Founded as a community dance project in 1995, Stopgap has always had firm roots spreading out to nurture young dancers, both locally from our base in Surrey, and globally through international workshops and residencies. Long ago we recognised one of the key barriers for disabled people to enter the dance industry was that accessible and inclusive training wasn’t available. Where non-disabled children can access all kinds of dance classes, very few of these actively welcome disabled children and have knowledge of working inclusively.
Through youth and community companies, apprenticeships, and teacher training, we seek to provide disabled dancers with these pathways to dance. Whether it be to pursue careers or just to enjoy a weekly dance class, we provide engaging welcoming environments that empower dancers to take ownership of their movement and artistic identity.
In previous blogs we’ve highlighted some of the ways we support dancers in developing their inclusive practice and preparing them for careers in the dance industry, and now we dive deeper into our youth companies. These groups include three youth companies in Farnham, Guildford and Aldershot, community group Sg Troop, three classes as part of Stepping Stones DS, a group in Woking with LinkAble, and we also support associate companies Thrive and This Is Us.
As we approach our annual community dance platform on the 6th of December, a key event in our creative learning calendar, we wanted to shine a light on the communities we nurture year-round. We’re proud to say that some of the dancers in our groups have been with us for over a decade, what is it that keeps them coming along and enjoying their time with us?
What is community and why is it important?
Community is felt as a sense of connectedness, a group of people working together towards the same goals, a unit who support and trust one another; ultimately a community provides a sense of belonging.
Each of our youth groups welcome local disabled and non-disabled young people to explore their interest in dance together. In a conversation with some of our teachers and creative learning team, it was a challenge for everyone to capture in words what can often be an ephemeral experience. Sessions vary from week to week but there is always a sense of joy, friendship, trust and a strong connection between our young people, teachers and volunteers.
Cherie, our community engagement artist shared that for her, community can be subtle;
“Sometimes it’s in the small moments – witnessing people supporting one another during sessions, whether it’s remembering choreography, a tricky part of an exercise, or emotional support if they’ve had a bad day. There is an awareness of each other, there’s friendship and teamwork, support as a whole – not just between participants, but for volunteers and teachers too.”
Emilia, our newest teacher in the creative learning team who has taken on our Aldershot group, reflected how welcomed she felt by the entire company. It can be daunting to start working with a new group but none of our teachers have to work in isolation as we so often team teach, and artists such as Chris Pavia support classes and contribute to the choreographic process. This also models collaborative working to our dancers and that dynamics of support do not just flow in one direction.
An important part of a community is that it enables the perpetual interconnected growth of one another. What makes a session particularly special are moments the teacher can step back and watch people use the tools they’ve learned. This is often shown by peers supporting each other; going through steps in an exercise or section of choreography, relaying the knowledge imparted by the teacher and using it to support fellow dancers. This is always acknowledged and verbally reflected back by the teacher, to ensure we recognise, celebrate and encourage the communal support for one another.
Each individual group within our creative learning programme has their own community, but this knits together across a wider network when we hold half-term dance experience days, summer social events and our annual winter platform. Ensuring our groups feel a part of something bigger is important to us and connecting with members of our professional company gives young dancers role models.
Another important element of our community is making sure we create connections with parents, carers and those who support our young people. This feedback from them serves as a great reminder of why we create a community that doesn’t just stop at those inside the studio.
"Our son loves the sense of belonging and purpose that he gets from going to these dance classes with his friends and peers, as well as the fun and enjoyment of the dance and movement itself.”
"Lovely staff who promote a fun and engaging non judgmental environment."
"Class provides her with an excellent opportunity to meet with peers in a safe environment without me present"
"Excellent for building confidence and peer relationships."
We recognise how vital it is for young disabled people to be surrounded by their peers and given the opportunity to make supportive connections and friendships through our classes. Hearing from participants about exclusionary dance experiences they’ve had externally from Stopgap drives us even harder to ensure that we’re dismantling those barriers. Letting young people know the problem is never with them, but with those who have fixed viewpoints on who can dance and what dance “is”, unwilling to change their ableist attitudes.
How do we create community and continue to nurture it?
