I have danced with a number of special needs groups since I first started teaching Sacred Circle Dance in 1983. I am really passionate about this work as I see amazing changes in these people through the dance and I get such a ‘buzz’ myself from doing it. A few anecdotes will illustrate this.

One of the young women in a group in Reading has danced with me since I started on the day the centre opened in April 2002. She hardly speaks at all, so you can imagine how I felt the day she answered my question “Did you enjoy the dancing?” with “Yes, thank you. Goodbye”.

On another occasion we were dancing Kastorias (about a horse rider seeing a deer in the wood). At the end, we clap in rhythm to the music. She had never clapped before. Suddenly, with great concentration and determination on her face, she moved her arms upwards and clapped. It was enough to bring tears to the eyes. It was apparently the first time she had done anything proactively at the centre. She still does not usually clap, but when she does it is magical.

Another client at the same centre used to sit on the floor rocking herself back and forth not really participating in anything – she does not speak at all. One day she was encouraged to join in the dancing and has been coming ever since. Some weeks she is already in the room when I arrive, waiting for me to create the centrepiece! One week she pushed up to me after the wedding dance, Nigun Atik, and I asked if she had enjoyed it. Her response was to tap her mouth, which means “Yes”. This was the first time I had seen her express an opinion about a dance and it was a real thrill.

These people love dances that tell a story or in which they are imitating something. In Kastorias we make antlers with our hands. Some of the antlers are a little small, but it is the thought that counts! The Rice Dance is a great favourite and we usually have to do it two or three times. I have recently taught a modified version of Oneg Shabat: they love the part where we make candles and turn them out to the world. In fact, they insisted on doing it when they had a visitor from another centre join the circle – to show off their new dance!

I have realised that the patterns we make are the most important thing for these folk in remembering dances. At Reading, I introduced them to Setnja, which curves into the centre and then comes straight out. When I suggested doing it the following week, one of the chaps immediately demonstrated the pattern of the steps. My words are of little importance, it is the shapes we make on the floor or with our arms that they remember. That is how they tell me which dances they want to do.

I feel a great bond with these special people, however disadvantaged they may seem, and they have opened my heart in a very beautiful way. Some of my friends say they could not do it, but I just love it.

This article first appeared in Grapevine, Spring 2005