emphasis from the creative team as they moved from specific movements being of great importance, to them considering and discussing what the significant points of the choreography are. They discussed what was more important: the convention of exactly mirroring the movement by these non-disabled dancers or the intention behind each movement being explored and interpreted.
They acknowledged the value in all responses to the choreography. Thankfully, my presence in the room was a significant development that showed a real shift in approach.
I’m excited to see how they’ve taken our input on board. I’ll continue to drive forward change for the young people I work with, and make sure their voice is heard to create new, exciting opportunities that provide rich and meaningful life experiences.