17 January 2020 10:07

AllPlay Dance

Dr Olivia Millard is one of the presenters for the upcoming Shaping Bodies, Shaping Minds conference, and has been working with RAD students in a disability and inclusion dance programme.

For the past 25 years, Olivia has worked as a performer, maker and lecturer of dance. After graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts in 1992, Olivia performed with companies and independent choreographers/directors in Australia and overseas. Olivia has taught dance at Deakin University since 2007, and works as part of the Deakin University AllPlay Dance programme, researching the benefits of dance for children with disabilities.

Shaping Bodies, Shaping Minds runs from 17-19 January in Melbourne, Australia; here Olivia talks about AllPlay and inclusion in dance. Read on for a taste of her conference content.

What is your dance backstory?

I began dancing as a five year old ballet student, and was an RAD student in my adolescence. I undertook an undergraduate degree at the Victorian College of the Arts before working for 20 years as a dancer and choreographer in contemporary companies and projects in Australia and overseas. I completed a PhD in 2012 in which I looked at how the authorship of a group dance might be diffused through the use of “scores” in improvisation. As it turns out, my PhD work has set me up perfectly for my work with AllPlay Dance seeing as the programme uses the idea of the diffusion of authorship as a tool for allowing the agency of individual dancers, and therefore their inclusion.

Tell us more about the AllPlay Dance Programme – what does it entail, what does it include?

AllPlay is a programme for children with disabilities which was initiated by Professor Nicole Rinehart, Director of Deakin Child Study Centre at Deakin University in Melbourne. AllPlay is a world-first initiative to create new pathways for inclusion for children with disabilities so they can play, learn, dance and connect into the community.

AllPlay brings research, sport, dance and education together so kids of all abilities can participate, including the one in five children who have a developmental challenge or disability.

Who is AllPlay for?

The programme is particularly for children with disability. To date we have run programmes for children with Cerebral Palsy and Autism Spectrum Disorder aged 7-13.

The programme is also for the older more experienced “buddies” in the programme. Our buddies have ranged from 14 to mid 20s, and are crucial in the programme because they support the participation of every individual. Our buddies all have a dance background, many with aims to work as dancers or dance teachers. We have had several RAD students as buddies, particularly from the vocational programme – most are students at Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School.

What inspired AllPlay?

AllPlay dance began after the success of the AllPlay Footy programme. It started with the development of online resources for enabling access for children with disabilities to be included in existing dance programmes.

My involvement with AllPlay Dance began with the first pilot programme of classes for children with Cerebral Palsy and their older more experienced buddies. With my colleagues I developed and taught that programme, which was supported by Queensland Ballet and its Artistic Director Li Cunxin (Mao’s Last Dancer), [one of RAD’s Vice Presidents].

The inspiration for this programme comes from the desire to enable children of all abilities to participate in dance (of great personal importance for me) coupled with the undertaking of research to build evidence to support the understanding of dance as being beneficial for children with disabilities.

What makes you so passionate about this initiative?

Having had a long association with dance, I feel very strongly about its benefits. Of course there are physical and mental health benefits (and part of the AllPlay Dance research is to quantify these benefits), but as any dancer knows, there is nothing that compares with the experience of dancing. I think everyone should (have the opportunity to) dance and children with disability are no exception. In recently working with a group of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, I had immense satisfaction in seeing participants not only enjoy their physical and creative experience but feel that they were participating in a group, both socially and artistically.

Did you experience any challenges?

I have had the wonderful experience of working with a group of psychology researchers who have done the bulk of the background work including seeking ethics approval and setting up and undertaking the testing for research.

We have had to work, at times, to recruit enough buddies which I believe, in part, is because of a lack of confidence about working with children with disabilities, but once they begin the programme, the buddies have gained confidence and a great deal of satisfaction through being part of the programme.

How have people responded to the programme?

Although we are still analysing the preliminary findings of our research, I can certainly share that anecdotally, the programme has been a great success. Participants who have been unable to participate in dance programmes before AllPlay have expressed great enthusiasm, particularly because they could dance on their own terms. Parents who have tried and failed to find a dance programme that is suitable for their children have been very happy to watch their child perform, and feel confident doing so.

We have also had positive feedback from buddies, many of whom participate in dance in the privileged environments of vocational training programmes. They get real satisfaction from sharing their love of dance and knowledge and they develop a new perspective on who can participate in dance and how.

What’s next for AllPlay?

We have significant aims for this programme. We would like to share what we have come to understand with dance teachers and programmes in the community so that children of all abilities could participate in a dance programme in their community. If our research produces evidence (as we anticipate it will) that dance is of developmental benefit for children with disabilities, we would like to see health care professionals prescribe dance.

How can people get involved?

Our AllPlay Dance website includes a list of schools in Melbourne that run inclusive programmes. It is also possible to register an interest in AllPlay Dance and we will get in touch with information about future programmes.–

Shaping Bodies, Shaping Minds runs from 17-19 January in Melbourne, Australia.

Drawing on the success of the Sydney (2016) and Brisbane (2018) conferences, it is Royal Academy of Dance Australia’s third conference. As one in a series of events in our centenary year, Shaping Bodies, Shaping Minds will bring together performers, teachers, practitioners and scholars from the fields of dance, education, history, science and cultural engagement for an exciting and thought-provoking programme. It aims to build upon a solid foundation of exploration into new research, discoveries and applications for dance education and training professionals.

Find out more and book tickets.