The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Breakdancing over Pizza

Newsletter Editor Diana Hinshelwood's “roving reporter” role at the Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield had unexpected rewards from chance meetings.

That's very CMC...

What if one day you woke up and found that you suddenly couldn’t see you own child?  This question prompted Nathan Geering the artistic director of the hip hop theatre company Rationale, to think about how his own art form could help with visual impairment.  He has over 15 years’ experience working with Disability Arts, and his research has found a powerful link between the mechanics of hip hop and visual accessibility. The sheer physicality of break dancing enhances visual perception and helps overcome visual impairment.

I met Nathan at the famous CMC Pizza Express dinner on the second evening of Conference.  It’s a loud and chaotic evening in which delegates are thrown together (as are the pizzas) in random groups. It’s the place to meet new conference friends and take a side-long view of what others do and how that might impact on you.

Meeting Nathan certainly did that.  He is an enthusiastic and passionate advocate for using creative art forms to help with accessibility and ultimately inclusivity.  In conversation with him, his conviction of the benefits is clear and infectious.  He is articulate and engaging as he explains that audience members with limited vision watching Rationale’s breakdancing performances have their depth perception improved, meaning what may have looked like a television screen to a visually impaired viewer suddenly becomes live theatre.

Nathan explains that a lot of this is due to the sheer dynamics of the art form.  He discovered the phenomenon after Rationale collaborated with visually impaired Directors Kaite O’Reily and Andrew Loretto. He says: “Basically our bodies being in very unusual positions, like being upside down or just different poses. There’s also the power moves that are exclusive to breaking, for example, the axis to which we spin on our heads. People with visual impairment seem to detect those movements a lot better. They also see better when they look down towards the floor. Where does most breaking happen? It happens on the floor.”

He is now working with physicists at the University of Sheffield using MRI scanners to see what happens in the brain of a visually impaired person when they see a variety of dance moves. Comparing breakdancing to other styles, such as ballet or contemporary, to see which movements are the most affecting will allow choreographers from around the world to utilise movements to create more accessible shows.

But it’s not just about creating hip hop theatre for audiences to watch. Nathan organizes and runs dance workshops with the visually impaired, including kids’ breakdance lessons aimed at developing spatial awareness and as a means of injury prevention; break dance is known as falling with style. He uses foam pits to build trust to start off, so participants gradually improve their technique in safety, leading to an increase in self-confidence.

Nathan is also extending research by looking into audio aids for visually impaired audiences.  While traditional audio description tracks can be boring, he’s found that using a sound track incorporating beat boxing to give a richer soundscape can help stimulate visually impaired audiences’ imaginations by using specific sound effects for certain movements.  It is called the Rationale Method of Audio Description.

These techniques can be extended across the range of disadvantaged groups. His latest show is called “Trust in Care”.  This is a theatrical production made in collaboration with young people in care to give them a true voice and reflect their experiences of living in the care system. The production focuses on themes of trust and attachment and the young people in care are the artistic consultants for this professional production. The production combines hip hop, contemporary dance, interactive projection and beatboxing to tell a story like no other.

An excerpt of the production with be performed at Derby Theatre as part of their Trust in Care Symposium on the 30th of October 2018. You can see a video showcasing Rationale's work here.

Nathan also believes that the Rationale Method should be used for mainstream audiences, not only in helping them gain perspective on what visual impairment means, but also opening up different perceptions and different ways of creativity.  He is collaborating with Producer Joe Catchpole on using motion capture to explore other methods of creative accessibility. Certainly, the use of sound in learning is important for all children.  I know from my work with CBeebies Radio how using audio only and a heightened sound track of effects helps children use their imaginations far more effectively, encouraging not only creativity but language development and memory.  This is important not just for accessibility to creative arts for a particular group, but for inclusivity as there are benefits for the entire audience and the industry.

In a conference that was dominated by the problems of digital safety , lack of funding and the need for regulation - where solutions often seemed difficult and distant, talking to Nathan was like a breath of fresh air as he’s making things happen for his audience now.

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