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WIDance celebrates ten years

Wellington Integrated Dance (WIDance) celebrates our tenth anniversary this year.

Over 100 dancers have been part of the WIDance experience so far, through 480 class hours, 50 workshop hours, 100 outreach hours. We’ve shared our work in 15 public performances.

WIDance member Judith Jones talks with Sumara Fraser, artistic director and leader of the very first class on 18 July 2010, about the origins, purpose and experiences of this integrated dance group.

First of all, what is WIDance?

WIDance is a collective organisation which runs community dance classes and workshops in the Wellington region for people of all ages and abilities.

We’re a dance community, for anyone with a desire to dance. We have a focus and outreach primarily for people with disabilities – to create a space that is open to exploring and working with each individual's lived experience.

We describe ourselves as an ‘inclusive’ group, everyone is welcome to explore dance with us. Our classes are tailored in such a way that everyone can find a level of enjoyment and learning, as well as a great social experience.

We nurture a sense of belonging, a sense of pride, an opportunity to explore dance in a safe, supported and inclusive environment. And the opportunity to showcase our work with performances in public.

We’re pretty open about what ‘dance’ means, we each bring all sorts of movement practice and experience to the floor. We build on contemporary practice which is part of my personal movement background, improvise around ideas and feelings. We’ve learned some circus skills, and get inspired by New Zealand music. We develop choreography together, telling our own stories in our own ways.

WIDance members learning some steps with members of the Royal New Zealand BalletWe’ve recently shared two terrific community workshops with the Royal New Zealand Ballet, and I expect to see some of what we experienced there will become part of our dancing too.

How did it start here in Wellington?

Wellington Integrated Dance grew from some inclusive workshops that Touch Compass had been running here in Wellington from 2007 to 2009. Some of us felt we needed something more regular, and decided to build a Wellington community to celebrate diversity and inclusion through dance.

I was approached by Catherine Chappell of Touch Compass, along with Max Riddle whose son Duncan was a keen workshop participant, to start up ongoing classes. With solid support from Touch Compass, funding from Wellington City Council, and the support of Catherine, Max, committee member Guy Ryan, who wrote our initial funding applications and support tutored,  and Daphne Pilaar, also a  committee member and support tutor, WIDance launched with our first class in July 2010.

How did that first class feel for you?

I have a background in dance performance, and teaching dance. However, having had a ten year break from dance to raise my daughters, I was quite terrified at the thought of leading these classes.

I’d experienced the Touch Compass inclusive workshop approach, and was fortunate to have a lot of support in developing the class work. Still, that first class was something of an experiment because it had to work in principle, but also be meaningful and fun for the participants who came along on the day.

The vibe we created as we greeted each other in a circle, warmed up and danced together was so positive, and the connections as we moved in our own ways to create shared experience were so powerful. I felt a huge sense of relief afterwards, and also excitement for all that lay ahead for future learning.

I think the whole first term of classes had the same edge to them, each session was different – a trial of what worked well, what didn't so much. Right from the start, I included the opportunity for participants to reflect on how things were going, to connect with everyone’s pace and energy. We have very much developed that way we operate together, making time to catch up at the start, offering and holding safe space for people to speak up and share what’s happening for them.

From that first class, our collective spirit grew with strength from everyone who helped get our participants to and from class, who came and watched and cheered, packed snacks, found costumes, helped with funding applications, took photos, lent a shoulder when things were hard.

Families, friends and other supporters, I can’t stress enough how your energy, actions and care have helped make all this happen.

And, now, ten years on?

I still find great joy in exploring and drawing out the creative expression, ideas and abilities that lie within each individual.

Everyone's creativity and abilities are different, and each individual has something unique to share. To see this evolve and become refined within each participant is really quite beautiful. It’s lovely to see the dancers draw on each other’s movement work, and for us to learn how to verbally express elements of movement as we improvise and develop our work.

The challenge to continue to build on our collective experience and explore new ideas and pathways to develop our dancers, and to be open about what we can create together is exciting for me as a creative.

I keep learning too - the importance of the language I use to support focus, the value of discussion and validating the thoughts and processes of each participant. The importance of knowing how to read the mood and energy of the group, and to shift the focus depending on the needs of the day.

We’re also always exploring ways to make our classes and performances more inclusive.

The dancers’ response

We still have dancers with us who were part of that very first class. We’ve been through a lot together, we’re like an extended family.

