La danza per tutte le età e le abilità — ‘dance for every age and every ability’, is the guiding phrase of the aptly named Dance For All programme. The programme, created by Sara Accettura, Assistant Lecturer in Dance Studies at the University of Malta, is an inclusive dance project focusing on people with learning disabilities and autism. By bringing together trained dancers, people with disabilities, and amateurs, the project is able to encourage collaboration, creativity, and communication.
The Dance For Allproject emerged from Accettura’s international experiences. After studying for an MA in performance in London, she met her collaborators Cedar Dance Studio,who encouraged her to develop inclusive classes. On returning to Italy, Accettura fulfilled her dream to create a youth dance company in Southern Italy — the Junior Dance Company in her hometown of Bari — and linked up with Dalla Luna, professionals specialising in autism care.
The Dance For All program runs in sets of six workshops with a final performance. Rather than having strict choreography, the dances are developed from tasks, games, and the participants’ own movements. This allows for a more organic approach and facilitates creative collaborations. The end result is a performance that all participants feel invested in. Accettura describes her role as leading rather than teaching, ‘I observe the participants. I’m thinking of every participant, and I’m seeing what their movements are. Then I try to involve that in the choreography.’
True to the inclusive nature of the program, each participant benefits in their own individual way. Traditionally the focus has been on dance as a way to improve motor skills and socialisation; however, Accettura has recognised that the trained dancers taking part in the program also benefit. The program helps them develop their creativity as it is a rare space to freely express and experiment without the pressures of technical, fixed choreography and competition judgement.
The performance element has been very positive with dancers on the autism spectrum who have enjoyed the theatre environment, been motivated to wear costumes, and even encouraged audience applause — this despite general reports often citing bright lights, unusual clothes, and loud noises as sources of discomfort for those with autism. Accettura believes it is the inclusive and shared responsibility of the dance studio that builds a sense of safety and security. Whilst the overarching goal is to have fun, Accettura highlights the importance of individuals, ‘I don’t have specific goals for everyone, and ideally participants are not aiming to achieve the same results. For some people, it’s about self expression, feeling more confident; for others, it’s more about the movement itself.’
With people always calling for Dance For All to return each year, the program has been running since 2013. There continue to be international ties. American artists have visited collaborative classes, and Accettura is now completing a PhD supervised by Dr Tamara Ashley from the University of Bedfordshire in the UK that focuses on the program. In the dance studio though, she continues to adopt a human-first approach. The general workshop structure and the core values of inclusive expression and collaboration have remained the same. She describes scientific literature, such as Applied Behaviour Analysis, as offering a helpful guide to what is being taught internationally and for reflecting on what worked or didn’t work in her own workshops. Next on the horizon is bringing Dance For Allacross the Mediterranean Sea. ‘I would love to bring this project to Malta. This is in my plans. I would love to bring the sense of being in an inclusive environment because I believe that it helps everyone to learn more.’
Accettura is an Assistant Lecturer, Artistic Director, and PhD student, but above all she is a dancer. Dance For All demonstrates that we all — trained or differently abled, musician or scientist, Maltese, Italian, British, and beyond — are dancers. ‘Movement is our first thing. We first started with movement. We first start expressing ourselves non-verbally as kids, and movement is in everything. Everyone is a mover. Movement is in us.’
From professional globe-trotting performer to populist teacher, Cassi Camilleri speaks to dancer and choreographer Karolina Mielczarek about her mission to bring dance to the masses as a form of self-expression and communication.
There is something very special that happens when a child dances.
Their irreverence to rhythm, aesthetics, even balance, attracts an enthralled audience. Adults sit on the edge of their seat when a tiny human catches a tune and starts bopping to it, careless and free, a precious state they know all too well will become rarer as time crawls by.
But it doesn’t have to.
‘We dance from the moment we are born. It’s creative communication,’ explains performer, choreographer, and dance teacher Karolina Mielczarek. ‘But when we start speaking, this new linguistic ability takes over, and we stop paying attention to the body as a communicative tool. The ability seems to be lost over time.’
Through her project, Storytelling in Movement, Karolina wants to reverse this process.
Karolina’s movement classes are aimed at dancers and non-dancers alike. The philosophy that binds them is a will to express oneself through dance. Ultimately, the intention is to reconnect people to their bodies and emotions in a way that is positive and healing.
Sowing the seeds
Karolina began dancing at a very young age. ‘My mother always wanted me to dance professionally. She said it would make life easier to deal with.’ Karolina’s mother enrolled her in classes at the National Ballet School in Łódź, Poland when she was just ten years old.
This kicked off Karolina’s global tour, a journey that harboured stops in Belgium, Portugal, Israel, and many more. She worked with a slew of renowned companies including Aveiro Dance Company, Cynada Dance Theatre, Rina Schenfeld Dance Theatre, and Clipa Theatre.
