I am so inspired by this woman! Rashmi Becker is a dancer, disability advocate, and the founder of Step Change Studios. Step Change creates opportunities for people of all ages and abilities to dance and perform.
Rashmi, what or who inspired you to work with dancers of all ages and abilities?
As the younger sister to a brother with Autism and learning disabilities, I became aware of the benefits of dance from an early age. Music and movement were a fantastic way for us to connect and for him to develop social interaction, creativity, to manage his anxieties, and to just to have fun and feel free.
As an adult, I began working in social care and continued to see the benefits of dance and physical activity on health and wellbeing. I became involved in various advocacy activities to support disabled people to have a voice and to have the same opportunities to participate in society as everyone else. My love of dance continued to grow but I became acutely aware of the lack of opportunities for disabled people to participate in dance. I decided to do something about it and set up Step Change Studios.
I knew there was a gap but I had not appreciated the appetite to dance. In less than two years, I’ve built a team of amazing inclusive dance teachers who have supported over 1,500 disabled people to dance – many for the first time. We provide dance in a wide range of settings including in social care, healthcare, education, and in the community, from grassroots to professional level. I continue to be inspired and amazed by the people we support who just love to dance and by the impact that dance has on people’s quality of life.
Dance is physical movement and emotional expression. So in that way - everybody can dance! Is it hard for some people to get comfortable with that idea?
For me, dance is about interpreting music with your body and personality. Dance is, therefore, not the preserve of a particular type of body. It can represent different things to different people: connection; creating and telling stories; it can be both energising and a release of energy; and a way to express ourselves non-verbally.
Our participants love music and dancing. However, in a society that often represents dancers as a particular body type, this can deter people that feel they do not fit a certain image. Disability policy differentiates between a medical and social model of disability. I often think of this beyond disability because it essentially refers to the factors in society which prevent participation and inclusion. If we are made to feel like we do not belong, it makes it more difficult to try to belong.
The psychological barrier is the challenge we often come across when promoting inclusive dance. But it is amazing how quickly this barrier disappears as soon as someone has a positive experience. A good example is our dance programme for people with sight loss. Before starting the programme I received many calls from people that wanted to dance but were anxious, and unsure. People worried about slowing the class down, and not fitting in. I could feel the nervousness and apprehension of the group when we first started. But these are common worries most of us face when trying something for the first time. Just few months on the group have become friends, socialising outside class, people who were nervous to travel now make their way on the train to get to dance class, they dance with confidence and have made amazing progress – even taking their first dance exam. They are an example of just what is possible when we create not limit opportunity.
How does dancing on a stage or in a studio help a person in their everyday life?
While I know well the powerful impact that dance can have on our quality of life, I am constantly moved when I hear and see first-hand just what a difference dance is making to people. Participants’ feedback is powerful testament that something as fun, and simple as dance can make such a positive impact and must be something that everyone can access and enjoy. This motivates me further to advocate and promote inclusive dance practice. Everyone involved in supporting dance should be asking themselves whether they are enablers or disablers when it comes to diversity in dance.
Fiona, who participates in our ballroom dance programme for people with sight loss shared her experience of what she values about dancing: “I think women can feel a bit vulnerable with a dance partner at first but these classes have increased my confidence to be able to share moves with a partner in a safe environment. Dancing really supports me in my daily life as it increases my self-esteem and confidence. When I take part in dance I can feel nervous because I think I cannot get the steps right. However, as we constantly move from partner to partner I learn from them and sometimes they learn from me. The experience is shared within the group and no-one is left feeling inadequate. The support I get from the group is crucial for me to learn. There’s also the social element as after the session we all get together for a drink. This part is really important to me as it creates a very social environment for those of us who can often feel lonely or isolated in our everyday lives.”
As well as community dance, Step Change Studios also provides platforms to showcase professional dance talent. This is important as I would like to do more to support disabled dancers to develop their careers. In 2018 I produced the UK’s first inclusive ballroom show Fusion at London’s premier dance venue Sadler’s Wells. Louise, who performed in this show said: “Twenty years ago, Fibromyalgia stole my dance career; I never imagined that the same suffering would actually be bringing dance back into my life!”
