Dance for children with disabilities

by Dr Melanie Peter. They may have certain limitations, but disabled children of all abilities can gradually learn the physical and technical skills for dance.

Toddler with earphones


There would seem to be no getting away from the fact that many children with disabilities would appear to be seriously disadvantaged in terms of their potential to dance.

It can be all too easy to see limitations when faced with a child in a wheelchair, or a child who has involuntary movement, lack of coordination, difficulties in organising their behaviour, weak muscle tone, and so on.

However, this need not restrict their active participation - far from it. Children of all abilities may gradually learn the physical and technical skills for dance, whilst at the same time learning how these may be ordered to give particular significance and meaning to a series of actions.

Step by small step

Developing disabled children's body awareness and repertoire of movement possibilities will help lead to a general improvement in coordination and help raise confidence and self-esteem through feeling 'at home' in their bodies.

Movement experiences promote trust, cooperation, communication and language - as well as channelling restless energy and focusing concentration. All children may experience the enjoyment of the sensation of physical activity, and the opportunity to express themselves or communicate an idea in a way that does not require words.

The key to involving disabled children purposefully in dance activity is to take account of their respective stage of physical development and to observe how they move.

For children that experience restricted movement, this will tend to dictate what is possible. For example, in physical development, control develops from the centre of the body then outwards - a young baby learns to roll over long before learning to pick up a tiny object between its fingers.

All children will benefit from revisiting the sequence of these early movement milestones:

  • Control of the head (pushing up from the shoulders)
  • Managing the trunk by rolling over
  • Moving along the floor using the shoulders for propulsion
  • Controlling the trunk to sit
  • Moving from sitting (transferring weight onto hands)
  • Transferring weight onto hands and feet
  • Control over the lower body (learning to walk)
  • Developing locomotion skills (travelling in different ways)
  • Transferring weight onto one foot (to hop and jump)
  • Combining movements with direction (turning)
  • Refining small movements (gestures)

Making the effort

In order to move expressively and creatively, all children need to learn not only to coordinate the body, but also how to organise their energy through adjusting the amount of effort and tension in the way they use their muscles.

Helping a child to take part in dance activity will help them learn this through how they adjust their energy levels in relation to another person. It will also give them indirect feedback of their body image through contact against another person. Children with disabilities often have lop-sided development, and through dance may learn to extend their skills.

Children with Down's Syndrome typically have weak muscle tone, and may need to learn to amass greater strength in their movement. Children with cerebral palsy, who experience spasticity of their limbs, will be very tense - and may be encouraged to learn to 'let go' and relax through free-flowing movement experiences.

Children with autism, who are prone to being lost in a world of their own, will benefit from focusing their movement more directly (especially by joining in with another person), while children who are hyperactive or have attention-deficit disorder may benefit from learning to organise themselves to move more slowly in sustained actions.

How CBeebies can help

CBeebies show 'Boogie Beebies' takes an inclusive approach to encouraging all children to join in the fun. It is based on the premise that no one need 'sit out', even if they may sometimes need a little help to take part.

Each episode of Boogie Beebies offers different opportunities to address particular movement skills. For some children the actions on the programme will be an opportunity to consolidate and improve their existing skills, and for others it may present a new challenge. Over time, the series covers a range of movement qualities so that children will experience different possibilities - fast and slow, flexible and direct, firm and fine, contained and free-flowing.

Many of the dances on Boogie Beebies can be fully inclusive, designed on the premise that all viewers may experience restricted possibilities to dance in a furnished lounge! Many of the steps therefore concentrate on the upper body and require limited moving around the space.

Nevertheless, it is important to be mindful of the complexity of some actions that may require coordination of arms and legs. Analyse the challenges involved for a particular child, and maybe concentrate on either arms or legs, or try doing an action on the spot without the jump! Another child (an older sibling perhaps) may be encouraged to perform actions with greater poise, balance or elevation, and smooth transitions between steps.

It may also be worth recording a show so that it can be replayed to a child - perhaps pausing and rewinding to look at a particular action. You might want to edit out some of the more challenging steps, maybe to focus on fewer simpler actions.

Draw attention to what they can see, so that they can use their own observation of movement on the television and translate it into their own body. And be ready to demonstrate the actions so that the child can copy movements directly, or maybe dance with you 'as one'.

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Expert opinion

The important thing is that taking part in dance should be fun! Be encouraging and be sure to praise their efforts. Use opportunities for children with disabilities to gain something of the technical skills involved in actions to extend their repertoire, whilst not pushing them beyond their physical capabilities.

Allow children to contribute their own ideas and inventiveness - to use routines as a basis for their own creativity. There should be no pressure to 'get it right'. Look for possibilities, not limitations - there is a latent dancer in us all!

Dr Melanie Peter, Senior Lecturer, Education & Early Childhood, Anglia Ruskin University