Through Epic Arts, I have been choreographer for a UNICEF funded project to educate people in Cambodia about what people with disabilities can do.
To be honest with you, I cannot think of anyone better to be delivering this project and to be role models in leading the way in a country where opportunities often do not arise for people with disabilities.
Arts Team, the team who I have mentored and choreographed on for this project, lead the whole day. This includes a 5 hour workshop facilitating movement that can be put into their end performance, giving the participants chance to be part of the performance with them and of course the set up and clean up. I am so glad they know what they are doing as I would have had no idea. We arrived at day 2 of the tour to an outside space, with some shelter with the sun with trees. For me, maybe I would have cancelled. A 5 hour day in the sun with an outdoor performance at the end seemed undoable for even the most sun going Cambodians (who by the way spend most of their time indoors if not in the rice fields – nobody will walk anywhere because of the heat, even a wee ten minute walk is not the norm). The workshop and performance went great outside, and even this feat itself shows what Cambodians can do with a little thinking and preparation. They had packed the dance floor from the centre and set it up, with mats, outdoors. This really made the best out of a bad situation; something Cambodia knows all too well.
Being in different places and different NGO settings; it really is apparent how lucky we are at Epic. The centre is clean, indoors and has appropriate facilities. We have been visiting NGO’s that concentrate on working inclusively with disabled people, and many of the toilets are inaccessible. The wheelchair users in Arts Team struggled, a struggle which many do every day. In fact, over 80% of Cambodia does not have access to a toilet. Water Aid are currently trying to fix this by building community toilets, however at the moment, these are still being built inaccessibly (often up steps). This was one of the first times that I really saw anyone from Arts Team with their disability. They manage so well in settings that accommodate to their needs that I never see their disabilities. I just see them as dancers, and as friends. The fact that they manage so well, live so confidently and appropriately means they are the perfect role models for such a task such as ‘I can’.
‘I can’ is a project between UNICEF and Epic Arts and aims to show what people with disabilities can do. The project will be completely delivered by people with disabilities, however I choreographed the piece and mentored them on the workshop planning. It’s great being able to create something and work together with Arts Team, but to then get them to do it all themselves.
I observed the first few workshops, to give advice and feedback and to be there if they needed anything. It was great as it meant we could keep bettering the workshop day by day and I could not only express how good they were doing (they did amazing!) but also look constructively at what we could do to improve for the forthcoming days.
It was great for me to see the settings the workshops and choreography will be delivered and performed in. On day 1, I admittedly got a culture shock at the lack of the NGO’s resources (and toilets!!!) and, while sat there in the heat, began to seriously panic that this workshop, with activities that I had taught in various settings throughout the UK, was not going to work. I knew nothing about this setting, nothing at all, and how could I have taught Arts Team activities that worked in London?!?! Which felt like a million miles away at that time.
But my panic was without reason. The workshop worked splendidly. And yet again, my faith in dance as a universal language for all was restored. Arts Team and participants alike had a wonderful time, and the VIP’s (village and commune chiefs) that were invited said their opinions had changed and that they could now see what people with disabilities could do!
The workshop aims to get the participants moving, enjoying dancing the music, working together and learning new skills. We look at dance and drawing and look at what they can do. To allows the participants to not only partake in a day that is accessible to them, but also to learn dance and to collaborate with each other.
The first two workshops were held in local pagodas, often where these NGO’s run out of. The pagoda’s are the real hub of the community. Everybody gathers there for worship in the morning (which was great to hear the chanting), and often stay throughout the day with friends and family. What was so great about these being the setting for the workshop and performance, was that it allowed there to be many passers by, and people happening to see the great dance that was going on! This itself will have shown people what others can do.
The third was held in a Phnom Penh school. The children were outside playing, bare foot, amongst rubbish. Plastic cups and general trash everywhere. When I asked for the toilet, the Cambodian teacher said ‘ort sa’art’: Khmer for ‘not beautiful’. If a Cambodian is telling me this then what must they be like? Yes, they were full to the brim with rubbish. And with no flushes (flushes are very rare here – it’s buckets instead, but there were none of these either) the smell of the rubbish and sewage together was overwhelming. Ort sa’art indeed.
The whole week however was a truly amazing experience. Being on tour with such wonderful people, and learning their land and their culture without the shelter of Epic Arts was a very humbling experience. And learning that dance really can work anywhere was even better.
We played Epic’s Uptown Funk video at every place, and what was great was passer by’s were also interested, spreading the message to even more people! Look at all the school children peering in!
Everybody loved the workshops, as shown in our emoji feedback.
All in all, we had a really fabulous week and I cannot believe how wonderful a job Arts Team did! I feel so proud of them, and all they have achieved, and not just in the ‘I can’ project. They really are inspirations to the lot of us!