Dancing with dyslexia: How dance helps me express myself

Charlotte Edmonds and Elizabeth Arifien felt held back at school, but when they discovered dance they found a new world of expression that has transformed their lives.

Elizabeth and Charlotte are London-based choreographers who are both dyslexic. They are working on a new project that delves into how dance can be used to explore experiences of dyslexia.

They talked to BBC Bitesize about how dance helps them express themselves when they can’t find the words.

WATCH: Charlotte (left) and Elizabeth (right) talk about dance, dyslexia and their project Words Fail Me

According to the NHS, it is estimated up to one in every ten people in the UK has some degree of dyslexia - that’s around three students in every classroom.

Dyslexia is a common learning difficulty that can cause problems with reading, writing and spelling so it creates challenges in school, work and everyday life.

When words fail you

Growing up Elizabeth was often told the disadvantages of dyslexia which made her question her ability to succeed, especially when given written tasks at school.

But when she started dance lessons she found somewhere she could feel comfortable:

“My mum really encouraged me to go to dance classes and that really supported my mental health as much as my physical health,” said Elizabeth.

She said that dance was a welcome distraction from struggling with dyslexia.

“It’s really important to be physical, even if it’s not your thing. It gets you out of your head, and I think when you have dyslexia you can often get quite stuck in the negative connotations,” she said.

Charlotte (left) and Elizabeth (right) both have dyslexia
Rosalie Bell and Joshua De La-Garde rehearsing with Elizabeth and Charlotte for Words Fail Me

Charlotte agreed that, when she was faced with a task of written work at school, she would spend hours just staring at a blank piece of paper.

She was shy about speaking up in class, and would be worried about getting things wrong.

“I just never said anything. I would really suffer in silence,” she said.

But through dance she found a new way to express herself.

“Having other activities and hobbies, that may help you describe something, or you can channel the way you’re feeling, your emotion through that. I found that so vital to being able to then implement that into areas I was really struggling with,” said Charlotte.

Charlotte described how using something physical to try and remember something visual, like colours, helped her with her school work.

She also said connecting with something emotionally really helps her to retain information.

"I relate daily life to an obstacle course that we have to manipulate, move around and problem solve" - Charlotte

'Finding structure in our dyslexic minds'

Elizabeth and Charlotte met in 2018, when they were working on separate projects regarding dyslexia. They decided to collaborate on something bigger.

As part of Words Fail Me, Elizabeth and Charlotte are choreographing and curating six performances and six short films on six different topics: creativity, technology, science, the prison sector, migration, and education.

They are collaborating with dyslexic dancers, musicians and architects.

When working with dyslexic dancers, Elizabeth said they usually start with an improvisational task using an emotion, and then begin to tailor the choreography from that improvisation.

Elizabeth and Charlotte take a collaborative approach and have conversations with their dancers about the choreography:

“Sharing insight into their experiences with dyslexia has enriched the process,” said Charlotte.

They then pull together their ideas, write them down and have them all in front of them to piece together and start to structure.

“It’s challenging sometimes, finding structure in our dyslexic minds,” said Elizabeth.

'Dyslexia needs to be championed and supported'

Although when Elizabeth and Charlotte were growing up it was well-known that lots of people were dyslexic, they didn’t feel they had someone to look up to in the creative arts who was saying 'I’m dyslexic and I’m thriving because of it'.

“I think dyslexia needs to be championed and supported,” said Charlotte.

Through their project, Elizabeth and Charlotte are trying to build a community were people can reach out and speak openly about their dyslexia, ultimately with a goal of raising awareness of dyslexia by taking their work around the UK.

“One thing that we would really like to see change is having a dyslexia specialist in every school across the UK,” said Elizabeth.

"Really own what you’re good at and ask for support where you need it, build a strong team around you" - Elizabeth

The next performance by Words Fail Me is on December 8 at the Royal Opera House.

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