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Egyptians with special needs: Dancing the barriers away

Mai Samih attends the first dancing classes in Egypt designed for people with special needs

Mai Samih , Saturday 6 Apr 2019
Dancing the barriers away
Dancing the barriers away

People with special needs or the differently abled now no longer have to sit and watch other people dance without joining in. They can experience the joy of dancing after one choreographer and performer, Shaimaa Shoukri, decided to make it possible for them to learn how to dance in classes organised by the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) in Studio Emadeddin, a contemporary dance workshop in Downtown Cairo. 

“I am very happy with the classes. The good spirit here, the degree of fitness you reach and the new ideas you learn are what I like the most. I have learned to take initiatives and to turn daily movements into new movements with my body,” comments Ahmed Magdi, 34, one of the participants. He is the first wheelchair user to participate in the contemporary dance sessions and has been attending events at D-CAF for four years. He found out about the classes through the Al-Hassan Foundation for Differently Abled Integration.

“It is a new experience for me. Before attending the classes, there were things I would watch others do that I did not understand. It has really made a difference to me. The most important thing I have learned here is communication with others; unlike social media, communication dance involves communication without words and communication through movement,” says Ahmed Mukhtar, 40, also from the Al-Hassan Foundation. 

“For example, if someone smiles at you in the street, this could have a positive effect on your mood,” he adds, commenting that it was this sort of non-verbal communication he had been able to appreciate more through dance. 

“I found out about the workshop through the D-CAF Facebook page. I had been following all the events for wheelchair users, and when I saw this event I decided to join in since I also work as a sculptor and that also involves dealing with mass and space. In dance, a person becomes like a mass surrounded by space. The classes also inspired me to come up with future projects. The lessons are more than great. We really need them. I like the spirit of collectiveness and tolerance very much, which has also helped me,” comments Ayman Farghali, an artist who attends the lessons.

According to Shoukri, it was D-CAF manager Reem Allam who had the idea of organising the special dancing class and inviting her to run it. This was after she had earlier taken part with a visiting Dutch choreographer in a D-CAF event. 

Shoukri started dancing at the age of eight and took ballet classes and classical dance until she was 18. She attended a three-year programme at the Cairo Opera House’s Creativity Centre under the artistic direction of dancer Walid Awni. Then she joined a four-year programme at the Studio Emadeddin. She took a year of training for dance teaching at a programme called Seeds, a co-operation programme between the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Ezzat Ezzat Studio. She also studied visual arts and theatre at the American University in Cairo. Starting in 2008, she has been working as a choreographer, performer and trainer. 

Shoukry’s workshop is open to students from all backgrounds, whether regular or with special needs and whether professional dancers or amateurs.

“It is basically a lab more than a training course. It is an exploration process; we initiate ideas together through concepts of exploration. It is not just me showing them movements, as much as opening doors to explore how the body can move, depending on what kind of limitations we have – because we all have physical limitations whether they are labeled as disabilities or not. We all have a level or a range of possibilities and a range of non-possibilities. Then we seek a space or comfort zone where we can move in a way that is comfortable and where we can challenge ourselves a bit and where we can explore new areas,” she said, adding that these concepts were common to all the workshops she organises. 

Her dance classes at the Studio Emadeddin originated from contemporary dance. “We work with the anatomy of our bodies and how we can explore our bodies and how we can interact with each other through exploration,” she said. For example, a session might focus on thinking about the skeleton, joints, bodies in space and how they can move and how the movement could be a form of expression of a state, an idea, an emotion, rather than a choreographic dance that is simply learned. The present one is the first workshop of its kind in Egypt, and at present is a short one lasting just three days over a two-week period.

For Shoukri, training the students is a source of joy. “When I am facilitating a workshop, it is a very rewarding experience for me and very inspiring. It is beautiful because everyone comes with the intention of being open, of sharing, of working together, of listening to each other, so it is very fulfilling,” she said.

However, she would like to see the facilities adapted to become more welcoming for students with different abilities, in terms of having slopes for wheelchairs, for example. She would also like to see similar classes organised in the future.

She is ready to work with governmental organisations or others that share her values. “I work in a project-based way, and if someone proposes a project and I find it interesting, I will try to do it. I evaluate the feasibility of my doing it, and if it is possible I will if the goal of the project goes along with what I believe in, that is,” she said.

In the future, “I plan to do more of the same, if it is possible to continue working in sharing performing, teaching and choreographing.” People join her classes through announcements on the studio Facebook page or other social media platforms. The conditions depend on the workshop concerned: some are for professional dancers, some for amateurs, some for women only, some for people with different abilities and some for children. It depends on the workshop who it is tailored for, she said.

“I would like to see music used in the classes,” Magdi commented of his experience. Mukhtar agreed, adding that quiet music with a quiet rhythm could help people relax and use their imagination more. He was looking forward to participating in future lessons.

“I think that the workshops should prepare the students to take part in a show,” Farghali commented. He planned to attend once a month and get ready for a show at a future dance festival. “I would like to see shows organised by Egyptian trainers at competitions on the international level,” he added.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline:  Dancing the barriers away

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