Step Change Studios Founder Rashmi Becker has been learning about inclusive practice in the U.S. and recently met New York-based ballroom dancer Arkadiy Stepanchuck. Arkadiy was inspired to set up inclusive dance company DuDance after a dancing road trip. He recounts his experience and how his effort to build connections led him to establish his inclusive dance practice.
The Smile Experiment
I started DuDance, a not-for-profit organisation in New York to raise awareness of the power of dance to improve lives. In particular I had two goals: to build connections between people in an increasingly disconnected society – and to make people smile.
My premise: What would happen if you approached a stranger on the street and asked them for a dance? With the support of friends, we created The Smile Experiment, an interactive social experiment designed to explore whether people have an innate desire to connect with each other through play.
The results were outstanding. After walking the streets of San Francisco and asking random people if they would like to learn a basic dance step with us, every person smiled. So we took The Smile Experiment to numerous cities in America including New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Philadelphia. Pittsburgh, Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Portland.
Teaming up with different friends who are dancers in different cities, we engaged thousands of strangers, bringing a smile to every person we came into contact with. Many members of the public who participated commented on how moving they found the experience. We also interviewed people who have improved their lives and the lives of others through dance and shared stories through social media, generating an enthusiastic and supportive response.
The Power of Dance
The positive impact of The Smile Experiment inspired me to develop dance programmes for disabled children and older people who I knew would benefit from the power of dance. Through this work I have continued to learn just how empowering music and dance can be. Our programmes have given children with special needs confidence that has led to improved cognitive and physical capabilities. From developing communication skills, boosting mood, and building physical elasticity and movement, dance is enhancing our participants’ growth, and wellbeing.
Greta is a 15 year old girl who has Rett syndrome, a neurologically degenerative disorder that affects nearly every aspect of her life: her ability to speak, walk, eat, and breathe. Two years ago, Greta’s mother would not have believed that her daughter would be able to dance, let alone perform seven dance routines! Greta continues to astound everyone with her growth and improvement. She learns new dance steps every lesson. Her freedom of movement while dancing is defying preconceptions of the limitations set by Rett syndrome. I believe that dancing is in our nature and our students often find that they can move more freely when dancing.
Our work with older people has been particularly striking. We have worked with over 1,000 older people in care homes and rehabilitative centres with neuro-degenerative conditions. Dance has played a valuable role in helping to relieve pain and discomfort. In every session someone achieves an outcome they never expected such as a movement they thought they could no longer perform.
But movement is only part of the equation. The bigger and more important aspect of dancing is the authentic connections people make.
For younger people in schools the connection dance provides improves relationships with peers and teachers. Dance has helped students manage aggression, and reduce sensitivity and anxiety related to touch, and helped manage nervous tics for example.
Many of the people we support face social isolation but the moment they engage in dance, their whole demeanour changes. Cecilia “Sista” Brown is a wheelchair user and participates in our dance programme. The moment we start dancing to her favourite artist, Stevie Wonder, she sits upright in her chair and her expression and mood enlivens. She is constantly smiling and moving, and her energy is infectious.
In the US over 40 million adults have a disability. My work provides daily evidence that dancing improves wellbeing irrespective of age or ability. I want to use this evidence to help educate and engage more people on the benefits of dance and to grow my inclusive practice so that more communities can experience the positive benefits of dancing.