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Elise Phillips's work clearly demonstrates that technology can enhance the health and wellbeing impacts of dance work with neurologically disabled people.

Neurodisabled Lived Experience Consultant using the interactive experience he’d co-created with CoDa Dance


It might come as a surprise to learn that one in six people in the UK live with at least one neurological condition, such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s, epilepsy or acquired brain injury. 

That’s a massive 16.5 million people for whom factors such as limited mobility, cognition issues, availability of care staff, and the need to constantly adjust to changing capacities all combine to restrict their day-to-day lives. 

Unsurprisingly, for neuro-disabled people and their carers accessing arts, cultural and other wellbeing activities can be low on their list of priorities. And even when they try, barriers such as wheelchair access and the timing of events can make the challenge even greater. 

Raising awareness of neurological disability

Over a decade ago, on discovering her mother had MS, Nikki Watson founded CoDa Dance. Having been passionate about inclusivity throughout her career, the company was a way to process her and her mother’s experiences, tear down barriers and improve the lives of people living with neurological disabilities.

I joined CoDa in 2017, and the following year we began to tinker with bringing creative technology into our dance productions and participatory projects. That year we began giving weekly Dance for Neurology sessions on wards at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability - where we now work on nine wards weekly. 

Fast forward to 2024, and CoDa is now one of 22 organisations that make up the new cohort of dance National Portfolio Organisaions. 

CoDa raises awareness about what it's like to live with a neurological disability, so these often-hidden communities can see themselves represented in the cultural sphere. We design all aspects of our work: from touring venues to the creative tech equipment we use, even down to the colour palette of our art works, to make it accessible for neuro-disabled people, their family and carers, and the specialist clinicians who work with them.  

Tech can amplify the impact of dance

Since 2018, we’ve been investigating how creative technologies can interact with contemporary dance to create work that illuminates the hidden stories of neuro-disabled people. Our audiences tell us that dance can say things where words fail, giving insight into experiences that otherwise remain murky or intangible. 

We’ve found creative technologies and digital design can amplify the impact of dance, by making possible the impossible. They also add an exciting way in to dance for non-arts audiences who may otherwise be put off by ‘contemporary dance’ listings. This means we can reach more people and potentially shift perceptions about disability more widely. 

CoDa’s interactive experience giving audiences insight into the symptoms of neurological conditions and disabilities. Photo: @caveandsky 

In 2023, we produced our biggest research project to date, working with virtual reality, augmented reality, green screens, motion capture, and depth cameras. We created a series of digital dance short films and two interactive experiences where audiences used their bodies to control beautiful digital projections in a way that gives insight into some of the symptoms of neuro-disabilities. 

A member of the neuro-disabled Lived Experience Consultant team who co-directed the research told us: “The [clinical] staff know what people have been through medically - they know what you can and can’t do, but emotionally they don’t really understand, and this [CoDa’s installation] gives them the chance to ‘get it’ more.” 

Cracking the ableist parameters of the technology

We used depth cameras called Kinects, which were launched by XBox well over a decade ago as a games controller. They scan your body in space and translate that into data. Our endlessly knowledgeable creative technologists turn that data into beautiful graphics that respond to the user’s movements. 

They also cracked the inherently ableist parameters of the technology - which will only work when it can pick up a human form with four limbs in a standing position - so that it can be used by wheelchair users. People simply move or walk past the sensor to see their abstract avatar of particles move and react to their movements on a large screen. Time and again we’ve seen that this is all it takes for them to be hooked, they are intrigued and want to play - no instructions or tech briefing necessary. 

It's amazing to see people's reactions when they realise they're controlling the visuals. People have reported out-of-body experiences, feeling their pain disappear, that they see their experience reflected back at them in the visuals, or that they finally understand a symptom a loved one has been describing to them. 

“People have described out of body experiences, feeling all their pain disappear, or that they finally understand a symptom a loved one has been describing to them.”

Audiences reported some of these things in response to our live performance works that used minimal or no creative technology, and these impacts are noticeably increased and more impactful when we integrate tech.

If you design the interactions right, we’ve noticed people start moving their bodies in new ways - lots of reaching, stretching, swooping, sending - trying to create new visual effects in front of them. Even people who normally participate in dance workshops seated in a chair, instantly get up, unprompted, to move in ways their family members or care staff didn't know they had the capacity for. 

Greater understanding and empathy

We shared the installation elements in our Dance for Neurology sessions, designed to complement physiotherapy rehabilitation for people with conditions like MS, Parkinson’s and acquired brain injury. We saw first-hand how the integration of creative technology enhanced the physical, emotional and social outcomes for the participants. 

We witnessed how non-disabled people, including family and clinicians, saw their loved ones and patients move in ways they thought they had lost and reached greater understanding and empathy. It became clear to us that our approach could potentially impact clinical practice and outcomes if positioned correctly and developed in partnership with specialists. 

We are currently conducting academic research into the impacts of our Dance for Neurology activity on patient Quality of Life at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability. We’re in the process of seeking NHS Ethics approval on our methodology so that the research has the clout NHS Commissioners and clinicians require to trust its value. 

Once we’ve demonstrated the impact of the dance alone, we’ll be able to investigate the impact of integrating creative technologies to see if that improves health outcomes for our participants.

We’re looking forward to sharing our learning with the sector to contribute to the evidence base for the impact of art on health and wellbeing, to being able to reach more neuro-disabled people, and to shifting perceptions about disability more widely.

Elise Phillips is Executive Director & Creative Producer at CoDa Dance.

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