‘It was a very exciting time. I was meeting lots of different people and working with very talented dancers,’ Karolina remembers. But there was something missing, something she couldn’t quite pinpoint at the time. ‘With professional dance, you learn something, you perfect what you learn, and you repeat again,’ Karolina explains, emphasising the work’s drilling nature.
‘Of course, there is beauty there too, because when you do learn a piece of choreography and you execute it well, it gives you this big sense of satisfaction, which is amazing. But I felt that dance is more than just this,’ Karolina admits.
Karolina found validation for those instincts when she met the Polish dancer, choreographer and founder of Cynada Dance Theatre: Bozena Eltermann. Eltermann was a soloist of the Theatre of Expression, one of the forerunners of dance theatre in Poland during the 90s.
Edelman believed in a modern vision of dance that came from an awareness of one’s body and emotions. Her work has focused on self-explored movements that tap into the ‘unconscious’ mind, thus directly opposing more traditional, rigid styles of dancing such as ballet and jazz.
‘I was part of her group in Poland in 2013, and this was how I started shifting my perspective on movement and dancing. She was a very important person in my life,’ Karolina recalls.
Karolina moved forward with this understanding in search of something more ‘primal’, as she describes it. ’I wanted to find this dance [that] we dance when we are children; dance that doesn’t need teaching or showing, but something that comes from within.’
She found her first glimpse of it in Finland.
In 2019 Karolina travelled to Finland to give a series of workshops. ‘I wanted to play with the idea of free movement and experiment. And to be honest, I didn’t expect people to come. I thought maybe three people would show up. But we ended up with a class of 15.’
During those sessions, Karolina noted the interplay between conscious and unconscious thinking more clearly in her non-professional participants. ‘The classes I teach now are based on this idea. Playing with the two brings something more primal but also personal. Ugly, odd, more human. Because it’s not filtered by the rules and the aesthetics ballet and other dances usually have.’
One might assume that the next step after that would have been to jump into giving her own free-movement classes, but life is hardly ever linear and straightforward. ‘This wasn’t something I went into knowingly,’ Karolina emphasises, eager to communicate that the ideas she works with very much spring from gut feelings. ‘It was a very slow and gradual process. This is still fresh. This is still new, even now,’ she says.
Karolina’s next step was travelling to Malta to expand her knowledge of psychology and the performing arts at the University of Malta (UM).
Geography and heritage played a role in Karolina’s decision to move to Malta. ‘I wanted to live somewhere where the sun [often] shines and somewhere with elements of the primal: prehistory and the temples, the mother culture of the Maltese islands. It was all very important to me.’ The fact that the university is English speaking and part of the EU was also a big plus.
Karolina’s focus was on psychology and theatre studies. Both areas were very inspirational and impacted the birth of Storytelling in Movement. Otherwise, ‘the project would never be here,’ she says.
‘Learning about the psyche and the theories of Jung were a revelation to me. I learnt about the idea of the collective unconscious, and how we share common storytelling elements like archetypes. Perhaps this is where the storytelling part of the project came into play.’ This was also what led her to the learnings of Mary Whitehouse. As a Jungian psychoanalyst herself, Whitehouse translated Jungian psychology into dance, a practice she called authentic movement.
Karolina’s time at the UM also gave her a chance to perform on a number of occasions. She considers her last performance as the most impactful. Invited to the University’s School of Performing Arts’ 30th anniversary, she performed a piece aptly titled Farewell under the supervision of Dr Mario Frendo.
‘That performance was an experience of its own kind. Working with the other performers and Dr Frendo was very special. It has this conscious/unconscious element to it which I will never forget. I was wearing my wedding dress. And it was also me saying goodbye to that life and the people I studied with, and everyone I shared a life with for the past three years.’
Today, Karolina has refined the teachings she has picked up along the way and is hosting Storytelling in Movement classes on a weekly basis at the University of Malta.
The classes start with a warm-up which helps participants connect to themselves, others, and the space they are dancing in. ‘It also helps to awaken the body and strengthen the connection between the body and the mind.’
Next, Karolina delves into movement techniques to improve physical expression. ‘Here we learn how to move, how to hold posture, how to be more in control of the way we move. I emphasise the use of sight. Moving the sight first and then the body.’
When the participants are ready to express themselves, she prompts them with a question which they seek answers to in movement.
The process involves exploring different movements, directions, and speeds, adding dimension and using the space consciously while also breaking everything down to come to an answer to the question they are trying to answer.
The results of these classes are already being seen, felt, and expressed. Karolina’s husband Rafael Mielczarek, who she credits as being instrumental to her journey and this project — ‘He is the biggest support I could only dream about,’ she says — documents the classes through photography. The class ends with a reflection process as participants share the answers they came up with during class.
