Breaking Barriers with performance art

Dancers with mixed abilities raise awareness on sexuality in Kenya

Breaking Barriers with performance art

By Ondiege Matthew

A programme by AmplifyChange Opportunity grantee, Dance Into Space

Siaya County in the southwest of Kenya has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in Kenya, at 24.8%, nearly 4.2 times higher than the national rate. People with disabilities in Siaya, the majority being physically challenged by polio in their childhood, are disadvantaged on almost all fronts, including in sexual and reproductive health and rights services.

Therefore, Dance Into Space, a group of performance artists, designed the Breaking Barriers Project. This is an innovative, inspiring and revolutionary mixed-ability contemporary dance theatre addressing sexual and reproductive rights and HIV of people with disabilities, together with performing artists both with and without (physical) disabilities.

The practice: dance to empower and create awareness

Our Breaking Barriers programme is both experiential and experimental. The creative process preceding the dance performances draws from real and personal experiences of sexual and reproductive health and rights of participants with disabilities. Personal experiences are deconstructed, creatively re-imagined, improvised and reconstructed and then presented in open-air community forums.

With this process, we aim to break down cultural barriers, superstition, taboos and stigma surrounding people with disabilities and their sexuality. Other goals include the following.


We are empowering people with disabilities through expressive contemporary dance and performance skills for advocacy on SRHR. Amongst other things, the participants are taught choreography and other exercises and games that enhance concentration, team work, leadership qualities and self-confidence. This enables participants to overcome their individual and cultural inhibitions that would ordinarily hinder them from expressing themselves fully.

“Dance, music and theatre processes liberate the participants to express themselves freely and share their true stories devoid of any inhibitions.”

Disability rights advocates

Through discussions, reflections and dialogues around rights and advocacy in broader contexts, participants with disabilities are empowered to become self-advocates who can speak out against oppression and claim their rights regarding SRH. The management of the health clinic specifically involved the trained advocates in regular health talks at the clinic to address community stigma and service provision to people with disability.

Create alternative sexual narratives

With our dance performances, we provide a platform for engagement to debunk the myths around disabilities and sexuality, targeting people with disabilities themselves, their care givers and the community. We show alternative sexual narratives that recognise the sexual needs of people with disabilities and promote their rights to access those needs.

HIV knowledge and testing

We encourage people with disabilities to know their HIV status and to use methods of protection. The project has partnered with service providers who carried out HIV counselling and testing during the performance presentations. It is still too early to tell whether people with disabilities in the community can now buy or access these commodities with ease, or for the project to have data on the knowledge of their status as a result of the performances.

Access to reproductive health services

We promote reproductive health service delivery to people with a disability within the county. By targeting and reaching those in the community who come to the presentations in the county, the performances create awareness of the existence of RH services within this county.

Lessons learnt: the power of the arts in addressing sensitive topics

Performing arts work specifically well in addressing sensitive topics like SRHR and disability, primarily because a disability is only a ‘disability’ in relation to a person’s environment. For example, a visual impairment is not a disability for a musician and a hearing impairment is not a disability for a dancer. Dance, music and theatre processes liberate the participants to express themselves freely and share their true stories devoid of any inhibitions.

After the programme, we observed that people with disabilities were now included in the community’s sexual and reproductive health and rights agenda. Against a hitherto culturally stigmatised environment, community members confessed that the captivating work had enlightened them and changed their perceptions of disability and sex.

Delve into the local context

Planning early and factoring-in time for preparation is crucial because it will allow for more thorough research into and with the community.

This will also enables you to experience the magnitude of the social problems first hand and identify smooth entry points into the community i.e. engaging ‘gate keepers’, local authorities and influential people.

Partner with the community and other organisations

Partnering with the community, other organisation and existing structures on the ground, in order for the community to own the project, ensures sustainability. Other like-minded partners we worked with include the Ministry of Health, community based rehabilitation organisations, local disabled people’s organisations and SRHR- organisations. Incorporating the community and using participatory means helped us to engage participants with a disability in the programme.

Increasing self-confidence

We learnt that empowerment is a slow process. At the beginning, the art director introduces some of the company’s past works to motivate the people with disabilities to participate as performers. This slowly increases their self-confidence. The mixed display of people with and without a disability in performance helps in this.

“This dance performance and sex education process has motivated me to find a woman and start my family”
-A dance participant with a disability.

Accessing services

Health service providers averred that since the advent of the project, a significant increase in people with disabilities seeking reproductive health services at the clinic had been recorded. The resident doctor at the health clinic in Siaya county remarked that it was the first time in general that a condom demonstration was done in public, as it has always been done in private to one client at a time.

We hope that in the near future the initiative will not only be expanded, but be replicated in other villages, communities, and counties in Kenya.

Dance Into Space is a group of socially engaged performance artists.

Programme highlights:

» Contemporary dance theatre, using personal stories and participatory methods

» Teaching dance and empowering people with mixed abilities

» Raising awareness on SRHR and enhancing HIV knowledge and testing

» Strengthening self-advocacy

» Strong community engagement and involvement of all stakeholders
Facebook: @danceintospace
Twitter: @DanceIntoSpace

This case study features in the Dutch Coalition on Disability and Development (DCDD) and Share-Net publication, Everybody Matters

Illustrations by De Beeldvormer

With thanks to the author, publishers and illustrators.