Can wheelchair users dance? Peter Stanford pays a visit to CandoCo, whose dance workshops are proving to the world that disability need be no barrier to excellence. Photographs by Kalpesh Lathigra
ould you like to join in rather than just watch?" CandoCo's founder, Celeste Dandeker, asks me. We are planning my visit to this highly acclaimed dance company's annual summer school. "I can't," I reply, blushing. "Two left feet and no co-ordination."

Dandeker lets this pass with nothing more than a benign smile. I only realise why when, a few days later, I find myself at CandoCo's Norman Foster-designed building in north London, observing the workshop participants who have gathered from around the globe. Half are disabled: several are wheelchair users, three have cerebral palsy, one is an amputee and one is profoundly deaf. Faced by their determination to dance, my two left feet suddenly seemed less an encumbrance than a blessing.

This mix of able-bodied and disabled mirrors CandoCo itself. Dandeker, 41, was on-stage with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre in the Seventies when she had a fall that would leave her wheelchair-bound. For several years, she believed her performing days were over. Then she met Adam Benjamin, a young dancer and teacher. Together, in 1991, they founded CandoCo, the country's first "integrated" dance company - which now comprises three wheelchair users and five able- bodied members.

The enthusiastic response they met with took them by surprise. Choreographers, including Siobhan Davies and the Theatre de Complicite, have collaborated with CandoCo to create works that have changed attitudes to disability among audiences in the UK, America and Australia. In October, the company are off to Japan.

Equally important has been CandoCo's education programme, with workshops and residencies around the country. "All my life," says Angela Smith, who has cerebral palsy, "I had been told the way I moved was odd. People stared at me. After going to a CandoCo workshop I started to believe that my movements could be beautiful, that I could dance."

CandoCo can be contacted at the Aspire National Training Centre, Wood Lane, Stanmore, Middx HA7 4LP, telephone 0171-704 6845

Breaking down barriers

Key to the education work is helping able-bodied participants to overcome their inhibitions about disability. Classes often start with simple exercises in exploring movement and taking each others' weight, as a prelude to designing more intricate pieces which are shared with the rest of the summer school at the end of the day. When they started running workshops, Dandeker and Benjamin had no blueprint from which to work. They just followed their instincts and developed a unique approach - which is today copied by groups around the world.

Sense the music

Shisato Minaninura (eyes closed in picture) travelled from Tokyo to take part in the CandoCo summer school. She has very little hearing but, like deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie, senses the music with the rest of her body. Several of the able-bodied participants in the summer school are dance teachers who want to learn about CandoCo's methods so that they can welcome people with disabilities into their own classes. Other participants are dance students with ambitions to choreograph who are curious about CandoCo's work.

Leader in the field

CandoCo's international reputation attracted France Geoffrey (26, centre of the group) to travel to the summer school from Montreal. Geoffrey sustained a spinal cord injury just before starting a dance degree, but, after her rehabilitation, took up her place as a wheelchair user. She has previously collaborated with one of the CandoCo dancers, Kuldip Singh-Barmi, for a TV film and a Canadian crew were following her through the summer school. North America is well in advance of Britain on questions like access, but funding for arts projects like CandoCo is scarce, and hence the British company is regarded as a torchbearer in its field.

It's not funny

Welly O'Brien, 24 (left), lost her leg five years ago in a train accident in India. She had been a keen dancer before and was encouraged by physiotherapists at her rehabilitation centre to attend a CandoCo workshop in 1996. "It was the first time that I had taken my [false] leg off for a few minutes in front of a group of people and not felt funny about it," she remembers. "It changed my attitude to myself." O'Brien started attending other CandoCo courses and has since worked with the company's education team as a trainee. "It has taught me to trust people again and to believe in myself. The great thing about CandoCo is everyone is equal."

Feel the impact

Londoner David Lock, 29 (below, centre), first heard of CandoCo when its award-winning dance film, Outside In, was shown on BBC2 in 1994. A wheelchair user since a fall at 19, Lock came along to the summer school hoping to find a way of incorporating dance and movement into his fine arts MA. "There is such energy and creativity here. It draws things out of you that you didn't suspect were there." For able-bodied participants, the impact is just as strong. "I was a bit wary of dancing with someone in a wheelchair at first," says 16-year-old Sophie Armstrong. "But they soon tell you what they can and can't do, so you grow in confidence quickly. I've learnt so much."

Forget the wheelchair

"I hope that people forget about the wheelchairs when we perform, and concentrate on the dance," says Dandeker. This practical commitment to turning disability first into something positive and, ultimately, into something audiences don't even notice lies behind her philosophy. It sets her apart from those campaigners who believe attitudes will only change when anti-discrimination legislation is passed.

"Dance naturally breaks down our defences - you have to allow people to touch and watch your body. It crosses barriers all the time, so it is a natural way of exploring ideas of integration in relation to disability."

Not for sissies

David Toole, 35 (right), whose lower body stopped growing when he was a child, worked as a post office clerk in his home town of Leeds before being persuaded by an old teacher to go to a CandoCo workshop in 1991.

"Dancing to me meant formation wheelchair dancing which, at school, we thought was for sissies," he says. But that encounter with CandoCo transformed his life. He subsequently joined the company as a performer. Using his powerfully built arms, he learnt to dance and often - seemingly - to fly. He has appeared in Sally Potter's 1997 film, The Tango Lesson, and as Puck in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Royal appointment

CandoCo got its own specially designed studio and rehearsal space last autumn as part of the pounds 5m Aspire National Training Centre, dedicated to the goal of integration, at Stanmore in north London. The costs of CandoCo's section of the building were met by the Arts Lottery and Allied Dunbar, and the studio was opened 12 months ago by Prince Andrew, who stepped into the gap left by Diana, Princess of Wales, who had been an enthusiastic supporter of the company. Having a permanent base has enabled CandoCo to expand its education programme and to work towards the establishment of a youth group. n