A year of learning

International Day of Disabled People 2023


For International Day of Disabled people on the 3rd of December, we’ve gathered reflections from some of our artists and staff to hear more about what they’ve learned, discovered and experienced over the past year. From developments in audio description to stepping out into solo choreography, find out what’s kept our team fed and continuously thinking about inclusion…

Hannah Sampson - Senior Dance Artist

Two images side by side of Hannah Sampson.

Two images side by side. Image 1 is a screenshot from Stopgap's performance at the Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance, Hannah - a petite white person with Down syndrome stands strong within a spotlight, other dancers behind in their own spotlights. Image 2 is Hannah in conversation with a dancer from Propeller Dance in Canada, the dancer on the right is a wheelchair user and they wear a dark blue suit and bowtie.

This year, I’ve been working on a number of projects such as our new indoor work Lived Fiction, choreographing a solo piece called ‘RED A!’, co-choreographing a piece with Lucy Bennett and Propeller Dance Company in Canada, the BBC Remembrance Day Festival, and a one-off interview with BOTH Dance Classes with Amy Butler. 

I’ve learnt a lot throughout this year working on myself and with Lucy choreographically for the company and as a soloist. My biggest accomplishment this year has been setting up a professional Instagram account where I’m starting to show my love for inclusion and diversity in the Arts Industry as a Senior Dance Artist.

Lily Norton - Content & Access Artist

Lily Norton mid-speech on a dark stage.

Lily Norton mid-speech on a dark stage. Lily is a white person in their mid-twenties, they have brown hair tied up and they wear a dark pinstriped suit, white shirt and paisley tie. Their hands gesturing as they speak, they face to the left, behind them blurred in the background are two microphones on stands.

This year has absolutely flown by! It’s been so full of learning and challenge, which is what I thrive on to keep me engaged and invested in my work. Alongside working on Lived Fiction with an incredible group of artists and collaborators, I’ve also relished the opportunity to work more as an audio describer. Describing for Chris Pavia’s Echoes Within the Earth was a great opportunity to bring embedded audio description to an outdoor space in Greenwich Park. And describing for New Adventures with their Doorstep Duet’s in a local library was a new but exciting opportunity – it was an absolute joy to speak with a blind audience member afterwards and hear their impression of my AD and how much they enjoyed it (and not to blow my own trumpet, but they said it was better than the AD for dance they’ve experienced in the West End!!). I’m constantly learning more about how audio description can evolve for dance, particularly contemporary dance, and I’m grateful to the blind and visually impaired folks I’ve come into contact with, who so generously share their lived experiences and practices. 

In 2023 I’ve learnt more about my working processes as an autistic person, and the juggling act of artistic compromises when it comes to embedding access. I’ve gained confidence in my speaking and facilitation skills, really relishing the opportunity to share inclusive best practices with companies and teams who are at different points in their journeys with access and inclusion. Next year I’m excited to perform as part of Lived Fiction and really can’t wait for audiences to experience the work, that’s when I feel like it’ll truly come alive.

Cherie Brennan - Community Engagement Artist

A large group photo

A joyful large group photo of artists that were part of the Oriente Occidente exchange workshops. Cherie sits front and centre throwing a cheeky peace sign to the camera, she's a white woman wearing a grey vest and dark trousers. Laura Jones is right behind Cherie, Laura is white, she's a manual wheelchair user, she wears a blue Stopgap t-shirt.

This March 2023 concluded a year’s journey of international collaboration with Oriente Occidiente which consisted of four trips to Italy, seven different cities and a total of thirty-four workshops. The workshops were designed to support practitioners and provide them with training tools to develop more inclusive practices. This was my first ever time co-delivering teacher training abroad, with an intense schedule, many variables to consider and my imposter syndrome sky high…. I was so grateful to be working alongside Laura Jones. 

I have learnt an incredible amount from this project and especially from Laura, her wealth of knowledge and experience is second to none. Together we found our groove, leant on each other when needed, adjusted our planning and teaching for each group and invented new games on the spot! Slowly throughout the project I found my confidence and ownership over the parts I was delivering. I began to acknowledge that with my lived experiences and ten years of working within Stopgap, especially within our community work, I have an abundance of experience that the participants can learn from. This project was a massive undertaking and I feel a real sense of achievement and personal growth. I now feel like I am more at ease with delivering teacher training and enter into the next year knowing that I can deliver and that it’s okay to take the space. 

Emily Lue-Fong - Dance Artist

Two images featuring Emily Lue-Fong side by side

Two images featuring Emily side by side. Image 1 is from an outdoor performance of Frock, Emily sits astride Christian's shoulder, her arms folded and laying atop of Christian's head. Emily is a young east Asian person with bob-length dark hair, she wears a dark suit jacket and checkered trousers. Christian is a tall white man with short dark hair, he wears a light pink sweater top and skirt. Image 2 is from a workshop - Emily, Christian and Mo sit as part of a circle of artists in conversation.

This year I have been fortunate to work on many exciting and varied projects. From larger scale events such as consulting on Eurovision and performing at the Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance to supporting and co-choreographing the future generations of dancers and makers has been some of my highlights and successes. Branching out, something new I’ve learnt has been how to project manage which organisationally I enjoy!

One person who I have witnessed their passion for representation in the media is our very own Mo. I have been able to work with Mo more closely this year and her campaigns, advocacy and questions are insightful and challenge the narrative of Disabled people within the industry. 

Nicky Norton - Dance Teacher

Nicky Norton during a dance workshop.

Nicky Norton during a workshop with a joyful smile on her face, side on to the camera she throws both hands up as if about to catch something. Nicky is an older white woman with long brown and silvery hair tied in two long plaits, she wears a royal blue jumper and a black vest over top. A young person stands in the background.

