Rhythm is probably the most powerful element of music. It provides order, sense of safety and self confidence…. Rhythm is action, it is part of the motor and dynamic conscience. –Diego Alamar
Last year a musician and friend Diego Alamar approached me about conducting a dance workshop at the Star Mountain Rehabilitation Center, a school for children with special needs located in a village near Ramallah, where he teaches music. Before my workshops, I went with him to the center- where there are three different classes for children with mild, moderate and severe special needs- to get to know the students and observe what he does with them. Diego teaches the children music, not musical therapy. The term musical therapy for him implies that there is something to “fix” or “cure”, which is not his goal. For him, there is simply nothing to be fixed. He talks about two forms of music education for people with special needs: “active” and “passive.” The passive system teaches students how to experience different states of mind by listening to music. For children with special needs, it is especially important to provide external sensory incentives in order to develop self expression and receptiveness. But there must also be an active way of approaching musical special education in which the students themselves are the musicians. A way in which they take part in the process of creation, development and performance of music; where the student becomes the musician. My approach to the dance workshop was influenced by Diego’s active method, which gives the students ownership of the material. By letting them choreograph, feel rhythm and tempo, and encouraging them to challenge themselves physically, the students were able to find more freedom in their own movement and to really let loose. I think one of the most inspiring things about these children is their ability to let loose. Fear of judgement doesn’t seem to resonate with this group. Their attitudes are infectious.
After teaching that first deeply satisfying workshop, I returned recently to teach again, this time with YSDT dancer Katie Schetlick. We went through an array of warm-ups in the beginning and worked on isolating different body parts. As is the case with almost every class I teach to people new to movement: cat and cow was a hit. We walked around like elephants on our knees, using one arm to guide and the other as our trunk. We played music: they froze when the music went silent, then skipped, hopped, broke it down, danced however the music made them feel when it came back on. It was a good reminder that the simplest curving of your back coupled with a “meow”, shaking of your shoulders, or leap over a mound can feel good when you just get into it. As children often marginalized from the broader society, they generously invited Katie and I in with their laughter and willingness to try things. Self and collective judgement were absent in the room. Self expression was glowing. Katie was almost as thrilled as the kids were to participate in the class. According to her “there is always so much to learn from people who see the world differently, who move through the world differently. We formed a circle within which we were to choreograph a collective dance. Each student got to make up their own move, and we strung the movements together to create a movement phrase. Some students needed gentle reminders and more encouragement than others, but most were excited about adding his/her own movement to the collective phrase. I was sitting next to one young girl who’s whole faced changed as if to say “yeah, I did that” when it came time to do her move. In that moment I became the student doing the move that was best done by her. In that moment I started to understand how this dance was empowering the dancers, and allowing the students to see that they had something to offer that no one else could; even if that was simply his/her own wiggle.”
Children with special needs in Palestine are doubly challenged by their marginalized status in society. When I asked Diego- a Spanish national- why he chose to teach music to children with special needs in Palestine, he said, “The difficult political situation of the occupied Palestinian Territories and the lack of resources of its government makes it harder to establish a proper special education program. Nowadays, most of the special education programs are developed by foreign and private NGOs and foundations; there is no general curriculum established in order to unify the work done by these schools. Due to this, the opportunities for people with special needs are less available than in other countries. ” Studies show that music education improves attention span, motor and cognitive development, and social and communicative abilities. Music enhances self expression and encourages self reflection. I believe through my own experience as a dancer and teacher that all of the points above can be applied to the importance of dance education as well. We don’t all express the same way, but we all express. Classes such as these give children of all ages and abilities another tool. For some- like Riyad, Mohammad, Ahmad, Lubna, and Mustafa- they let the floodgates open.
If you would like to learn more about the development of music education programs for children with special needs in Palestine and find out ways to help these programs expand, you can contact Diego at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out some video from the workshop below!