We’ve had 480 hours of class, and 50 workshops. There have been 100 hours of outreach workshops with various schools in the Wellington region, workshops for community youth groups, day programmes for the likes of IDEA Services-run Arts on High in the Hutt. Comments like these from our dancers reflect the community and experiences we share:

  • “When I dance, I forget that I have a disability.”
  • “When I am dancing with WIDance I am happy and I just love it.”
  • “The really great part of dancing with WIDance is you get to dance with all of these cool people.”
  • “I’ve set aside all my thoughts about what dance is – I now know it’s something I can do, I can be part of as myself. And I love being inside the dance, looking across and watching the others dancing themselves too.”
  • “I have been dancing with WIDance from day 1. I feel part of the group. I enjoyed dancing for the public.”

WIDance participating in a Zoom classThe disruption to classes during the 2020  lockdown period meant more than just no classes for our WIDance community. We missed the connections, the sharing. So we set up Zoom classes, which started with a catch up.

It took a bit of getting used to, but ended up being a highlight in my week, to reconnect and to dance together through such a challenging time. Something to anchor us as community, and use our bodies, wherever we were. There was a lot of laughter too. 

Performing in public

We’ve performed for family and friends over the years, and we’ve had fifteen public performances. Performing in front of strangers is always a challenge and we’ve all grown in confidence as we’ve taken our work out of the studio onto stages, into the streets, and into an art gallery.

Our collaborative class and choreography approach has built a platform for us to find ways to support each other and the group as we prepare and perform together.

I love to observe the change in people's perception about what dance should look like.

I’ll always treasure our first standing ovation when we performed as part of International Dance Day at Te Papa, in 2014.

Our fifth anniversary performance ‘Outspoken’ in 2015 was also an outstanding success, and such an achievement as a group.

We've also participated in Disability Pride Week for the past three years, with performances, parades, and production.

Jane Gordon and Sumara Fraser dancing in The Art of ObservationEarly this year, we had our first major public performance season for WIDance, with five shows of The Art Of Observation over a weekend. We performed in the Academy of Fine Arts to around 300 people in total. 

We made the shows as inclusive as possible. They were free, open to anyone, and offered in two time slots. The venue was fully accessible, the performances were relaxed, all had integrated audio description, and two were NZSL-interpreted. They were all under an hour long, people could come and go during this time as they chose.

We invited audience members to share their responses in a book. This comment really stood out for me:

“Wonderful! Thank you for challenging biases I didn’t know I had. Just brilliant – loved it!! Thank you.”

An integral part of the arts community

WIDance was set up to support the inclusion and visibility of the disability community within the wider arts community.

One of the enriching and empowering things about working in the arts is all the amazing people and organisations we get to connect with.

WIDance thanks everyone who has supported us over our ten years, in so very many ways. You’re all a meaningful part of what we have achieved so far – and where we’ll go next.

Touch Compass have been a rock of support from the start. They’ve ‘umbrellaed’ most of our funding applications (something we needed as we’ve not been a trust ourselves). They’ve included us in creative events and projects over the years, like Cuba Dupa in 2016, On Display 2018, and the DanceBox film series.

Wellington City Council have been incredible as our primary funders and continue to offer their support, with Wellington Community Trust supporting our fifth anniversary work Outspoken and The Art Of Observation performances. Creative New Zealand also funded The Art of Observation.

Dance Aotearoa New Zealand (DANZ) has given us many opportunities to promote inclusive dance, through performances and workshop offerings. We have also built up relationships with Te Whaea, New Zealand’s National Dance and Drama Centre, who has housed our classes from the beginning, Toi Pōneke Arts Centre for rehearsal space, and the Wellington Circus Trust for the use of their space.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet has offered us free tickets to performances, and we have rich connections with other community dance groups, like Jolt Dance in Christchurch and Dance for Parkinson’s/Danzability here in the Wellington region. Arts Access Aotearoa are always willing to offer support, showcase our work and help us make connections.

What next?

After our public performance earlier this year, we’re keen to develop opportunities to extend WIDance’s presence as visible and active within the wider dance and community arts sectors. We’ve already had informal invitations to create space- and artwork-responsive performances in other galleries. 

We’d intended a big tenth birthday performance season, however things have changed for everyone so much this year, so we had a lower-key sharing and celebration.

But come and experience 10 years +1 with us next year!

We’ve been exploring creating work around our dancers’ experiences of being in lockdown.

We’d also like to develop more ways to create accessible shows and invite the audience to engage within the movement or perhaps as part of the sound aspects of future performances.

Come and be part of WIDance

WIDance has six-week terms, with two-hour classes on Saturdays. We’re based in Newtown.

Here’s your invitation to join us from one of our dancers:

“The really great part of dancing with WiDance is you get to dance with all of these cool people. So come to one of our classes and experience it for yourself.”

To find out more 

FaceBook page

DanceBox films 

WIDance celebrates ten years

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Wellington Creative Communities
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