It promises to be one of the most fun and lively fundraisers Derry has ever seen as the members of the ‘Stage Beyond’ Theatre Group from Derry and Letterkenny hit the dance floor for a ‘Strictly’ themed fundraiser on March 13th. The extra impressive thing about the event? All the dancers have learning disabilities - and they have pulled together a packed programme of complex dance routines in just five weeks.
If I were Anton DuBeke or Kristina Rihanoff I would be quaking in my sparkly Lycra ensemble just now - because a group of Derry dancers are about to take them on in spectacular style as theatre company ‘Stage Beyond’ does Strictly in a bid to raise funds to help secure their project for the future.
Rehearsals at Derry’s Millennium Forum - where Stage Beyond meet twice a week - are well underway. There will be line dancing, the Cha Cha Cha, some waltzing and even some burlesque, choreographed by local dancers Harriet Scott and Katie Harkin.
And while rehearsals have been intense, according to group member Frank Nelis they have been “the most fun we have had in Stage Beyond”.
Frank, who is one of the longest standing members of the group, will be dancing to a few Elvis numbers on the big night - Elvis being one of his musical heroes.
“When the music starts you can’t help but start moving - and you can just lose yourself in it.
“I’m a big Elvis fan, so I will be channelling the King for the competition.
“We never say no to anything at ‘Stage Beyond’,” he said. “We give everything a go - and this has just been another thing we have taken on and really enjoyed.”
Catherine Campbell was a bit more reticent when it came to the notion of getting on the dance floor. “I was really nervous,” she said. “I didn’t think I would be any good at it and just wanted to sit on the sidelines - but I gave it a go and I really love it.”
Catherine’s enthusiasm for the project beams from her - and her confidence in her new found skills is clear to see.
She has been working on a burlesque style performance with fellow theatre group member Bernie Shiels to ‘Run the World’ by Beyonce and the disco classic ‘Lady Marmalade’.
The two women have had enormous fun working with Harriet and Katie on their moves - but their confidence has not only grown on the dance floor.
Bernie said: “I’ve been with Stage Beyond since the beginning.
When I started I could never have sat in front of a group of people and talked. I wouldn’t have had the confidence - but now I do.
“And I will be dancing in front of them. Doing this has made me really love dancing - and I’d love to keep at it. We’d love to make it a yearly event.”
The big fundraising night will take place on March 9 at Pitchers - and according to Outreach Worker Margaret Carlin it’s one of a number of ways in which the group members continue to take ownership of the group.
“It’s always been important to us that our members see Stage Beyond as their theatre group.
“They are involved in all our decision making and this event is one way in which they are raising funds to help secure the future of our organisation.”
This year is a big one for the group - once they finish with their Strictly rehearsals, they will start work on Rashaman, a Japanese tale of a murder happening with four witnesses, each of whom have a different view of events.
It’s a hugely ambitious project which will see the group perform not only in Derry but also in the Lyric in Belfast and then on to Dublin.
The achievement is greater still given the disabilities the performers all face - but they have never let it hold them back.
Frank said: “We will put everything into everything we do. Coming here gives us the confidence to do that.
“It’s what gets me out of bed on a Monday and Tuesday - to come in here and learn new skills, to work with my friends and to push myself.”
Gillian Craig is another actor from the group - she is currently preparing her signature dance to ‘Proud Mary’ - again something she would never have thought possible before she came to Stage Beyond.
“Sometimes I think I don’t have much confidence but then I think of everything I do with Stage Beyond and I realise I do.”
For choreographers Harriet and Katie, who are dab hands at helping local organisations pull together ‘Strictly’ themed fundraisers - working with Stage Beyond and pulling together a full programme of dances in just five weeks could have proven to be too big of a challenge.
“Normally we take ten weeks,” Katie said,
“So five weeks was a big ask, but we have been met with such enthusiasm from the dancers - they have come on leaps and bounds in such a short time.”
Harriet added: “First of all we suggested a few songs for the group dances.
“If you are going to be hearing songs over and over again it’s important that you like them and they don’t start to annoy you!
“Then we spoke to the dancers about what kind of music they like and they were able to pick their own songs for their individual dances.”
While the two ladies have worked out fully choreographed routines for the group dances which will open and close the event, they have allowed the dancers themselves to work on their individual dances - with the choreographers adding a bit of shape and flare to the pieces.
“I can say they have been the best group of dancers to work with - we are loving every minute and we hope they are too,” Harriet said.