1. You are here:
  2. Home
  3. News
  4. Pathways to Progression in Dance

Pathways to Progression in Dance

Pathways to Progression in Dance

12 January 2019

Translating ISTD syllabi for young disabled dancers

Imogen Aujla reports on the progress of the ISTD’s project to explore the viability of making its existing syllabi more accessible to young disabled dancers in order to provide systematic training routes that are open to dancers of all backgrounds and abilities.


Modern Theatre syllabus groupIn the UK there is a long history of inclusive dance in community settings. There are many first-access opportunities for young disabled people to participate in dance activity and enjoy the many benefits it can provide. However, there are limited options for young disabled dancers who wish to develop their skills. Recently, there has been sector-wide recognition of the need to provide systematic training routes that are accessible to dancers of all backgrounds and abilities. A number of organisations have initiated new programmes and schemes to address this particular barrier to dance for disabled people. As one of the largest dance examination bodies in the world, we recognised the ISTD could play a particular role, and developed a project to explore the viability of making their existing syllabi more accessible to young disabled dancers.

The aims of the project were twofold. Firstly, an investigation of the barriers to private studio classes was undertaken. Second, an action research phase was conducted to explore how to make the current ballet, modern, and dancesport syllabi more accessible. To meet these aims, the ISTD recruited three teachers who already work with a mixed ability group, and three specialists in inclusive dance to assist them. Each group worked on particular aspects of exercises from the syllabus assigned to them over the course of several weeks.

As one of the largest dance examination bodies in the world, we recognised the ISTD could play a particular role


Imperial Classical Ballet syllabus groupAction research is a form of study that aims to effect change by addressing the needs of a particular community. Its flexibility allows participants to steer the direction of the study and make change throughout the duration of a research project. This was crucial to the project as each group differed in respect to the teachers’ experience, and the needs and experience of the dancers. Over the course of the 12–14 week study period, the teachers and specialists devised and modified strategies for translating syllabus exercises to suit their dancers, reflecting on the efficacy of these changes and implementing new ideas in response. The researcher documented the process through observations, interviews with the teachers, specialists, dancers and their parents, and analysis of journal entries the teachers and specialists completed after each session.

Initial Findings

Although analyses are still underway, some important results have already begun to emerge. In terms of barriers, some findings were similar to those reported in previous literature such as access and attitudinal barriers. However, there appear to be some challenges that are unique to the private dance studio context. These included the extent to which existing syllabi could be made accessible, the need for training of not only teachers but also examiners, and a review of the reasonable adjustments process. Furthermore, the competition aspect of the dancesport genre provided further challenges in finding translations of exercises that could be agreed upon by various competition bodies.

The action research aspect of the project is completed for the ballet and modern groups and ongoing for the dancesport group, which started later. Therefore, the focus here is on the ballet and modern groups, each of which had a different starting point. The ballet group was relatively new and had begun as a more creative, non-syllabus class and the teachers worked to break down exercises to specific steps that were more manageable for the dancers. Gradually introducing ballet technique and longer exercises, together with teacher training in disability awareness and communication, helped to shape the structure and content of the classes. The dancers in the modern group had been dancing for several years and therefore the focus was on turning and jumping, which the dancers found particularly challenging. The specialist introduced new exercises and activities to play with these movements and worked with the dancers one-to-one to support their technique and increase their movement confidence. The dancers in both groups enjoyed working with the specialists, as one explained, “Every lesson we come to, there’s more stuff we learn about, and it’s good fun”.

Modern Theatre syllabus groupWhile the strategies applied were different for each group, all of the dancers had made substantial progress by the end of the study period, the extent of which was felt to be greater due to the input of the specialists. The dancers had improved in terms of accuracy, control, and movement memory. Talking about jumping, one of the dancers in the modern group said, “I couldn’t do it before, now I can do it”. Similarly, a parent of a ballet group student noted, “I do catch him [at home] doing things that he’s learned here…his movement’s a lot more controlled”.

All of the dancers had made substantial progress by the end of the study period

Improvements in focus and concentration were also evident, and the dancers had become more confident in their dancing and more independent in the classes. Furthermore, the teachers themselves became more confident and were setting higher expectations for the dancers as a result. Although challenges remain, for example meeting varied needs within one class, all involved were overwhelmingly positive about the project and the progress made. As one of the specialists put it, “I left feeling exhilarated at how far the students have come.”

What next

Modern Theatre syllabus groupThe findings of the project will be launched at the University of Bedfordshire on 23rd February 2019 as part of the ISTD’s Springboard event. The launch event will include a research presentation, reflections and demonstrations from the groups involved, plus seminars and workshops from industry leaders, considering how the findings can be taken forward. The day will culminate in a performance celebrating the breadth and quality of inclusive dance practice. This is an exciting time for inclusive dance in the UK and the project represents an important move forwards in opening pathways to dance for young people with disabilities.

Imogen Aujla PhD, Senior Lecturer in Dance and Course Leader MSc Dance Science, University of Bedfordshire

For more information about the research and the launch event, please contact Michaela Ellis: mellis@istd.org

Back to news listing