KAREN Anderson isn’t usually one for looking back. Ever since she founded Indepen-dance in 1996, she’s focussed on what she can make happen next. But this year is the company’s 20th anniversary, coinciding with the second Gathered Together international showcase of inclusive work that her team are hosting at Tramway. It’s an appropriate time, then, to reflect not just on how far Indepen-dance have travelled – and that’s been globally – but on how the provision and reach of inclusive dance has also evolved in that time.

Anderson’s awareness of how dance can be a transformative factor in the lives of adults with learning difficulties or special needs harks back to the mid-1990’s when she was a Dance Development Officer with Strathclyde Regional Council and spent part of her time at the Robert Owen Centre in East Kilbride. “I think it was when Strathclyde Region was disbanded,” she says, “that I realised it really had left a gap. People – adults with Down’s Syndrome – that I’d been working with had been so motivated, so creative. Devising their own dance pieces, writing poetry... We even had the composer/musician Christopher Benstead – who’s worked with so many professional dance companies, Scottish Dance Theatre among them – come in on a project. When things changed, I got sick of hearing how adults who had disabilities were shut out of dance. Being told there was nothing available for them, or that regular classes weren’t “suitable” for them, was when Indepen-dance came into being.”

In 1996, there was one class a week, with 12 people in it. Now, Indepen-dance runs 24 classes a week and demand outstrips supply. The waiting lists are, Anderson reckons, telling their own story. And the closure of various day centres across Glasgow has contributed to the increased numbers on those lists.

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“A lot of people with learning difficulties discover dance at school,” she says. “But when your education ends, that’s it, your access to dance ends as well. And for a great many people, what they miss is the social aspect of it, meeting people, making friends, joining in. But there are others – all ages, young and old – who miss the dance itself. When Gathered Together opens tomorrow night, a lot of those people will be on-stage and performing as Indepen-dance, either with the youth group, or in Indepen-dance 4 – our small ensemble that showcases excellence – or with our adult performance company, which still has a few of our original members from twenty years ago. And no – I don’t think they imagined we’d be where are today, either!”

Later in the week, inclusive companies from Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands and Colombia will line up alongside performers from Scotland and the UK, gathered together because of the connections that Anderson has forged, with Indepen-dance, during the past twenty years. She laughs when she says the company is almost like another member of her family.

“Whenever there were changes in my own life – moving south, even moving to Spain – you could say I took Indepen-dance with me. I think Spain was a kind of tipping point, though. I started to meet other inclusive companies who were already in Europe, and was able to set up partnerships that meant Indepen-dance touring abroad. Other connections came about, until – and this is what is so exciting about Gathered Together – there is this whole, wider community that feels the way we do, that dance should be a part of everyone’s life if they so want it to be.”

Not just dance, but love and intimate relationships, too – a topic explored by Platform-K (Belgium) in Monkey Mind. “It’s provocative,” says Anderson, “because it’s asking audiences to think, honestly, about people with Down’s Syndrome falling in love, having sex, starting relationships. These are things that some audiences find uncomfortable, but that’s part of what art is supposed to do. And work by inclusive companies shouldn’t shy away from that.”

That energy is also present in Nada es Fijo (Nothing is fixed) by ConCuerpos inclusive dance company from Colombia, where words by U.S. poet and civil rights activist James Baldwin underpin a choreography that challenges conventional notions of disability and dance. There’s also a new piece from Scotland’s Marc Brew, whose own dance-making _ either as a performer or a choreographer – has brought these issues of judgemental perception centre-stage. He’s been working with Brazilian artists Natalia Mallo, Giselle Calazans and Mirella Brandi on a piece, Uchronia, that explores nostalgia and wishful thinking.

With workshops, panel discussions, films and performances, Gathered Together crams a tremendous amount into its four day span. It ends, on Saturday, with a Ceilidh at the Briggait (7.30pm -11pm) that is, like the evening performances, open to the public.

“I really want audiences to come and be a part of what we do,” says Anderson. “To see the challenges, the achievements, and the joy that inclusive companies bring to the stage in their dance. That journey is why Indepen-dance came into being in the first place.”

Gathered Together is at Tramway, Glasgow from today until Saturday 10.

www.indepen-dance.org.uk/festival