The right touch;Primary

1st May 1998 at 01:00
Lottery money is giving disabled pupils in Sheffield the chance to experience a special form of dance, writes Clare Jenkins

It is just after lunch at Woolley Wood special school in Sheffield. Seven children have gathered in the hall for a dance session, but this is not the usual kind of dance. The seven and eight-year-olds are severely disabled - three are in wheelchairs and a couple are autistic.

When dancer Katy Dymoke joins the helpers and teacher on the floor, the children are obviously disturbed by the presence of a stranger. She talks soothingly and plays gentle music. The important thing, Ms Dymoke says, is touch - first guiding the movement, then letting the child initiate it.

She takes wheelchair-bound Valerie's hand in hers to massage it. The other adults follow suit, stroking hands and faces, tapping heads, partnering those who want to lie on the floor.

The idea for the Move Through Dance project came from Kate Baybutt, mobility teacher for the Visually Impaired Service in Sheffield, who received a pound;4,000 Arts for Everyone lottery grant. "I'm convinced that we can enhance movement and mobility through music and dance," she says.

Ms Dymoke is director of Lancashire-based Touchdown Dance, whose speciality is "contact improvisation" - variously described as an art sport, "because it combines gymnastic and poetic qualities", and a healing art, "because it promotes physical and mental well-being". The pattern of movements draw on yoga, aikido, gymnastics and dance.

"It's a dance form particularly accessible to people with a visual or sensory impairment," Ms Dymoke says, "because it is based on the sense of touch." The four sessions fit into the programme that teacher Gaynor Peach has already devised. "We do massage with them, and aromatherapy, so they're used to contact. Dance is part of our PE curriculum anyway, and our PE topic is directions. The previous one was contrasting big and small, so it fits in well."

The children who most benefit, she feels, are those with profound and multiple disability like Adam, with the rare cri du chat condition, and Naqash, who has Weaver's syndrome.

Valerie, who has cerebral palsy, giggles as, with her feet against Ms Dymoke's, she swishes her chair backwards and forwards and into spins and turns. "The reward of doing the movement is the pleasure of going backwards," Ms Dymoke says. "It may look like simple movement patterns," she adds, "but it's underpinned by development movement principles."

Also present is a student from Sheffield Hallam University, who is making a video to show to the children's parents. "These children can't go home and say this is what we did today,"Mrs Baybutt says. "My priority is to let parents in on what's happening."

She believes the benefits are increased mobility and the confidence to explore space. "It puts them on a plane other than that which is merely upright. And hopefully it will feed in muscle memory, so the movement remains without the stimulus."

Ms Dymoke agrees: "We don't want them to mimic but to discover different ways of being and moving, because that's their main way of communicating. The essence is the pleasure of dance and physical expression and valuing that space. It isn't dangerous or threatening, but nurturing and liberating."

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