Imagine a world where a child is excluded from expressing him or herself because they have cancer; or a place where most disabled children (80 per cent, in fact) are inactive, due to lack of facilities. It doesn’t take much imagination if you know the facts: it’s a reality for many families with a child that is ill, has special needs or is disabled. And it leads to loneliness, anxiety, isolation and depression in 75 per cent of families.
Flamingo Chicks Dance School took flight in 2013. It’s an inclusive school where children with special needs, disabilities and serious illnesses come together to learn to dance alongside their able-bodied friends. It started as a one-off workshop in Bristol, the brainchild of Katherine Sparkes, who was struck by the lack of dance opportunities for children with special needs.
Dance fun for everyone
Katherine hired a professional dancer and invited children aged five to eight. Some children had disabilities, some didn’t, but together they learned ballet and explored movement. And the feedback was phenomenal. Katherine received a large number of phone calls from families asking how their child could take part. So she sought funding from local organisations to expand her inclusive dance classes to a wider audience.
Currently Flamingo Chicks holds dance classes in Bristol, Bradford, London, Leeds, York and Cardiff, with 300 active volunteers helping to reach more than 1,500 children a week. For every place that becomes available, it has 15 applicants. And no wonder; the benefits are numerous.
“Flamingo Chicks promotes strength, flexibility and balance, as well as developing children’s social skills, confidence and self-esteem,” says Paediatric Physiotherapist, Jenny Lowther. And the children clearly love their dance lessons: “As a mum, it is incredibly heart-warming to see my little girl, who has been through so much, glow with such delight at being the centre of attention of something other than her cancer,” says parent, Deborah Crossan.
With such a strong message of inclusivity (around 22 per cent of its dance students don’t have disabilities or special needs), the support it provides for families and the obvious health benefits of dance and movement, Flamingo Chicks is breaking down barriers – not just in the UK, but overseas, too. The school is at the forefront of a global movement to promote inclusivity through dance and was invited to the United Nations in New York this year, to spread its message of human rights for disabled children: “Our vision is a world where disabled people have the same range of opportunities; where everyone works together as equals,” says Katherine.