Why can’t disabled people dance…?


David Toole with Hannah Sampson in "The Enormous Room". © Chris Parkes

Stopgap Dance Company’s Executive Producer Sho Shibata reveals the systemic disadvantages in the dance industry that make it difficult for disabled people to become professional dancers. However, Stopgap has worked for more than a decade to create change, writes Shibata.

If you were asked to imagine what a professional dancer looks like, you’d probably think of a non-disabled person with a certain physique and athleticism, and you would be quite blameless to think so too. Darcy Bussell and Fred Astaire are two famous dancers in modern history, not to mention the many other non-disabled dancers who enter the realms of stardom. But have you ever wondered why there are practically no disabled dancers who hold such a status? Are they simply not as good?

The problem of under representation in any field is often a result of systemic disadvantage, and it’s no different in the dance industry.

The problem of inequality

When a young child wants to learn to dance, the first port of call is the local dance school. At the point of entry, the lessons are generally geared toward participation, so most disabled children are able to take part. However, things get more difficult if a disabled child wants to take dance more seriously.

In order to progress through grassroots training, they would have to enrol to take classes that follow the appropriate syllabus and assessments. These prepare them for advanced training at tertiary level and to enter the industry as professionals. Unfortunately for a disabled child, most syllabi encourage students to aspire toward a traditional concept of an ‘ideal shape’ and assessments are designed to judge how close they can get to these set shapes. But this is particularly unattainable for disabled people who have physiques that are far from the average and many of them feel discouraged from progressing through training because of this. In effect, the existing syllabi and their assessment framework are imposing a barrier for disabled dancers pretty much at the entry level, which then prevents them from continuing on to tertiary level training and entering the industry. In fact, much training at tertiary and industry levels is quite often inaccessible in any case because they tend to lean toward the traditional pedagogical stance.

Some disabled dancers do become professional, but they are often self-taught, having to learn on the job by ad hoc participation in voluntary or small-scale dance projects. Because the training framework used in the workforce pipeline is designed solely with non-disabled dancers in mind professional disabled dancers face a disadvantage and are in short supply. It used to be the case that the industry ignored this inequality and simply claimed that disabled people just didn’t turn out to be great dancers. However, with companies like Stopgap developing exceptional disabled dancers through their training programme, there are very few people who would say that now.

Nadenh Poon in "The Enormous Room". Photo by Chris Parkes.

Solving the inequality

Stopgap Dance Company started off as a group of amateur disabled and non-disabled dancers but after nearly a decade of trial and error, they succeeded in producing a handful of professional disabled dancers. They did this simply by keeping the good bits of what the syllabi offer and reframing the bits that were acting as barriers. They respected the rigour, the pursuit of excellence and the sense of progression that the syllabi offered but rejected the notion of ‘an ideal shape’ by reframing what it means to be a good dancer.

In the business of dance, the ability to use the body for expression is the most important capability a dancer needs, and the skillfulness in which a dancer uses his or her body for expression is quite often referred to as ‘virtuosity’. When you honestly analyse what it means for a dancer to have virtuosity, it becomes quite apparent that it isn’t necessary for him or her to learn to hit certain shapes to self-express. Is it really necessary that a dancer must be able to do the splits to move people? And is it really necessary that a dancer’s legs must be turned out at a certain angle to wow people?

Through a series of reflections like this, it became apparent that virtuosity in a dancer is the ability to use the body as an instrument for self-expression so that he or she can captivate the audience. By reframing a misguided untruth with the truth, the Stopgap team realized that disabled people had just as much potential of being a great dancer as non-disabled people, and they began to develop a rigorous training framework more focused on perfecting individual talent.

The company’s dance productions can now prove that this alternative methodology works. Stopgap’s productions involve disabled dancers who were mostly trained in-house, and the virtuosity on display is adequate enough for theatres around the UK and the world to be more than happy to showcase them to their audiences. Its new work “The Enormous Room” for example, will have its London premiere at Sadler’s Wells’ Lilian Baylis Studio in March this year as part of Stopgap’s spring season tour.

It goes without saying that the production itself has to be of a high standard to be programmed by venues like Sadler’s Wells, and Stopgap has a talented Artistic Director in Lucy Bennett as well as the creative team that surround her. However, it is difficult to achieve artistic excellence without capable dancers.

Sharing the knowledge to tackle systemic inequality

Stopgap now has 20 years of experience in nurturing disabled amateurs into acclaimed professional dancers, and the company has created a professional pathway within its own organizational structure that is inclusive for disabled people. It has provision for grassroots and vocational level training and is a company that performs on international platforms, which proves that inclusive training can get results. The company has effectively created a micro-model of what the industry could look like if the training from grassroots up was fully inclusive. The popularity and respect for performances involving disabled dancers has grown since the success of the London 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony, and Stopgap has been witnessing a steady increase in demand to showcase its productions both in UK and abroad. The demand for disabled dancers is beginning to outstrip the level of supply that the company can physically manage.

All these factors give Stopgap the confidence to engage in a dialogue with teachers and decision-makers in the mainstream institutions for dance training and inspire them to become more inclusive. If the institutions can see that there is a healthy industry demand for disabled performers and that Stopgap’s inclusive training can still produce quality disabled dancers, then there is a good chance that the mainstream institutions will have no reason not to work with the company. If disabled talent had the same level of opportunities as their non-disabled peers, then you never know, there could be a disabled dancer who might just become as famous as Darcy Bussell. And can you imagine what a positive impact that would have on the public perception of disabled people? If the general public got round to revering a disabled person just as much as they revere Darcy, it would be a huge boost for advocating for equal rights for disabled people in other social matters.

A call out to other change makers

Stopgap is attempting to achieve the seemingly impossible. The tradition of dance goes back some hundred odd years, and shifting something as deeply established as this is a big task, particularly as the company has a small team. However, the proof is in the pudding and the company can be more confident than ever before to use hard evidence to instigate change. The company is in fact, making good headway in bringing key institutions on board. Its previous production “Artificial Things” became a compulsory study for GCSE Dance this year, and this is a very good start. The team would love to hear from other organizations that are trying to achieve systemic change in other fields too, as there are bound to be common experiences that we can learn from. We might even be able to collate a series of case studies for dealing with disadvantage too. It might end up becoming a good resource for addressing a wide range of social inequality.

Stopgap Dance Company’s The Enormous Room is coming to Sadler’s Wells on 2nd and 3rd March. See our ‘What’s on’ page for the rest of the tour dates.