On inclusion, motivation, and his incredible journey from Cambodia to the UK
Tell me about yourself and your background.
I am a wheelchair dancer, teacher and choreographer, and I also do a lot of filming, editing, and music composition. I really enjoy artistic things, being a dancer, choreographer, filming, editing, and composing music. I'm really passionate about that because it makes me feel free and it’s also fun.
I grew up in Cambodia. I used to live on a boat in the jungle with my family, because at that time my family were fishermen. So when I was young, I went to the local school in my village but at that time I didn’t have a wheelchair for getting around, so I was using my hands and then my knees to move, to crawl, and it was really tough. My classmates didn’t understand; they were quite young and they looked at me in a funny way, like children do. I remember they asked me when I was 6 years old, “Oh Nadenh, you have 2 legs, why are you not walking or standing?” That made me cry, I used to cry a lot, because all my classmates could run, sprint, they had a great time. I wasn’t happy at all, I used to say to my parents, “I don’t want to go to school anymore, I don’t enjoy it”. My parents tried to support and encourage me to go to school, but eventually they understood and said, “OK, we don’t want to push you anymore”. So my dad made me a special canoe, a really small boat for me to access the forest and the jungle, and that made me so happy.
In my life, I’ve gone from being a village boy to a city boy in Cambodia, to a dancer in the UK. All my family are still in Cambodia; I came really far away from home.
So how did you get into dancing originally?
That's a really good question! When I was young, back home in Cambodia, I never dreamed about becoming a dancer or choreographer. I actually wanted to become a soldier – I told my parents I wanted to join the army, but my parents said I couldn’t because of my disability. In 2004, a contemporary dance teacher from the UK came to Lavalla School, the school where I studied. Lavalla is a school for disabled people, where students can learn general knowledge, English, music, computer skills, and life skills – so actually that’s how I started music, from that school. She led a summer school with dance workshops when I was 15 or 16 years old, and it was so much fun and I loved it so much. The workshop brought up a lot of questions for me about myself, because every single move came from my heart, and it felt amazing. I wanted to explore dancing some more, but at that point I couldn’t go any further because we had quite limited resources for contemporary dance in Cambodia at that time.
Then a year later, a dance artist, Katie Goad, from Epic Arts who was at the summer school workshop wanted a wheelchair dancer in their first production in Cambodia so she contacted my head teacher and we had a meeting about it. But I said to Katie, “I would love to join, but you know my background, I’m not a dancer, I’ve not had training, I did your workshop and that’s it really”. She was really generous and really lovely, and she said, “Don’t worry, we’re going to come together and find out how we can work together”. So in the morning I had school, and then in the afternoon I was practising, rehearsing and exploring in the studio. I worked on that project for about 5 months, and then we created a show called The Return, choreographed by Jo Parkes. We premiered in Phnom Penh, so a lot of people came along, and Epic Arts invited my parents. It was the first time that they saw me dancing onstage. They couldn’t believe it; they saw their son dancing. My mum just kept crying, her tears dropped down from the beginning to the end of the show. Because she couldn’t believe it, and she was just really, really proud.
After that show, my schedule was so busy because we had a lot of bookings for The Return from other countries, like Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore, and Australia. When the tour was over, I was still so hungry, my ambition was to carry on more and more. I was so hungry to learn, I never gave up. And then the dream did come true: Epic Arts created a vocational training course, so we did a lot of contemporary dance, drama, and visual art. I trained with Epic Arts in Cambodia for about 2 years and then worked with them full-time. Then in 2010, I was able to work with Chisato Minamimura who came from the UK. She had a hearing impairment so used sign language. She choreographed a piece called 4D which we took on tour to the UK, and then in the final week we had a great opportunity to join Stopgap’s summer school in Italy, and I just loved it so much!
