How to deliver dance activities for people with complex disabilities

How to use this resource

a girl in a wheelchair is dancing with 4 other people

This resource describes a range of activities for you to try with step-by-step suggestions. 

The activities described are a starting point to help you introduce the idea of movement and dance in group sessions. But please don’t expect sessions to run perfectly straight away since it takes time to learn a new skill. We know you might be nervous to begin with but over time you will feel more comfortable, knowledgeable and confident and before you know it, you’ll start finding your own dance moves and style!

We suggest you try a range of these activities described in the resource at least once a week for three months to start with. 

We have also included plans for running longer sessions (60 – 90 minutes) at the end of this page. 

The value of dance

We have been exploring movement and dance with Sense participants for some time. This work has evolved over a number of years and continues to be an incredibly important and meaningful part of our creative activity programme for people with sensory impairments. 

This resource was developed in collaboration with Sense services and is intended to support anyone who wants to lead or take part in a movement session. It will help you generate new ideas and equip you with the initial skills to run one-to-one or group movement sessions. Dance is a powerful medium for Sense participants because it is also a form of communication; it allows someone to express meaning, or what they mean, physically. 

Dance also helps to improve physical skills such as mobility, balance, flexibility and coordination. It also has a positive impact on interpersonal skills such as trust, confidence and communication. 

Dance can be used as a tool for creativity, expression and as a way of increasing proprioception (the sense of one’s own body in space).

This resource brings together the games, tasks and exercises we experimented with during the week-long project with Studio Wayne McGregor at Sense Barnet. It is intended to help support staff and participants interested in developing creative movement-based skills to have the confidence to try something new.

Useful tips for delivering a session

Space and structure

  • A large enough space, clear of obstacles and furniture, is ideal for dance sessions.
  • The optimum length of a session is 60 – 90 minutes but it depends on the stamina and needs of the participants. Don’t worry if a session needs to be shorter; the important thing is to try to remain consistent with clear beginnings and endings. 
  • Repetition, consistency and a clear session structure are necessary for establishing a safe creative space. 
  • A clear beginning and end to each session, repeated every time, enables participants to familiarise themselves with and understand what they are engaging in. Examples include: creating an arch with bodies that participants can enter and exit through, or starting and finishing each session in a circle.
  • The circle can be returned to throughout the session as a way of focusing the group and giving further instructions.
  • It is better to have one leader directing the group for each activity. It doesn’t have to be the same person throughout although it helps to be consistent. The leader needs to indicate and explain the next activity to the rest of the group so that everyone knows what’s happening next and there is a clear structure.
  • Music can be used to welcome people into the space, to create an atmosphere for the session and to inspire or accompany the movements created.

Don’t be afraid to try something new – if a new idea emerges which the group wants to try – go for it.

Be flexible 

  • Sessions can build up in difficulty or length over time. Eventually you won’t need to refer to this resource; you will be coming up with your own ideas for sessions and developing dance moves and ideas as a group. 
  • The time needed for each activity will be different for each group. Try activities for as long as you need to develop them, but move onto other activities if the group become stuck or are looking for more variation. You will find that next time you try the same activity the dynamics and approach will be different, so don’t give up. 
  • Don’t be afraid to try something new – if a new idea emerges which the group wants to try – go for it, as long as it is safe.

Music

There is a huge range of music available to suit mood and activity. Here are some suggested composers who have worked with Studio Wayne McGregor.

  • Ólafur Arnalds
  • Joel Cadbury
  • Deru
  • Ben Frost
  • Jon Hopkins
  • Nico Muhly
  • Plaid
  • Max Richter
  • Joby Talbot
  • Scanner
  • Jamie xx
  • A Winged Victory for the Sullen

Making it work for you

  • For participants who prefer not to be touched, you may find it helpful to use a prop such as a theraband, hoop, feather or scarf to touch another person rather than using hands or body parts.
  • When working with participants of varying mobility, think of ways you can start from the individuals’ own range of movements and preferences. Focus on individual rhythms and beats – such as someone’s breathing or heartbeat and use these as a starting point to initiate movements (e.g. start tapping, rocking, clapping). This can provide an instant way of involving everyone, as well as tailoring movements to an individual.
  • Sustained interaction with one participant can help them to build confidence and awareness over time, but it is equally important to try different partnerships so new movement ideas are explored.

Starting the session

Choose a way to start your session and repeat this every time. This is an example of a ‘hello’ activity which should be done as soon as people enter the space to start the session.

Equipment

Low cost equipment such as therabands – elastic resistance bands – can be used as a tool to direct movement and create boundaries. Try by getting everyone to hold onto the same theraband and moving across the room, or holding one in a circle and pushing and pulling whilst doing so.

Session structure

Sessions should be dynamic and include warm-up, group and individual exercises. An example of a structure could be:

  1. Hello exercise
  2. Warm-up exercises
  3. Group exercises
  4. Creative exercises in smaller groups
  5. Sharing of any work created
  6. Goodbye exercise

Hello

Make an arch with your hands so that people can go through as they enter the space. 

Say ‘hello’ to that person verbally, visually or through touch. 

