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Spirits of the dance

Wheelchairs glide across the hall at Richard Cloudesley School in London's Barbican. Then they whirl off on their own, their owners creating undulating wave patterns that metamorphose into delicate fish with flapping thumbs for fins.

Eleven students aged 12 to 14 with physical disabilities are working on a collaborative project between the Academy of Indian Dance, Community Focus (a mixed-media project working with disabled people in Barnet) and the British Museum's Education Department.

Inspired by the sculptures in the museum' s Hotung Gallery, Pallavi - meaning frieze or decoration - explores the relationship between sculpture and dance as a stimulus for creative work with special schools.

The 10-week project was initiated by a visit to the British Museum, where students looked at sculptures of Shiva, Lord of the Dance, Ganesh the elephant god, and Vishnu reincarnated as a fish. They watched a temple dance - which emphasises face and hand gestures and is easily copied by those with limited mobility - then listened to the story of Manu and the fish, an Indian Noah's Ark, on which creative work would be based. Classical performer and teacher Indra Thiagarajah introduces turquoise and blue saris to be thrown into the air and students twist and ripple them. Circles of wheelchair dancers form a boat and hold up clenched hands like paddles to row through the flood.

Students congregate in the art room where sculptor Patricia Cox, who works on arts projects in special schools, uses plaster body casting, recording students' hand gestures in "modroc", the strips of soaked bandages used in hospitals for mending broken limbs. Students will paint, decorate and mount these plaster reliefs on panels lit from beneath with fairy lights.

Two boys refine their clay model of a boat, repatterning its exterior. A teacher guides a girl's hands, which build a clay model of a fish with delicate scale markings. Using a book of Indian hand patterns, two girls outline their hands on paper, others decorating them.

The activities generate a spirit of absorbed co-operation. On the dance floor, students have developed strength, some holding their heads up more, others improving their co-ordination. Displays of Indian sculpture and design line the corridors.

Head of music Christopher Bodman will create dance music from students' ideas with tabla, electronic keyboards and special effect samplers. These will lead to an open sharing of art and dance work in progress in the Hotung Gallery on March 30 at 1.30pm.

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