Born to fill the need for more extra-curricular activities for children with different needs, one Tunbridge Wells-based dance group is spreading joy locally with its inclusive approach.

“When we started we thought we could just do a couple of terms and that might be it, but it’s just grown and grown,” says Jan Cockburn, a teaching assistant at Bishops Down Primary School and co-founder of dance group ‘This Is Us.’

Three years down the line, the self-funded group has flourished and almost doubled in size after initially being started up with money raised from a parent.

“I had been working at Bishops Down as a teaching assistant for many years and supporting children with all different kinds of needs, and I found that the parents struggled to find any kind of extra-curricular clubs,” recalls Cockburn.

“Every boy and girl moves and dance is an important thing, but there was nothing at all children with needs could access. “I was looking at the children I was working with and I felt really sad that they weren’t going to have the same type of opportunities as other children, as there wasn’t anything for them.”

A turn of “fate”, as local professional dancer Hannah Rotchell puts it, saw her come on board to lead the dancing side of the group, fresh out of her training, and via Stopgap, an inclusive dancing company based in Surrey.

Cockburn says, “They [Stopgap] came and did a workshop and the kids absolutely loved it and that just really fuelled me. We realised we need this here and our children need this – you can see what it’s doing for them by the look on their faces – they’ve never had that kind of experience before. We had to find a way to make it work.”

“We realised we need this here and our children need this – you can see what it’s doing for them by the look on their faces – they’ve never had that kind of experience before…”

Cockburn and Rotchell did make it work, and the group has gone from strength to strength spreading the word about the value of ‘inclusive dancing’ through 3 or 4 performances a year and regular classes at Bishops Down School (Mondays, 4 to 5.30pm). One of the most recent performances at TEDx Tunbridge Wells saw them perform to 1,000 people at the local Assembly Hall.

this is us dancer at tedx tunbridge wells

Just what is ‘inclusive’ dancing, and why is it valuable?

At its heart, inclusive dancing is about focusing on something that everybody can access and get something out of. “Especially with dance we tend to use what we call ‘open’ language so its things like rather than teaching steps or saying to ‘run’ for example, it’s about using more descriptive words (e.g. ‘squash’ or ‘move as fast as you can today’), so that everyone can have their own interpretation, whether they can stand or are in a wheelchair.”

Both Cockburn and Rotchell say it’s this freedom and ability to use their imagination which is so valuable for the children that come along to the group. “We see it as creative and allowing the children, and the adults that in the class as well, to really use their mind and take ownership of it and have their own voice,” explains Rotchell.

Rotchell says the benefits for children that come along are far-reaching; “I think in the short-term, children have that moment of trying a movement and knowing that’s their interpretation of it and that they can do it. I think that’s the first thing that we try and introduce from every setting and hope people to leave with – being able to say ‘I can’.”

She adds that in the long-term the difference made to children’s socially is huge; “We have a lot of children for whom speech, expressing an emotion or maybe retaining a movement is quite difficult when they start.”

“Over time, the talking aspect of the group layered with the dancing means children who would have been quite fragmented in how they describe things or a bit unsure are now describing things in detail, using their eyes and looking at people and holding themselves with confidence (as well as being able to perform in front of an audience of 1,000 people!).”

There’s also a sense of belonging that comes from the connections made with not just peers, but the “incredible inter-generation support network of volunteers” involved with the group. “We’ve a real mix of people that all have a passion for what we’re doing, and I think when the children see the adults doing silly things they realise they can do them too!”

A group for all

The power of This Is Us is that inclusion truly translates to the dance group being for everyone; “It’s not just a group for children for needs,” says Cockburn. Rotchell adds, “Sometimes it’s about confidence, but this means there’s no boundaries and separation between the children with disabilities and children without. It’s just about one group dancing together. It’s about exploring you and how you want to be with people, and that’s the beauty of it.”

This Is Us currently has dancers ranging from 6 years old to Y9 (i.e. 13-14), but older dancers who have gone onto secondary school still come back and be part of it as senior dancers – again, reinforcing the feeling of ownership and belonging the group was created to foster.

More exciting times lie ahead for This Is Us to develop and grow to support more children in the future: “We recently applied to be a community interest company and we got our letter through today saying we are officially are one! It just tops off a really incredible 6 months,” says Cockburn.

“In the future, the more people see what we do, hopefully the more people that will believe in it as much as we do,” Rotchell concludes.

Town & Country Housing is delighted to have supported 7 young people to attend This Is Us dance sessions over the past 3 years via subsidised class rates through its Aspire programme (in return they volunteer some time to an individual or organisation in the community). To find out if you or someone you know meets the criteria, contact Carol Francis (01892 501630 | carol.francis@tchg.org.uk).

See This Is Us’ inspiring TEDx talk and performance below.