With support from Arts Council England, the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, and the Knight Foundation (among others), Step Change Studios represented UK inclusive dance at a festival of physically integrated dance in the US. This was Step Change Studios’ first international project since it was established two years ago. Lauren Russell, who is a dancer from Leicester and part of the team, shares her impressions and experience with DAO.
My Professional Debut
I first heard of Step Change Studios in 2018 through media coverage of their London show at Sadler’s Wells: ‘Fusion’. I knew this was something I’d like to be a part of, so I contacted Rashmi Becker, the founder, to ask about applying for their next production ‘Fairy Tales’ in 2019. We met in person a few weeks later to talk through the details of the project and what would be expected of me.
I was nervous about learning a new dance style but found the choreographers and other dancers in the show very supportive. Making my professional debut at Sadler’s Wells among an inclusive cast was an uplifting experience. It gave me hope as an aspiring dancer, that there are opportunities for disabled people within the sector.
Shortly after Fairy Tales, Rashmi invited me to be part of a UK-US collaboration, representing Step Change Studios at an international festival and conference entitled ‘Forward Motion’. There were two parts to the project: two US dancers would come to the UK for a week and work with us to create a short performance piece for the National Theatre; then 6 dancers from Step Change Studios would travel to the US to perform, take part in a panel debate, and teach an inclusive dance workshop.
This sounded like an incredible opportunity to work with US dancers and to take in the wider conference experience, as well as performing. My decision wasn’t without apprehension, however. I had never flown long haul or been so far from home without family support. Most wheelchair users will experience some level of anxiety when all the other passengers disembark the plane and you are left on board, waiting and hoping that someone will bring your chair, undamaged, back to you. This concern was heightened as I can’t dance without my wheels! When it came to travelling to the US I needn’t have worried. Pre-booked airport assistance went smoothly and my nerves were eased as I was seated with fellow dancer and wheelchair user Laura for the flight.
Straight into Rehearsal
The day after we arrived, we got straight into rehearsals. We practised our collaborative piece with U.S. dancers Dwayne and Katie, who were as friendly and professional as they had been in London. Despite not having all been together since we performed in London almost two months earlier, the choreography was still in our collective memory.
In the evening we met the U.S. dancers in the festival through an improvisation workshop. I’m not especially confident speaking to new people but relaxed when we started dancing together. I enjoyed seeing how the different dancers moved and interacted and felt like I belonged in the space.
The following day the Step Change Studios team rehearsed pieces from our show Fairy Tales which we were presenting in the state auditorium. This was the largest stage many of us had ever danced on so we spent time ensuring we made full use of the space. I was excited to be on the stage and was already looking forward to performing to a live audience.
Comparing Experience: Panel Debate
Immediately after our rehearsals, we travelled to another venue where Rashmi participated in a panel debate exploring the UK and US experience of inclusive dance. It was clear from the discussion that there are many different opinions within the realm of integrated dance.
One comment from a US-based artist on the panel which I found striking was the idea that non- disabled dancers should have special training before working with disabled artists. I can see that in some cases this may be beneficial, but personally feel that no amount of training is more important than mindset. One of our Step Change Studios dancers, Joshua was very open about the fact that he had not previously worked with (or been trained to work with) disabled people. Yet he was the perfect fit with our team, offering support, while recognising when it was not needed. There was no better example of this than when the whole Step Change Studios team spent a morning at the beach. We were able to access beach wheelchairs which meant we could all get onto the beach and with Josh’s support, into the sea.
After the debate, we switched gear and performed our UK-US collaborative dance piece. I was pleased to revisit the piece. I was more confident with the choreography second time around, so I could focus on the characterisation.
Bringing Ballroom to the Inclusive Dance Scene
The following evening we presented ballroom and Latin dance highlights from ‘Fairy Tales’. Our work was very different to work being shown by other dance companies at the festival, which were all contemporary dance pieces. Warming up on stage before the show, I looked around at my fellow dancers and felt proud to be a part of such a diverse and inclusive team. Having been choreographed by another wheelchair dancer, my duet with Laura flowed well and I enjoyed performing it again.
Her Majesty’s Consul General, Nicolette Brent MBE, met with us before the show and came back stage afterwards to tell us how much she enjoyed the performance, which was encouraging for the whole team.
On our final day, the Step Change Studios team participated in an inclusive Ballroom workshop led by team member Pawel (a champion ballroom dancer) and Rashmi. I appreciated being surrounded by a range of people keen to learn more about working inclusively.
It was good to see steps being taught by a wheelchair dancer and then translated for standing dancers rather than the other way around. Participants were open to partnering disabled dancers and working through the steps and phrases together. Several people asked about the design of my chair and I showed them how simple it is to alter the camber of the wheels and how I use the anti-tip wheel at the back to spin on.
Learning and Developing
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the U.S. One huge advantage of a festival like this was bringing people together who have a shared interest and passion for dance with the focus on what each artist can bring regardless of any physical limitation. Not only did I gain valuable performance experience, I also left with a greater understanding of the inclusive sector internationally and renewed confidence in my own abilities. The experience helped me to appreciate how lucky we are in the UK to have such a supportive, inclusive network that is relatively close to each other in proximity.