This aspect is very important to Karolina. ‘It is beautiful for me so I can actually understand if these classes are beneficial beyond the physical. And so far, it seems that they are. One of the participants even uses them as therapy. She is very open in sharing the experiences she’s been through. She tells me that these sessions were a revelation to her, and that she is now finding her way through things and solving her problems.’
The benefit of dance as therapy has been Karolina’s biggest takeaway throughout her journey. Like her students, Karolina has learnt a lot about self-reliance. ‘I always thought I needed help to do many things. I always thought I needed more resources and more people. And while, of course, it’s helpful having others — and easier — sometimes you need to step up. If you need or want to start your own project, then you can just do it. You are the person you can rely on. You are enough to create anything that you want.’To find out more, go to www.storytellinginmovement.com or get in touch at: email@example.com
What if I told you that I could explain why the sky is blue through dance? All I would need is a fiddle player, a flautist, and a guitarist. By the end of it, we would all be dancing around like particles, hopefully with a better understanding of how the world around us works. This is exactly what neuroscientist and fiddle player Dr Lewis Hou does on a daily basis. Sitting through a boring science class with a teacher blabbing on about how important the information is might be a scene way too familiar for all of us. The science ceilidh (a traditional Scottish dance) aims to combat this misconception that science is all about memorising facts. Bringing people together to better understand and represent the processes within science through interpretative dance and other arts, the ceilidh has been proving a fruitful way of engaging people who would normally not be interested in science or research. ‘For us, that’s a really important guiding principle— reaching beyond those who usually engage,’ says Hou.
It all starts by bringing everyone together in one room. Researchers, musicians, and participants all get together. Researchers kick off the conversation by explaining what their work is and why it is relevant. Hou then helps the rest of the group break the scientific process down into its fundamental steps, be it photosynthesis, cell mitosis, or the lunar eclipse. The next step is translating each of the steps into a dance. And this is where everyone gets involved.
For us, that’s a really important guiding principle— reaching beyond those who usually engage.
Thinking back on how the idea came together, Hou says his first motivation to combine dance and science came when he was playing music and calling ceilidhs, all while attending as many science festivals as he could. ‘I realised there’s a big crossover with the spirit of folk music and dance—it’s all about participation and sharing. Everyone takes part even if they aren’t experts—and that is what we want to achieve in science communication. We want to encourage more people to feel able to participate without being scientists.’
‘Importantly, the nice thing about ceilidh dance is that they might be simple, but it also means that many people can join in and dance,’ emphasises Hou. Back in the studio, aft er having understood the science and its concepts, everyone works together to create the choreography. The science merges with their artistic interpretation. It is no longer something out of reach; it is now owned by everyone in the room.
Theatre, dance, and music are changing at the University of Malta. Recently, three new research groups were launched by the School of Performing Arts (SPA) with the aim of bridging different disciplines throughthe development of shared work processes and research areas. Through interdisciplinary research, these groups want to look outwards towards new concepts.
The groups cover three themes. First, ‘Twenty-first-Century Studies in Performance’, which is committed to the locating, reimagining, and development of performance practices in the 21st century. Second, ‘Culture and Performance’, which is guided by the premise that culture and performance refer to complexities that emerge from the multitude of phenomena these terms describe. Third, ‘Performing Arts Histories and Historiographies’, which investigates and archives material related to historical events across the performing arts. These themes are possible thanks to a web of local and international collaborations, ranging from the Digital Arts and Humanities to Cognitive Science and Intelligent Computer Systems.
These new research platforms seek to facilitate dialogue between scholars and practitioners, academics and citizens.
SPA has an upcoming conference featuring some of the above topics called Interweaving Cultures: Theory and Practice in March 2017. For more information contact Dr Stefan Aquilina (firstname.lastname@example.org) or, on the conference, Prof. Vicki Ann Cremona (email@example.com).
The way a human tracks motion is both extraordinary and inconspicuous. In both theatre and dance, a lighting graphics engineer designs visuals and lighting to match a performer’s movement. Their motions might delight the audience but are very complex for computers to detect and interpret. Despite continuous breakthroughs, there are still many issues to overcome when tracking the human body across a stage.
Michaela Spiteri (supervised by Alexandra Bonnici) developed a system that allows dancers to control light effects through the dancer’s own movement. Mapping the movement of humans has several problems. Dancers tend to be highly flexible and perform very refined movements. The complex movements sometimes obscure certain body parts, which rapidly appear again, confusing the computer.
The computer tracked motion through a number of steps. First, it created a mathematical model of the background image. This technique allows the background and dancer to be separated in live video, leaving the dancer’s silhouette.
Secondly, the dancer’s silhouette was then thinned to a skeleton in order to obtain five points: head, hands and feet. A Kalman filter was applied, allowing the computer to continue to track motion even if a point was hidden. The Kalman filter predicts location by assessing past information and predicting where it would be in the future.
The study could stimulate new ways for artists to express their concepts. Additionally, the computer algorithm used can be applied in augmented reality, medicine and surveillance.