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Making friends on the dancefloor

Diana Hinds on a project that aims to bring special needs and mainstream pupils together through the spirit of dance

A very small boy stands in the middle of a circle of children and, as music plays, he performs a series of movements for them to copy. "Big, strong movements, Roy," calls out the dance teacher encouragingly.

Roy's movements are not big or strong, but slight - the hunching of a shoulder, the turn of his head - but the other children, many of whom are twice his size, copy him faithfully. The beaming look on his face shows just how much this matters to him and how he is enjoying his turn at the centre of things.

Roy is one of a group of children with disabilities from Paternoster Special School in Cirencester, taking part in a week-long dance project called Awakenings, with pupils from a neighbouring mainstream school, Watermoor Primary. The idea of the project, which is organised by Gloucestershire Dance and funded by Children in Need, is to foster friendships between children at the two schools by encouraging them to communicate through movement.

"Dance is an easy way into this," explains Katie MacCabe, one of three dance specialists leading the project. "It's all elbows, hands, feet - they're not having to think too much about it."

The children continue the session with more work on space (a topic both schools have been studying in the classroom), pretending to moonwalk, protecting themselves from a meteorite shower, turning themselves into robots and space snakes. Then they get into groups and collaborate to form weird and wonderful space monsters. Bigger children carry small ones on their backs, and one Watermoor girl quite naturally takes charge of a boy in his wheelchair, helping the others to build their monster around him.

When the Year 5 Watermoor children and key stage 2 Paternoster children first met, there was a distinct wariness on both sides, a tendency for them to stick with their own friends or carers, says Sarah Shaw, education officer at Gloucestershire Dance, who has run a number of projects of this type in recent years. But this is their third day, and already there are new alliances being formed, a growing trust and a sense that they can enjoy themselves together.

"At first it felt spooky that we couldn't always understand them, because they don't look very different from us," says Ned, 10, from Watermoor.

"I felt embarrassed the first time because I didn't know them," says Jessica, 10, also from Watermoor. "But when we kept on doing things, it was good fun. I think it's good for the Paternoster people to get more friends, and I like helping them as well."

The idea of the project is that children from both schools stand to gain, widening their experience of children not exactly like themselves. Children from the special school grow in confidence, say the dance teachers, by team-working with their mainstream peers, and rely less and less on their carers as the sessions progress. Mainstream children learn patience and sensitivity, and begin to shed any fears they may have of people with disabilities.

"Sometimes people with disabilities are seen as different and that's it," says Sarah Fox, Watermoor PE co-ordinator, who is observing the sessions.

"This project is an excellent way for our children to understand that in all communities there are some people who are different, but that they can all work together to produce something that is enjoyable for everybody."

During the week, some of the younger Paternoster children stay on for lunch at Watermoor School and go out in the playground. A bevy of solicitous Watermoor girls quickly gathers round Christian in his wheelchair, but Roy and a few others are soon getting involved in Watermoor games of football.

In return, the Paternoster children will show some of the Watermoor Year 5 round their own school, where the special equipment in the sensory room is always a star attraction.

The week ends not with a formal performance, but with the different dance groups choosing perhaps to show some of their work to each other, or to others in the school. Staff will also try to arrange a follow-up event for next term, says Sarah Shaw, as the children are often genuinely sorry to part at the end of the week.

Some schools that have worked together on projects like this find ways of continuing their dance work; others need more support, and Sarah Shaw says a next step would be to gain funding to produce guidance to help schools, and other agencies, take inclusive dance further.

This is inclusion by the slow but steady route. Peter Barton, headteacher of Paternoster Special School, says the national curriculum has squeezed out some of the joint arts initiatives that schools such as this practised in the past, and he would like to see more of them, but only where appropriate.

"We recognise the value of inclusion, but believe it needs to be done on an individual basis - in terms of what each child needs, and what each child can cope with. It is also important that inclusion is seen as a two-way process: not just what special needs children can gain from the mainstream, but what we can offer to mainstream children."

Gloucestershire Dance Tel: 01452 550431Email:

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