Candoco: the dance company that’s challenging perceptions of disability

The UK's first professional dance group for disabled and able-bodied performers has embarked on a nationwide tour

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Two dancers in lucha libre masks mirror each other’s movements on stage as traditional Mexican Ranchera music plays in the background.

They appear trapped in a pattern, invisibly bound together; when one breaks free, the other hauls him back in. They counterbalance each other, symbiotic, needy.

You might notice that one performer is seated while the other stands, but what won’t be obvious is that one of the dancers is physically disabled. They are members of Candoco – the world’s only professional dance group for disabled and able-bodied performers has embarked on a nationwide tour.

Rick Rodgers joined after starring in the London Paralympic Opening Ceremony in 2012. Although he had once been a competitive cheerleader and acrobat, this was his first professional performance after an accident in 2008 in which he lost the use of his legs.

“It was intense but so worth it,” says Rick, who met members of Candoco at rehearsals for the Paralympic show. They were performing at the closing ceremony and it made him realise he could continue to work full-time in a physical way. In fact, Candoco’s co-directors seek out people with different backgrounds, as well as different types of disability, so that they have a range of perspectives and talents in the group. Rick, for example, has no formal dance training – but because of his cheerleading background he is the “go-to guy” for performing lifts.

“It comes down to physics,” says Pedro Machado, one of the co-directors. “Someone on crutches or in a wheelchair will give something else to the movement that otherwise you will not get. It is like having extra tools in your toolkit.”

The company was founded in 1991 when the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital proposed offering classes integrating able-bodied and disabled patients. But there’s still much to be done to fight prejudice, says Stine Nilsen, Machado’s fellow co-director. “Candoco has a very important role in terms of putting the spotlight on what dance can achieve... it will hopefully inspire other disabled dancers,” she says.

Since the Disability Discrimination Act was extended in 2006, all buildings, workplaces and educational institutions have had to make reasonable adjustments to their services to ensure that they can be used by those with disabilities.

 “I think all institutions would say that it would be possible [for disabled dancers] to audition but I don’t think they feel practically able to do that at this time,” says Stine. To get the word out, the group has partnered with Trinity Laban in London, the UK’s only conservatoire of music and contemporary dance, enabling Laban’s dance students to take a module with Candoco.

Candoco’s alumni have also gone on to perform with professional dance groups across the globe, but as with all professional dancers it’s essential that performers start young.

“The first challenge is to change perceptions,” says Machado. “You might not take your son or daughter to ballet classes if they were disabled, even though they might really enjoy it.” Stine agrees. “There is actually a market out there for disabled people with the talent and the ambition. At least let them try it and taste it... dance can be a job. Let them see that and then they can make a choice.”

Candoco performs Two for C by Javier de Frutos, Miniatures by Lea Anderson and the world premiere of Notturnino by Thomas Hauert tonight at London’s Trinity Laban Conservatoire for Music and Dance.

Photo by Benedict Johnson