The arch can also be made with props such as bamboo canes with bells and ribbons hanging from them so that people experience an additional sensation and sound as they pass through. The use of canes can also facilitate wheelchair users’ involvement in making the arch.

Warm-up exercises

Standing in a circle

Form a circle with everyone facing each other. 

One at a time, leave the circle and feel your way around it (inside or outside) using touch to familiarise yourself with the other participants in the room and the shape that the group is making in the space. 

Rejoin the circle when you are ready. 

The name game

Stand in a circle with everyone facing each other. 

Choose a movement to represent your name

Movements can be simple or elaborate, depending on what the participant feels comfortable with. Everyone should be encouraged to create something that is unique to them.

Take turns around the circle to show the rest of the group your sign name and everyone will repeat this back to you. Repeat this in turn around the group as many times as you need to. 

These names and movements should be repeated in each session to build familiarity between the participants, setting and activity.

“Everyone should be encouraged to create something that is unique to them”

Hokey cokey

Stand in a circle with everyone facing each other and join hands. 

The leader encourages everyone to stretch out and then move in closely together. Whilst in the centre of the circle find ways of connecting to each other e.g. holding hands, touching heads, knees, shoulders etc. 

Try reaching higher or lower or getting faster or slower as you move in and out of the circle hokey cokey style. 

This activity provides an opportunity for participants to start working together and to get a sense of who else is in the group.

Exploring different body parts

In small groups or pairs, using your hands, rub over the surface of your own or a partner’s body – try starting with legs, heads, forearms, shoulders, backs. At the same time, try shaking or moving different body parts

Group exercises

These exercises will work best in groups of four or more.

Explore the space

Explore the space you’re in by touching all the walls. 

Try touching the floor and all of the fittings around the room. You don’t just have to use your hands; you can touch the walls with your legs or head or any part of your body. 

Move around the room and continue exploring all the space. 

When you reach another person, you can greet them (using their sign name) verbally, visually or through touch. 

This exercise will enable people to get a better sense of the space and where the physical barriers are in the room, as well as who else is using the space.

Statue line

The idea is that the whole group will eventually create a connected line of different body shapes. Starting with one person, create a shape with your body and allow the next person to move around the shape, feeling and travelling through any gaps. 

When they are ready they will join onto the first person and form their own shape. 

The next person feels along the two shapes and spaces, travelling through any gaps and also joins the line by connecting a body part to the others to make a new shape. 

Continue until everyone is connected to each other and a statue line is formed. 

This exercise can continue if the person at one end of the line feels along the shapes and spaces and rejoins at the opposite end.

Starting with one person, create a shape with your body.

These tasks give opportunities for shared leadership within the group and enable participants to explore their own movement language.

Follow the leader

Stand in a long line behind the leader and follow them – try holding hands or placing hands on the person in front’s shoulders to keep connected as you move. 

The leader can try moving in different directions, at different heights or at different speeds. 

After a while, choose a new leader– and do this as many times as you want. 

Try jumping, turning or moving your arms as you lead the group. Wheelchair users can use scarves to join to others and make a connection.

Flocking

Similar to Follow the leader, flocking should be led by one person but it involves bringing the group physically closer together and moving around the space as a close-knit group (think like a swarm of bees or a flock of birds!)

Experiment with moving away and back together. Create different vibrations by stamping and clapping when you’re close together and far apart.

If working in a group of wheelchair users and non-wheelchair users, try using an elastic resistance band or parachute strip – this can be passed around the group so that everyone can feel part of the ‘flock’ and physically ‘attached’ in the movement.

Experiment with moving away and back together.

Creative exercises

These exercises work best in small groups of three or four or in pairs.

Negative space

In a small group, try connecting your limbs and body parts to each other to create different shapes – such as an arm to a leg, a shoulder to a head, a wrist to a knee. 

One at a time, feel and explore around the shapes to find the gaps and spaces. Travel through any larger gaps between arms or legs.

Repeat with different people making new shapes and exploring them. The shapes and the movement can be remembered and repeated and made bigger and more elaborate.

Guiding through space

Working in pairs, guide each other through the space by using a point of contact that feels comfortable e.g. hand on the shoulder, hand on the lower back, holding hands.

Try using non-verbal signals to provide instructions – for example, draw a circle on the palm to signal a turn, tap on the shoulder to signal start or stop, or stroke across the forearm to signal going forwards or backwards.

Keep repeating these signals and make them before moving. Speed and level can be varied.

Try using non-verbal signals to provide instructions.

Puppet

In this exercise you will be moving someone else’s body, a bit like they are a ‘puppet’. 

In pairs or groups of three, one person will lead. They will touch a part of their partner’s body and that person will react. For example, if someone touches your arm, you might react by lifting that arm. 

Try using different types of ‘touch’ – firm, soft, sweeping, tapping – and see if your partner responds differently. Keep repeating this exercise so that over time there is greater awareness that you are responding to each other’s movements and there is an exchange to-and-fro.

Over time, you can build up a range of patterns to create a phrase (a short sequence of movements that has a beginning, middle and end).

Matching body parts

In groups of two or three people, one person will provide instructions which will help the others create different types of shapes by matching body parts. 

