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How a boy with dyslexia became an academic
Billy Elliot could have been his life story but there’s more to him than that. University of Hertfordshire professor Peter Lovatt had a tough time being the only boy in the ballet class, but being unable to read until his early 20s was far worse.
Peter attended Beaumont School in St Albans where he was put in a remedial English class because he was dyslexic.
“I was an academic late starter,” says Peter. “I didn’t read due to three problems – I couldn’t read irregular words because I couldn’t sound them out in my head. I had a poor memory of what I was reading and in a sentence with multiple embedded clauses such as ’the car at the end of the road was blue’ – I wouldn’t know what blue was.
Leaving school without any qualifications Peter entertained residents at Cell Barnes Hospital where his parents worked and performed shows with local companies such as the Abbey Theatre. He went on to study theatre and creative arts at East Herts College before training in dance and musical theatre at the Guildford School of Acting.
“It was a real headache in those days being a young male dancer. There was quite a lot of resistance to it. Between the ages of 14 to 16 I did think about giving up, but then I went to Guildhall and I ended up as a professional dancer touring all over the world. I just loved dancing, I didn’t know why but it felt completely natural.”
The problem with reading remained but Peter decided to tackle it head on.
People with dyslexia have different memory systems, so it’s very important for them to find ways to channel their creative expressionPeter Lovatt
“I challenged myself to read a 140-page book. It took me two weeks, reading 12 hours a day to get through it. I didn’t understand all of it but I realised I didn’t need to know every word to get the meaning. I found I could get the gist of what was happening by breaking down the sentences into small chunks. I’d have a visual recoil from a big block of text but if I looked at it very closely I could understand the individual words. It helped to put brackets around the words I didn’t know or to cover them up."
Peter went on to study psychology and English. He then received a scholarship to do an MSc in neural computation at the University of Stirling and did his doctoral research at Essex University.
In 1998, Peter joined Cambridge University, where he did research for a PHD in short-term memory and dyslexia.
“People with dyslexia have different memory systems, so it’s very important for them to find ways to channel their creative expression. If you are told you’re a failure at academic subjects it can spill into other areas of your life. People assume you are stupid and if they tell you that enough you start to believe it but it was not that I couldn’t think, I just couldn’t read.”
The boy who couldn’t read became a professor at Hertfordshire University in September 2004. He set up the Psychological Dance Lab in 2008.
In the lab, Peter undertook research into how our hormonal make-up effects the way we move, which earned him the moniker Dr Dance and landed him slots on Strictly Come Dancing: It Takes Two and The Graham Norton Show.
A Harpenden resident for the past ten years, Peter has previously run the Harpenden Gang Show. He still lives to dance, putting in at least an hour’s dance practice every day. Last summer, he took a devised show to Edinburgh combining the fun elements of psychology with dance. A revised version of the show titled Inspired is currently on tour.
“The show poses questions everyone can recognise – such as why do we follow orders? Why do all 16-year-old girls dress the same. The choreographers take these ideas and make new dances from them. It’s not dance drama but explores how creative artists interpret the spoken word. What it’s really about is what it’s like to be human.”
Peter is running a project for people with Parkinsons and is looking for volunteers to attend ten-session movement programmes at Hertfordshire University and in London and Manchester, starting on June 6. http://dancedrdance.com