String variations

Margaret Whitworth

Through the medium of dance, pupils can perform a beautiful expression of themselves on screen. Margaret Whitworth reports

A glimpse of the video showing Jenny's dance routine demonstrates how special educational needs teachers are pioneering new uses for technology. Bob Overton, from Mere Oaks School in Wigan, a special school for pupils aged two to 19 who have physical disabilities, is more modest:

"This is a method that works for me, though it may not work for everybody." It has had a huge impact on Jenny.

Jenny would never be able to perform live on a stage. She has cerebral palsy and cannot stand unaided or speak. But she loves to dance. She and her friends devised a dance routine based on a puppet. She starts in a heap on the floor. Gradually, the puppeteer appears to pull her up by the strings. Coloured lights intensify the electric atmosphere as she performs. The piece ends as she crumples to the floor and closes her eyes. But the delight on her face is plain. She is clearly immensely proud of this piece of work. It is hauntingly beautiful.

It all began on a school trip to Spain. Jenny was particularly excited when she saw flamenco dancing. After the performance, the dancers took her on stage and supported her so she could dance with them. At the hotel, every night, Jenny was to be found in the thick of the disco. Her friends shared these experiences with her. Back at school they decided they wanted to make Jenny's love for dancing the subject of a video. So Jenny - Puppet on a String was born.

There were six children in the group, all aged 14 and with different physical disabilities. They discussed how to tackle the project and who was going to do what. Bob Overton always uses the language of film with his students so that they learn about the concepts and the roles involved. All the roles of filming and directing were shared between them over the three months it took to make the video. The project demanded intense team and collaborative working from the group.

The choreography was entirely Jenny's own. She decided to start and finish in a sleeping position. She pushes herself up on to her knees using her head. The shot is carefully framed so that in the film it looks as though she is standing. She then begins to dance. She moves higher or lower on her knees.

Jerky, uncontrolled movements are symptomatic of cerebral palsy. But Bob Overton explains that watching her develop the dance, the deliberate intent of Jenny's movements was apparent. She had composed a routine and repeated exactly the same moves each time. Viewed in slow motion, this intent becomes clearer. You can see that she is looking at what she is doing and that her head is following her hands.

Bob Overton found that slowing down the video also renders the movements much more graceful. What could have seemed clumsy and unflattering is now seen as beautiful and controlled. He is delighted to have been able to "frame her work, to help show it off for what it is, in its true beauty, not to change it". He likens it to displaying a child's painting - sticking it to the wall with a single pin would have nothing like the impact of mounting it with a coloured frame.

The filming took place over several weeks. Continuity was important. At each session, before the start of filming, they had to recreate the set and lighting effects from the previous time. Jenny's performance clothes were left at school and she changed into them before filming. The group also took a lot of photos so they could be sure to recreate the details.

As a result of considering these issues, the group's viewing of television became more critical. Bob Overton describes how they would rush in and tell him with excitement when they spotted a continuity fault on EastEnders the night before.

There were some initial problems. At first, the puppeteer, Rachel, used string, but this meant that she was sometimes pulling against Jenny's will. Elastic provided the answer - the "strings" remained taut but Jenny had completely independent control of her movements.

Then the group realised there was a risk that the wooden cross which held the puppet-strings would slip out of Rachel's grasp and hit Jenny's head, so Rachel and Jenny were filmed separately. When filming Rachel, the elastic was attached to the back of a chair - for footage with Jenny, to the ceiling. On the video, this is not apparent.

Bob finds giving non-speakers more action-orientated roles helps them to get involved. Expressive subjects such as art and dance take away the need for words. Michael, who cannot speak or easily access a computer, shared responsibility for the sound with Ian. They made their own music for the first part of the film, where Jenny comes down the corridor, supporting herself on her frame. They used copyright-free clips on Ejaymix, a resource bank containing several thousand music clips. Ian selected options to choose from, Michael would indicate the sounds he wanted and then Ian would put them in the right place. Wordless negotiation was clearly going on and compromises reached.

For the dance sequence, Jenny decided on The Swan by Camille Saint-Sa ns. She liked the fact that her routine, which finishes with the puppet lying down and going to sleep, echoes the swan struggling for life before dying at the end.

Gemma and Rachel did most of the editing. The fact that they have severe speech impediments was irrelevant to this activity, but some editing tasks require fine motor skills. Gemma's are the most developed so she was given the mouse. But this didn't mean she had overall control, as is so often the case for the person with the mouse. Rachel controlled "start" and "stop" using the space bar.

Bob Overton describes the iMovie software as very easy to use. When the film is downloaded from the camera, the program automatically creates a new clip at each scene break. These can then easily be dragged and dropped into a timeline and edited.

The lighting effects were obtained in the light sensory studio. The equipment can be pre-programmed to create similar effects each time. The children designed the lighting effects which play on Jenny and the white curtain behind her as she dances. While Mere Oaks is fortunate in having a therapy room, he points out that similar effects could be produced by using disco lights.

All these aspects of film-making and performance come together in the finished film. The whole group is very proud of its work. It is particularly special for Jenny, who can now receive critical acclaim in dance - something she loves, but previously had never been able to perform to a wider audience. "It is her entitlement to see what she can achieve" Bob Overton says. "It is very liberating for her. While she has little physical ability, she has great understanding. She becomes complete, competent and confident."

Resources and support for teachers using Becta advice:

* More on Bob Overton in today's TES Online magazine


* Let the children direct the development of the project and experiment with them to find the best ways of doing things.

* Give everyone a role - there are many in film-making: appearing in front of the camera; directing; editing; designing the set and lighting; recording; compiling the soundtrack.

* Explain the need for continuity, and encourage the children to spot and discuss continuity mistakes. Use photographs and notes to match previous filming.

* Encourage negotiation and teamwork by pairing children to work on different aspects of the project.

Equipment used

* Digital cameratripod.

* iMovie - user-friendly editing package:

* Disco lights that flash and produce bright colours would be a satisfactory and much cheaper alternative.

* Music, but remember copyright restrictions. Use Ejay to make a soundtrack with copyright-free clips:

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Margaret Whitworth

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