FOR years people had moved my body around, but when I started dancing it was moved in a whole new way, says Caroline Bowditch. “It was an incredibly moving and empowering experience.”
Caroline, 38, was born with a genetic condition, OsteoGenisis Imperfect, brittle bone disease, which means her bones are incredibly fragile.
She explains: “By the age of eight I’d had 250 fractures in my bones. At that point mum told me we were going to stop counting.”
It is then perhaps surprising she is now a leading light in dance in this country.
Currently on a secondment to the Scottish Dance Theatre, Caroline will be performing as part of FATHoM , a Tyneside experimental dance group, at Newcastle’s Dance City on November 20.
It’s a long way from her childhood, growing up in a small town, Dookie, in the Australian Bush where her father Lloyd was a lecturer at an agricultural college.
She recalls: “It was very small town and because of my condition I did stand out.” Caroline grew up there with mum Phyllis and her brothers Kelvin, 43, and Darren, 40.
As she was so fragile people were petrified to allow her into school in case her bones were broken accidently. Luckily her parents were incredibly supportive and made sure she received an education like everyone else.
Caroline recalls: “My dad built me a box which fit around me so no one could bump into me.
“It’d be moved around in classroom. People were too frightened to touch me and so my mum used to have to come every lunchtime and take me to the toilet.”
Her condition has improved. Caroline adds: “At one point if I sneezed I’d break a rib, but as you get older your bones become denser, and drugs have been developed since I was a child which mean again I am less breakable.”
When she was five her parents divorced which meant Caroline moved with her mum to the big city of Melbourne. Here she was put into a special school.
“Mum did what she thought was best for me and enrolled me in the school which meant I could do things like physiotherapy. There was a safety being around other kids with disabilities.”
When she was 12, however, Caroline started at a mainstream school and was initially terrified.
“My school before had felt very secure but all of a sudden I was surrounded by kids running around, bashing into things. It was a bit of an intimidating experience for me.
“I think it was a huge thing for my mum to let me go, but I loved it. It was the first time I didn’t feel like I was different to everybody else.”
Caroline also says she was never the victim of bullying at the school for her disabilities.
She adds: “The thing about any teasing which happens around disability is it is completely driven by fear and ignorance. The more integrated people become, the less this happens. Very quickly there was nothing unusual about me.”
At school Caroline became very interested in drama, although her teachers didn’t know how to cast her.
She says: “One year I was in The King and I cast as a child, it was the only part they could see me getting. I found myself getting frustrated. They didn’t really know what to do with me.”
Caroline, who doesn’t have the use of her legs, was certainly never given any of the dancing parts.
“Which is a real shame,” she comments, “and showed a lack of imagination.”
At the time though she simply accepted dance was not an option.
Following school Caroline had a “hallelujah” moment when she went on a weekend trip for disabled youngsters to a local university.
She recalls: “I’d always thought I was going to go to university but somewhere close to home so I could stay there. Then I went to this weekend which was designed to encourage young disabled people into higher education.”
Caroline found the course inspiring, not only because she’d travelled there by herself.
“It was the first time I’d done anything completely by myself and it was such a grown-up moment.”
After graduating Caroline worked for the same university in administration and improving accessibility for disabled students.
She moved around the higher education field eventually ending up back in Melbourne.
She recalls: “It was there I was contacted by the Kenduko Dance Company who were coming to Australia for the first time.
“They were setting up some dance workshops and wanted to get a group of disabled people together who had some performing experience.”
As she fitted the bill perfectly Caroline was keen to participate.
“That was when the door really opened because it was the first time for me that I was all of a sudden dancing. I was moving my body, learning what it could do without anyone telling me my limitations. I was finding out what it was like to be moved in a different, beautiful way. It was a really powerful experience.”
Following the workshop, several of the participants decided to carry on and set up their own dance troupe.
“Once I’d been given this experience there was no way I was going to let it be taken away again,” Caroline says. “I’d had a whole new world opened up to me.”
Through both her day job and her dancing Caroline was heavily involved in disabled rights and became aware of a British academic called Tom Shakespeare.
Dr Shakespeare is a geneticist, sociologist, broadcaster and writer. He is also a research fellow at the University of Newcastle developing writing and performance projects around themes of disability and bioethics.
Caroline met Tom at a conference in Melbourne. She laughs: “I thought he was a bit arrogant at first,” but the two had a connection and, after conducting a long-distance relationship for 18 months, Caroline decided to join Tom in Newcastle in 2002, when they married.
“I’ll be honest ... I took a long time to settle in,” she says, “I’d cry for Melbourne. I missed the buildings there, the markets.
“When I moved to the UK I only knew two people here, Tom and a friend in Cambridge.
“But when I stopped mourning leaving Australia, I really started to appreciate where I’d moved to.”
One of the ways Caroline began appreciating her new home was through the arts organisations here. She contacted Dance City and the then director, Janet Archer, asked her, ‘What would you like to see happen here?’
Caroline outlined her ideas for inclusive dance pieces and an accessible building. And said: “And I don’t just want to dance in community workshops, I want to dance with experienced dancers.”
Caroline managed to get troupe CandoCo to do residencies in the region. She put out feelers for anyone else interested in dancing with the troupe and 11 dancers in all came together.
This was where FATHoM was born, the dancers deciding they’d had so much fun and creativity as a group they’d set up their own company in 2004.
Since then Caroline has been a predominant feature on the region’s dance scene, and the dance scene nationally. Following their Newcastle performance Fathom will be taking their piece to Sadler's Wells in London.
Sadly she and Tom have now split up, “but are great friends,” she explains. And he has been very supportive of her dance work.
Caroline’s work for the Scottish Dance Theatre is again taking her into the area of explaining how dance can work for mixed ability works.
She adds: “A very important part of this is that disabled people should be seen regularly as part of a dance troupe.
“It shouldn’t have the tag ‘disabled dance troupe’ added to it.
Despite being based in Scotland at the moment Caroline still dances with FATHoM, and Girl Jonah, a duet piece she performs.
“I love the North East now, Newcastle is my UK home, Melbourne my Australian.”
:: FATHoM is at Dance City on November 20, tickets are £8, £5, for more information visit www.dancecity.co.uk or call (0191) 261-0505.
Caroline Bowditch, born in Australia in 1971 majored in performing arts for her Education degree (1990); has been dancing in mixed ability companies for 15 years.
She participated in several residencies with CandoCo; was a participant in The Dancers Project 2005 (The Place); was one of five disabled choreographers undergoing training on the Cultural Shift project 2005 (East London Dance); was one of 22 artists invited to be part of Colina 2006 (Collaboration in Arts) where she choreographed a new piece ‘Staircase’ which involved sending choreographic directions to 8 dancers via text message.
Produced a piece for Trafalgar Square as part of the Liberty Festival (2006) In Spring 2007 toured with Scottish Dance Theatre. A founder member of Weave Movement Theatre (Melbourne) and FATHoM Project.