Many years ago there was a brand of clothing I used to wear called No Fear. I mostly wore their t-shirts. One in particular that read “The Older I get, the better I was.” I would however like to get one these days which said “The Older I get, the more I want to learn.” Doesn’t have quite the natty flow of the original, but sums up my continuing development and curiosity as a creative and in particular my work as an inclusive dance teacher.

When you take a moment to sit down and consider, as I am doing now, I find it hard to put into words the joy I find in my work and the connections I make with those I teach. Experience has enabled me to find a confidence in my delivery that allows flexibility and a two-way street. I am open to discovery and change. And in these past couple of years, I have had the pleasure to work with many unique beings that have made me curious to understand their worlds more and how I can best support them. I sometimes catch myself observing those I am teaching and feel such a deep sense of happiness that I have enabled a little spark of creativity to appear, a smile and a laugh to emerge or a moment of understanding to happen. How lucky am I?

Christian Brinklow - Senior Dance Artist & Artist Development

This year has been jam packed with so many exciting projects. Some personal highlights have been creating on Dance East CAT, performing at the festival of remembrance and a residency in Italy for Nadenh’s REFLECTIONS. I also feel like my confidence has grown this year which has really changed and developed my practice.  I would like acknowledge and appreciate the amazing 8 years I have danced with Nadenh. From performing together, teaching and traveling, it’s the biggest pleasure watching his artistry evolve!

Chris Pavia - Resident Choreographer and Senior Dance Artist

Two images of Chris Pavia side by side

Two images of Chris Pavia side by side. Image 1 is Chris holding a large pile of autumn leaves in his hand as he stands in a green clearing. Chris is a white man with Down syndrome, he has short brown hair and wears a red t-shirt with a jumper tied round his waist. Image 2 is a group photo from a trip to Poland, the group surround a tree and Chris is of course stood in the tree.

My biggest highlight this year was our trip to Poland in September. It was really nice to work with lots of the Stopgap team. It was an honour to take Echoes Within the Earth internationally, being on tour and abroad again feels like when I was in the company as a dancer. And also a big highlight was teaching the workshops in Poland and teaching internationally. This was a highlight of my career. It was amazing working with Abbie and Jonathan and new dancer Luis on Echoes. Luis did a fantastic job and helped a lot with the process of getting Echoes ready for Greenwich + Docklands International Festival.  

Another highlight is teaching workshops this year. It’s great to teach Echoes workshops in schools and colleges, like Orpheus that we did. I really enjoy helping other people and the students to be more creative and be inspired and see what they can do. It helps me to also see what I can do and push my own work and seeing other people’s creativity helps me. I really enjoy teaching these workshops to encourage young people. I enjoy inspiring others and sharing my work with them to inspire the younger generation. 

Belinda Preston - Creative Learning Manager

Belinda Preston.

A smiling headshot of Belinda as she works at her laptop. Belinda is a white woman with a brown and blonde chin length bob, she wears a warm smile and a grey jacket over a dark top.

In my first year of working at Stopgap as Creative Learning Manager, I have learnt so many things. One of the most important however, is to do with how I may have used language in the past without thinking about its loaded meaning. There can be these negative connotations that can be associated with words which I was just often naively oblivious to. For example, things like, “I’m having a crazy day” or “that was mental”. Since opening up my mind to how I use language, I’ve been able to make small adjustments to the choice of words I use, and hopefully in turn, no longer contribute to the stigma that words like this can have. Of course, I’m not perfect and I still make mistakes or say the wrong thing occasionally. 

What working here at Stopgap has taught me though, is that that’s human, and ok. As long as we are able to have an open and honest conversation, and continue to learn each day how to have an inclusive mindset, then we’re making progress. I learn something new each week in my role and one of my biggest achievements this year has therefore been to reflect on those learnings and apply them to my life, not just at work but in my everyday life too. 

Suzie Birchwood - Co-Chair of our Board of Trustees

A group photo of Disabled and non-disabled young people and adults.

A group of Disabled and non-disabled young people and adults involved in a project with Unify Dance Festival. Suzie, a white Disabled woman in her manual wheelchair is part of the group, she smiles and puts her arm around Cherie. Everyone wears colourful raincoats.

This year has been a transformative journey of rediscovery for me. After a whirlwind period that involved raising my three wonderful boys, welcoming my father (and his beloved dog!) into our home, overseeing a house renovation, and going through two house moves, I am now returning to work. Throughout it all, I have realised that no matter what life throws at me, the flame of curiosity and passion for my career never truly extinguishes.

At the start of the year, I began exploring opportunities to reignite my creative spirit. Reaching out to trusted colleagues, I wanted to find ways to continue contributing as a dancer and educator. Initially, I intended to start with a small project to ease back into the working world. To my surprise, I found myself embracing contracts with the esteemed Marc Brew in Scotland, engaging in a research and development phase of a show with LAS Theatre, and working on an exciting community festival with Stopgap. Additionally, I happily accepted multiple consulting and mentoring contracts, focusing on Universal Design for various companies and individuals. I also took tremendous pride in becoming a school governor for my sons’ school and taking on the co-chair role for Stopgap Dance Company.

This delightful mix of performance work and educational endeavours has been incredibly fulfilling. It has not only reignited my creativity but also confirmed my passion for teaching and inspiring others. The harmonious blend of these two aspects of my professional life has created a truly rewarding balance.

Diving back into work after a hiatus comes with its own set of challenges. Restoring confidence, finding practical solutions to balance family life, and prioritising a healthy work-life balance are ongoing processes. As I navigate the roles of a wife, mother, carer, and professional, I’ve quickly learned the importance of prioritisation and efficient time management.