After I returned to Cambodia, I was dreaming about coming back to the UK to train, and I just kept telling Epic Arts about that dream. So Epic Arts and Stopgap had a meeting about that, and then in 2013, my dream came true: Stopgap sponsored me to join SG2 which is emerging artist training, so we did a lot of performing, training, teaching and leading workshops.
That’s quite a journey! How has it felt, going from a village in Cambodia where there wasn't much understanding about disability to being part of a company like Stopgap?
It’s such a great feeling, because Cambodian people did not quite understand about disability around that time, what they saw was that people with disabilities don’t really do anything, they just sit on the chair at home, not having a job to do, that kind of stuff. When I got involved with dancing, and my mum told my story to the people in the village, they would ask lots of questions, and then I had more friends from that point.
And then working with inclusive dance companies, from Epic Arts to Stopgap, it’s been a really, really privileged journey. It's such a great feeling to work with an inclusive dance company, because there’s plenty of time to develop, to learn, to meet new people and meet the new world. Imagine going from being a child living in the forest on a boat, and moving bit by bit to the city and then to the UK – it was such a big change; when I moved everything was new to me, the culture, the food, the social system, everything.
At each of those stages of your journey, were you nervous or excited?
At the beginning I was a little bit nervous because I was here by myself, I’m far away from home and my family, but in the UK, Stopgap really looked after me and supported me. I also said to myself, “If want to do this I need to commit to myself. I can do it.” The journey has helped me believe in myself.
What would you say inclusion means to you, and how does it make you feel?
Inclusion, to me, means that every person counts. Everyone is included and involved, it’s about people with disabilities being included in a project or production, or any kind of job. So that everyone is equal and working together. Inclusion often comes through art, it’s really important to promote it for everyone, because art makes everyone happy. Inclusive work is about giving opportunities to people with disabilities for them to try things out. Because everyone has their own talent, everyone has their own passion for something, and especially people with disabilities, they have got a very special ability that they want to use. Dance is such a good platform for them to take what they have in their heart and show people around them, in the community or in the dance world – to show how much people with disabilities can do. For me, I feel that if others can do it, I can do it as well. I know how to adapt the movement; it takes time, but I can do it. When I experience inclusion, I feel quite safe, free, and confident, because people start to understand more about it, and that I’m not being left behind.
Given your success in your career, have you ever felt pressure to be a role model or spokesperson for disabled dancers or young people?
That’s a good question! Yes – especially in Cambodia, I was a role model for young people with and without disabilities to help them understand the value of disabled people. Most people say I’m a really inspiring person, to be able to do what I do, and I love to share that story with them and to encourage them: “You can do as many things as you want to do, it will just take a little bit of time, don’t stop trying.” I always say, don’t stop trying. For example, in dance, when I get a new wheelchair, how many times do I fall to the ground? At least 20 times. But I come back up, and then I reset it and then try again. I fall again, I come back, reset it, come back, and so on, so I just keep driving and pushing myself to work hard. This is true for everyone! If you want to do something and you try it the first time and it’s not quite right, try again. If you’re not sure, keep trying.
You’re obviously really motivated. Where do you think that drive and perseverance come from, and how can others find motivation if they don’t feel included?
It depends on the person and the disability that they have, but you need to be working hard, you need to keep trying. Everyone has their own unique talent, but this is a question for yourself: are you going to show that talent to everyone or are you going to keep it inside of you? And if you keep it hidden inside yourself, who’s going to see it? I’m making it sound quite easy, but it’s hard, it takes time. You can’t get success straight away. But if you keep trying, then you will become successful one day.
Also, parents need to encourage their children if they have disabilities, just encourage them as much as possible. Disabled people need to encourage themselves as well. Don’t be shy, try out new things, ask a lot of questions, do your research, because sometimes if you don’t do your research about it then that thing will not come to you – you need to go to it. So you need to make that journey; don’t be afraid, try as much as possible to be part of this beautiful world. Show people your talent, and that will make you feel free and confident and happy for the rest of your life.