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Thinking Space Article by by Maiya Leeke and Karen Bartholomew

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This article is written in collaboration by Maiya Leeke and Karen Bartholomew, who are dance artists with strong roots in the north of England. Our work is underpinned by a commitment to accessibility and celebrating diversity. We used the Thinking Space opportunity as a chance to explore and consolidate our thoughts and experiences over the course of the pandemic. We spent some time together online and in person, taking the time to talk about our recent experiences and explore what this means for our future practice. This article is a summary of our discussions.

When the pandemic took hold of the UK in March 2020, little did we know of the effect it would have on our lives, our work and our connections. Much like everyone else in the world, we downloaded zoom and got to work! Joking aside, it was vitally important to maintain our connections with the people we worked with and provide some consistency at a time when it felt like the world had been turned upside down. There was a lot of trial and error within the process of moving our work to online platforms, and even a military planned operation of socially distanced dropping off equipment and iPads for those without the technology to access online sessions. A colleague stood on a student’s drive, 2 metres apart needless to say, and talked them through how to use zoom so that they would be able to attend sessions from home. We have all had to evaluate how and why we do things, how else we can do things, and how we can make them accessible to everyone – would we all have done this pre-pandemic?

Some more thoughts about accessibility…

When everyone experiences the need for accessibility (i.e. working online), it isn’t seen as a chore because it is a necessity. But as Maiya, speaking as a disabled artist knows very well from personal experience, this is not the lived reality for people with disabilities who constantly face barriers and obstacles with the arts and life in general. We now all have this lived experience of the importance of accessibility as a right and need. As privileges of freedom begin to re-emerge, we have been discussing how fundamental it is that we do not forget the learning that has occurred because for many, their lives were not free before and they won’t be free again after Covid. Whether this be due to disabilities or chronic health conditions, ignorance to the isolation that many will continue to face is no excuse especially now we know, and have proved that greater access is possible.

Connections and reconnections…

On a different note, during lockdown our (Maiya and Karen’s) personal friendship strengthened. We had met the year before on an inclusive dance training programme and realised our Northern connection. But remarkably, we’d never done anything about it until lockdown hit and we were suddenly able to access more together. Why hadn’t we made the effort to connect again? Were we too busy? Or were we just not creative enough… we now know that for us, all it takes is a Zoom link to say hello!

When the world was functioning as ‘normal’, our paths hadn’t crossed again. But, when we began delivering open online classes we reconnected and started dancing together. In a time of disconnect, our friendship reconnected! This was such an important experience for us both and helped us realise our shared ethos and the potential for future collaboration.

Creativity – hold onto it…

We spoke about how creativity has blossomed, making possible what we never thought could be. Imagine if we continue to be this creative, way beyond when a global pandemic is forcing us to and we are no longer in survival mode. Just imagine what could emerge should we let ourselves dare to think or create as bravely and boldly as we have done in recent months.

Although being solely online has its limitations, we discussed the beauty online working also provides and how this is another thing to keep hold of. Yes, we all love being around people and we all love dancing together, but what has happened that never would have emerged if online working didn’t exist? One of my (Karen’s) students with social anxiety flourished with never before seen confidence when able to work from home. This self confidence sparked their imagination and their creative voice strengthened massively. They connected with sessions so much more and unveiled even more of their potential, which continued to grow once they returned to the studio in 2021.

 

A piece created by Joss Arnott Dance, that we both performed in, ‘DANCE:CONNECTS PULSE! 2.0’, brought together artists from all around the world who never would have had the opportunity to dance in something together before. Zoom allowed us to enter different time zones, whilst staying in our own, and dance as a worldwide collective.

 

I (Maiya) completed training intensives and residencies whilst in hospital for a period of time. I successfully auditioned for National Youth Dance Company and worked with Alesandra Seutin (who was in Senegal) for a week on Zoom during my rehabilitation. I may have ‘Maiya-ed’ my hospital stay, but if that had been in 2019, when Zoom didn’t exist, I just wouldn’t have been able to participate. Everyone would have said it wasn’t possible and for me, as a disabled person, all you ever hear is what isn’t possible. Never ever, in such mass, have people worked before to find what could be possible because we all needed a new possibility for once. We all had new needs.

I (Karen) was able to access classes and sessions outside of my local area, with artists that I had wanted to work with but might not have had the chance to otherwise. I was pretty heavily pregnant in the summer of 2020, and the chance to participate in sessions was invaluable in taking me out of my bubble of maternity and covid anxiety! I was able to stay connected with my youth dance company right until the end of term and work with them to create two films. Had we not been set up for online working, I might not have been able to remain quite as connected to the group in the months leading up to having my baby.

What’s next?

We acknowledge that whilst emerging from this pandemic, many people may be more vulnerable or fragile. A final collection of thoughts around this culminated with the idea of finding the beauty within the small things. The dream is for everyone to see this beauty too.

Nurturing

Encouraging

Guiding

Sharing

Watching

Growing

Feeling

Listening

Following

 

Inclusive and accessible practice is an ever emerging, ever evolving thing that we will never ‘reach’ because we will always discover something new. This is so exciting. But what we dream is that we continue to evolve and grow together after this pandemic. Covid-19 has shown us how everyone’s world can change in an instant and how no one wants to be left behind and nor should they be. We have a beautiful opportunity to emerge stronger, more connected, and more committed to including everyone further.

That’s our take-away from our thinking space. We are hungry to be part of the conscious evolution of connected and accessible living. After all, every single person now has the lived experience of this basic human right. That is our global gift! We all have this new super power and we would love for everyone to step into their power and use it.

How will you use your new superpower of accessibility and inclusion in your work?

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