For example, instructions might include: 

  • Connect four elbows and move while staying in contact 
  • Two feet in contact whilst balancing
  • Four feet in contact whilst moving on the floor
  • Four hands staying in contact and exploring ranges of motion.

Try using different types of ‘touch’ – firm, soft, sweeping, tapping.

Make a sound

This activity is about making and responding to different sounds, rhythms and vibrations. 

The person taking the lead will start with clapping or making vocal sounds at different volumes, levels and locations, for example, moving closer and further away from their partner or group. 

Encourage the others to follow the sound and create movements in response to the sound heard or felt.

Encourage the others to follow the sound.

Weight bearing

In pairs or small groups, explore weight bearing techniques – leaning, lifting and using weight to balance with each other. Where this level of contact is not possible, try other ways through applying light pressure by leaning and pushing using arms, hands or shoulders or tipping wheelchairs in different directions. Feel the different sensations for each exercise. 

Weight bearing can be adapted for wheelchair users – you will need to find an approach which is appropriate and comfortable for all, gently pushing/pulling and tipping are all ways in which weight bearing can be applied. Other examples include: 

Pulling

In pairs, face each other, touch toes and hold hands. Lean back slowly whilst gently pulling on each other to support each other’s weight. 

Bend knees to try and move to a sitting position whilst all the time pulling on the other person to maintain counterbalance. Return to standing.

Pushing

In pairs, stand back-to-back with spines touching from neck to lower back. Push against each other and gradually move feet forward, in the opposite direction to the other person. Bend knees to move to a sitting position. Return to standing maintaining ‘push’ on the other person.

Lifting/jumping

In pairs, facing each other, one person can do a jump whilst using the other person’s shoulders as a support. 

Drawing in space

Using different body parts to draw shapes in space. 

For example, draw a circle in the air with your wrist, draw a straight line with your knee, draw your name in space using different body parts for each letter.

Draw your name in space using different body parts for each letter.

Finishing the session

Sharing the work created

Find time at the end of every session to share some of the work created in the session – you could do this within a circle or as a performance. You could show an example of what you’ve been working on or develop a routine or choreography and perform to others. 

This is an important part of the process and will help build people’s confidence and provide real examples and evidence of how people’s movement skills are being developed in these sessions. 

Think about ways of documenting your development over time, too – you could take photos or videos on iPads or cameras and watch them back as a group. This will help you to track progress but also develop new ideas and ways of working in future sessions.

Goodbye

Like the ‘hello’ exercise, repeat this activity at the end of every session. Repeat the ‘hello’ exercise by creating a physical arch around the door through which participants exit. Use words, touch and gesture to say goodbye to each individual.

This is an important part of the process and will help build people’s confidence.

Session plans

Thank you for taking part in dance and movement sessions – we hope you found the resource useful and inspiring. We look forward to finding out about how you got on and how you are developing your practice further!

To help you start developing longer sessions, the following plans have been provided to give you examples of how to structure a session based on three specific themes: body, space and time. 

You can rotate these plans each week and also start to introduce new ideas as your practice develops. Please feel free to follow activities in whatever order you want to. 

You might want to mix small and large group activities but please remember that it is important to have a clear structure in place to start and end sessions and to keep the session running smoothly.

Each plan is designed for a 60 – 90 minute session but you can spend more or less time on each activity as you need.

Body

  1. Hello arch
  2. Names
  3. Warming up and exploring of different body parts
  4. Statue line
  5. Puppet
  6. Matching body parts
  7. Weight bearing
  8. Sharing of work created
  9. Goodbye arch

Space

  1. Hello arch
  2. Names
  3. Hokey cokey
  4. Follow my leader
  5. Guiding through space (in pairs)
  6. Negative space
  7. Sharing of work created
  8. Goodbye arch

Time and rhythm

  1. Hello arch
  2. Names
  3. Hokey cokey
  4. Follow my leader using sounds/rhythms e.g. stamping with the feet and clapping
  5. Make a sound
  6. Sharing of work created
  7. Goodbye arch

Acknowledgements 

This resource has been developed in collaboration with the Arts, Sport and Wellbeing Department at Sense and Studio Wayne McGregor. If you have any queries or want to find out more about Studio Wayne McGregor please contact [email protected].

If you have any questions about Arts, Sport and Wellbeing at Sense please contact [email protected].

Many thanks to everyone at Sense who supported the development of the resource and provided feedback:

Sense Barnet

Cambridge Resource Centre

Keech Resource Centre

Ashley Court Resource Centre

Studio Wayne McGregor

Studio Wayne McGregor is the creative engine for choreographer and director Wayne McGregor CBE, and the home of his lifelong enquiry into thinking through and with the body. It is a nexus of partners who explore movement, artistry, thought and collaboration. With Wayne McGregor at its centre, this collaborative network encompasses dancers, writers, composers, producers, software engineers, visual artists, scientists and more. 

The Studio contains Company Wayne McGregor, his own touring company of dancers, which is a Resident Company of Sadler’s Wells and tours to high acclaim across the UK and the world. The Studio’s highly specialised learning and research programmes explore the individual creative potential in over 10,000 participants each year.