Though many of our youth companies have run for a number of years, when recently forming the new youth company in Aldershot our creative learning team reflected that a sense of community isn’t formed overnight. It takes time and investment; we feel the key to enabling community is firstly creating a safe environment.
We begin with openness & inclusion: Everyone is welcome to attend our sessions. No one’s support needs are too much. No experience is required and there are never any expectations placed on people to join in right away!
We create safety through familiarity and routine, each week everyone knows what will happen during the session and keeping the same pattern helps ground everyone and is particularly useful for learning disabled and neurodivergent dancers.
In our sessions there is always time to talk and share, whether this be as part of a check-in at the beginning or at the end with our reflective practice sharing ‘words of the week’. We recognise our dancers as a whole person, not just isolating their experience to their brief time with us in the studio. It’s a joy to share in their achievements and life updates. This also gives teachers time to recognise the mood and energy of the group, as an important aspect of teaching inclusively is the ability to respond to the needs of the group on any given day. By listening we stay in tune, and this allows us to effectively support participants.
It’s not just welcoming people through the door, it’s spending time getting to know how they engage with learning and carefully balancing everyone’s needs. Each person’s unique support needs are met, whether that’s through working one-to-one with a volunteer, through visual and tactile resources, or through communication. And in a time when families with disabled children will be amongst some of those hit the hardest by the cost-of-living crisis, it’s important to recognise not just physical and cognitive barriers to dancing, but financial ones too. We don’t want cost to be a barrier for anyone attending so we actively encourage conversations around how we can support dancers to attend sessions. Thanks to Arts Council England, Children in Need and our other generous funders, we are able to subsidise classes for those who need it.
For many of the teachers in our youth companies it’s not just work. There’s real passion behind what they do and this infuses their teaching. Their continued dedication during the pandemic allowed us to sustain our communities through weekly classes on Zoom. Keeping in touch with everyone during such a difficult time really helped the transition back into in-person activities after nearly two years. Read more about this here in this blog: Dance Education in a Digital Space.
We’re proud of our creative learning team, their work has created a thriving environment in which young dancers are respected, treated equitably and can flourish. This has carefully taken years to establish, as time is one of the most important factors in building inclusive spaces, enabling the community to grow and trust to form. And with this investment in our young people we are able to sustain our communities and witness progressions over time.
Un-limiting Potential: Pathways for futures in dance
We know for many of our participants their dance journey will remain recreational, this holds equal validity, yet they are still given opportunity to develop, as we hold inclusion in equal standing with rigour. It’s often assumed that because it’s community dance there is no desire for challenge, but we defy that.
Our inclusive dance syllabus IRIS, which many of our youth companies follow, provides a framework for developing skills like contact dance, performance, and improvisation. As part of IRIS, our Respond element allows for bespoke training tailored to the interest of the dancer. A parent of a young dancer said ‘it’s great that IRIS offers a pathway to grow and develop – an opportunity to achieve and be recognised as developing artistic talent’. Read more about what IRIS and Respond entails in this blog about Anne’s story: Inclusive Pathways for Young Disabled Creatives. Anne has undertaken Respond with mentor Nicky, and she now attends The Orpheus Centre Trust, a specialist performing arts college!
By investing time and attention in our youth groups, it gives us the opportunity to identify dancers with great potential, and support committed students with aspirations for a career in dance, whether that be performing, choreographing or teaching. A shining example of this is Hannah Sampson, Hannah has Down Syndrome and as a teenager began dancing with our original youth company. They’ve since progressed from work experience with us, to apprentice dancer, to dancer, and now she is a Senior Dance Artist. From international tours and countless performances, to teaching on Seedbed and leading sessions for our online series Home Practice, Hannah has developed into a remarkable dance artist who is successfully establishing their artistic identity. Hannah’s journey attests to the importance of long-term investment in inclusive dance training.
We’re looking forward to our Winter Community Dance Platform as a chance to showcase the brilliant work that everyone puts in week in and week out, and hold a space to celebrate our community through dance.
We are always welcoming new participants to our groups and encourage prospective dancers to come along and try out sessions to see what they think. Please get in touch!
This blog was a joy to write with the wonderful input from teachers Nicky Norton, Cherie Brennan, Emilia Ramsey, Creative Learning Manager Lauren Trim, and Co-Artistic Director Laura Jones.