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Bringing a new vibe to ballroom
Date posted: 08 June 2018
Presented by Step Change Studios, ‘Fusion’, an inclusive ballroom dance showcase with disabled and non-disabled artists, premiered at Sadler’s Wells, in May. Here Rashmi Becker, Step Change Studios producer and founder, blogs for us about dance, diversity, and her drive to push the boundaries of ballroom
Rashmi Becker, Step Change Studios

I’m 10 years old. I play a record on the family record player. My big brother, who has autism and does not speak, hears the music and comes running over. He takes my hands and begins swaying and vocalising to the song. He doesn’t want to stop. He is ecstatic. 

Fast forward: Now I’m all grown up at a ballroom competition. People are spraying fake tan, arguing with their dance partners, and I’m told I need to upgrade my dress. 

I found that my route into inclusive dance was my way back to what I love about dance. It took volunteering at various care homes and community events to be reminded of the sheer, unconditional joy of dancing. As I danced with residents in one care home, I remember the carer of a gentleman with dementia telling me his condition was too severe to participate so he would just watch. Ten minutes later we were dancing together as the same gentleman talked about his amazing career as a surgeon, and how he loved to ballroom dance when he was younger. He asked if I was coming back: ‘I never get to do anything like this; I usually just sit in my room’. 

These words stuck in my mind and similar feedback followed from people with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, and carers, wherever I went. When I came across the Dance Enterprise Ideas Fund just over a year ago, I decided to pitch for a small grant. The result is Step Change Studios. My single focus has been enabling people to dance. I wanted to support people who have never danced to have a go. In just over a year, almost 1,000 children and adults with disabilities have participated in dance with Step Change Studios – many for the first time.  

As well as dance being an end in itself, I am continuously motivated by its wider impact. I regularly collect feedback from dance participants and the public who come into contact with our work. Consistently people say that dance improves their confidence, creativity, communication, coordination, connections and friendships, health and wellbeing. 

Having seen many disabled people isolated and segregated, I have been keen to provide opportunities for disabled and non-disabled people to dance together, and this is something people have said is important to them. Although there may be specialist skills and needs, such as learning wheelchair dance technique, people really value being able to learn from, and support each other. The social value of dance in bringing people of different ages and abilities together should never be underestimated. 

Inclusive dance as mainstream

Much of my work is focused on community dance but developing professional dance is also critical to building a diverse dance sector. This is why I conceived ‘Fusion’, supported by Sadler’s Wells, Arts Council England, and Dance Enterprise Ideas Fund. 

Fusion brought together 20 artists from different dance backgrounds. My aims were to encourage creative collaboration and produce beautiful, powerful performance; to entertain, engage and inspire audiences; and to challenge our ideas about Latin and ballroom dance and dancers. I knew that if people could just see high quality inclusive dance, its place in mainstream dance would become obvious. 

During the post-show audience discussion, I was asked, “What next?” I would love to tour ‘Fusion’, produce new work and develop further collaborations and opportunities so that we can open up dance to more people at every level. That spirit of collaboration I have experienced amongst colleagues is so important if we are to embed inclusive dance into mainstream practice. I would like to see more dance teachers, programmers, producers, and venues integrating disability and diversity into every-day practice.
I get a strong sense that more people out there want to develop inclusive practice. What I have noticed is that there are always reasons not to do something: time, resources, experience, risk, confidence. What I have also found is that taking that first step on your own might be unnerving, but you are not alone for long. 

Rashmi Becker
Step Change Studios

Click this link to watch a film trailer for Fusion (Produced by David Kaplowitz)

Banner photo shows Fusion. Photography by Stephen Wright