Many of our participants have found a new perspective about their abilities and aspirations through dance. That might be gaining confidence to travel by themselves, to wanting to win the next BBC Strictly!
What was the biggest challenge you faced when starting Step Change?
In setting up Step Change Studios I spoke to many professionals with disabilities in the dance sector. They were overwhelmingly open and supportive in their feedback. This helped me anticipate some of the challenges. However, I had not appreciated the demand I would receive from disability organisations and individuals to dance. I wanted to meet this demand but I did not want to compromise on quality. This is when I realised that finding dance teachers with the right skills and values was a significant challenge.
There is a huge shortage of dance teachers who both are able and interested in working with disabled people, especially people with complex needs. In my genre of Latin and Ballroom dance, the established structure can act as a barrier to a more flexible and inclusive approach. I met teachers who were visibly uncomfortable at the suggestion of teaching people with disabilities, and others who just had no interest at all. I was lucky in being approached by a number of fantastic professionals who had heard about what I was doing and wanted to be a part of it. They are all very talented, and dedicated and our participants love dancing with them. Working with like-minded people who share you vision is the most important insight I have gained.
We need more good people and there is a lot of work to do in addressing the exclusive dance culture that exists among some professionals. Key to this is ensuring that organisations that train and qualify dance teachers require inclusive teacher training as mandatory. I would also like to see every dance provider and practitioner proactively promoting dance participation to a more diverse community.
Dance space is also a challenge, particularly accessible and affordable space. We have a great relationship with a few venues but I have had to manage a range of challenges, which have largely stemmed from people’s lack of understanding around access. The more cringe worthy of these is when a venue failed to inform me that their lift was broken despite knowing 10 wheelchair users were arriving, only to offer to carry them down the stairs to the venue.
Although legislation exists around accessible buildings, without enforcement the reality can be very different. Even when I have checked ahead and been assured a space is accessible and has an accessible bathroom, I have arrived to find this is not the case. Over time I have got better at anticipating and addressing these issues. I would like to see more accessible and affordable spaces being made available for community classes, including commercial spaces when not in use. There are so many venues and facilities that could support inclusive dance and contribute to their community through such in-kind support.
What are some of your company's biggest accomplishments?
It depends on what you call ‘big’. Sometimes the biggest rewards are in what might seem like the smallest gains. I regularly think of a child with Autism who was talking part in dance sessions we were delivering at a school. He would stand at the back with his sleeves pulled over his hands and did not like physical contact. By the end of term he was dancing confidently to a Beyonce track, shaking his hips with a smile and partnering with other students. This was a big achievement.
There are so many achievements that I am proud of. I am proud that in less than two years we have supported over 1,500 disabled people to dance, and are working with fantastic national and local partners to bring dance into the lives of children and adults in social care, hospitals, education, and a range of community settings. I was thrilled to produce the UK’s first inclusive ballroom show at Sadler’s Wells and the media and audience reaction. I am hugely proud of the team of Step Change Studios professionals who bring such creativity, passion and commitment to engage people in the way that works for them. I was honoured to recently win the One Dance UK Award for Innovation and the Westminster Active Award for Inclusion, and humbled by the short film ‘Breaking Ballroom’ that MA student Dragana Njegic has made. Lastly – but most importantly, I know the whole Step Change Studios team are most rewarded by the many achievements of all our dance participants.
What's next for Step Change?
We’ve only just started! Sadler’s Wells have invited Step Change Studios to present a new show in June this year. We are working with some great partners to support people to dance and some of our dance groups are working towards their first performance which is exciting. I am engaged in some interesting advocacy work to enable greater diversity in dance and to support more people to be active. In terms of ambitions I would love to tour our show, expand our team to include more excellent teachers so that we can reach more people who just want to dance, and to collaborate more with like-minded partners to provide and present dance that is innovative, engaging, and for everyone.