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Rosie Heafford is the artistic director of Second Hand Dance, a disabled-led dance company based in Surrey that creates bold, accessible and sensory dance experiences, especially for children but also for adults. Here she explains why, with Covid, her work has suddenly changed.

In February 2020, in the first week after returning from maternity leave, I attended a workshop with Jenny Sealey from Graeae (the theatre company that works with disabled and deaf actors) called the “aesthetics of access”. It released a creative energy and I felt hugely excited by the creative possibilities of making my work more accessible. A little over a month later, England shut down and we entered lockdown. 

These two events have changed the way I create work for young audiences for ever.

Second Hand Dance creates bold, accessible and sensory experiences for children and adults. Established in 2013 we’ve toured the globe - from the UK to Europe, China, Canada, and the USA. We create beautiful, sensory, live dance experiences with a rich visual and participatory aesthetic such as We Touch We Play We Dance, a celebratory dance performance for 0 to 3 year olds that’s currently touring, and Grass, a show for ages 2 to 7 year olds that has performed over 20 times to nearly 15,000 audiences since 2015.

Collaboration with audiences is vital in the creation and performance of our work. With every project we make we engage with children and adults throughout our research. We dance together, talk together, observe together, and we allow this to inform our creative decisions. We believe that audiences of all ages, including babies, deserve a world where dance, empathy and play are central to their lives and as vital and fluent as language. 

We believe that audiences deserve a world where dance, empathy and play are as vital  as language.

Prior to 2020, the business of Second Hand Dance was to create and tour shows to theatres and other spaces including libraries, parks, hospitals, community centres and schools. We had worked in Special Educational Needs (SEN) schools and adapted shows to align with a relaxed format. The gentle and sensory nature of the shows was often easily adaptable for some disabled audiences.

However, I had never investigated how disabled-deaf or visually impaired audiences could access my work.

The pandemic meant that we had to stop performing live shows in front of audiences, but it also meant we had time to do some thinking and some research. After consulting with our international networks we discovered that there was very little, if any, dance being made specifically for broadcast for younger audiences. So one day I headed off to the park with my camera phone and a dancer, and that little experiment led me to discover the playful possibilities of dance on camera.

We used choreography from Grass, but re-set it in the natural world. We crawled spider fingers over logs and down trees and got down on the ground to give viewers a wriggling worm’s eye perspective. We weren’t simply filming the show, we were translating its essence onto film. We incorporated animation, and we used the colour, textures and sounds from our green location.

But we were missing the child’s voice in the creation process. So through an online call-out we gathered together a panel of children and families to give us feedback. We gathered this through Zoom watch parties, over the phone, questionnaires and asking families to film themselves watching the rough edits in their homes. Their input is at the heart of the Grass films 

Since then we’ve adapted three live shows into films, and throughout this process I’ve heard the call from the Graeae workshop to develop creative access tools for young audiences.  Our research with international networks had also revealed a lack of audio-described dance for young audiences. This was another call to action. 

Good audio description not only tells the audience what’s on screen, it also brings the spirit of the piece to life. For Grass Films we worked with audio describer Nathan Geering of Rationale Method to write poetic descriptions that would engage young audiences. However, I wanted to find a way to include children within the creative process too.

Inspired by a few pioneering projects where young people had been trained to become audio describers themselves, we set about bringing together a group of children aged 9 to 11 with audio describer Jenny Stewart Cosgrove. The group learned what audio description is, about visually impaired audiences, and brainstormed together how to describe dance. We’ve since worked together to write and record the descriptions for our Getting Dressed Films (pictured) - five short films that transform everyday clothes into celebrations of our individuality - an incredible feat given the fast paced action and abstract movement. There’s a fantastic social benefit here as well in that these children now have more awareness of the experience of their visually impaired peers.

Working on film gave me an opportunity to experiment with other creative access tools too, because different versions of the film can easily be created to suit various access needs. We’ve since experimented with adapting

  • creative captions to include illustrations for audiences not yet reading
  • visually representing music through rhythmic animation
  • British Sign Language introductions to describe music and invite disabled/deaf audiences in
  • “sensory films” for audiences who need a lower visual processing demand or the opportunity to explore a single idea for a longer period of time

There’s been a huge amount of learning, and it’s always central to our process to reflect on the audience we are making for. What information do they need? How do they receive it? How can we offer an equitable, if different, experience? For me, this works best when children are involved in the process of creating the access tools for their peers.

Working creatively with access tools for and with young audiences is now part of my practice and I’ll definitely be exploring it further. While it’s important from the point of view of inclusion, it’s also inspiring as an artist and I hope others will be inspired to take a creative approach to access tools too.