Dance Education in a Digital Space


Content and Access Artist Lily sat down with practitioners from our Creative Learning Team to discuss readjusting back into the dance studio with their respective community companies; giving space to process the pandemic’s impact on their teaching practice and consider the digitalisation of dance education.

Listen to an audio version of this blog read by Lily...

Since our inception, Stopgap has committed to removing barriers to dance for young disabled people, leading to a busy and thriving Creative Learning programme that extends wide into the community. A real challenge to this commitment came when the pandemic emerged in 2020, creating an immovable barrier to dancing together. Across previous blogs we’ve documented our journey to adapting to work online, and now as the world shifts again, we reflect on the hybrid of online and in-person dance education.

Informed by discussion with our dance practitioners we share perspectives on returning to in-person dance education, with anecdotes from our Youth and Community groups. We consider the mix of online and in-person sessions and how a continuation of dance education in a digital space can support access to dance. Reflecting on the rich learning experiences of the past couple years, we share how it’s informed our teacher’s practices and how they approach their wellbeing.

Black and white image of youth group dancers moving in the studio

A group of dancers travel towards the camera across the wooden floor of a studio with brick walls and dark ceiling beams.

Getting back in the studio – A cautious but joyous return

Like many other dance organisations, Stopgap’s creative learning activities shifted almost entirely online throughout the pandemic. Zoom became the home for regular dance classes, and we consistently posted sessions and creative tasks on Facebook, trying all we could to support our communities online.  But once the strict Covid restrictions began to be eased over the summer, our programme of creative learning steadily expanded. Most of our regular groups made a gradual and staggered return to working in person from September onwards.

One of the Seven Principles for an inclusive recovery state that ‘disabled people should be consulted when organisations develop bespoke operating or re-opening plans’ (Find We Shall Not Be Removed’s Seven Principles here). At each stage of re-opening we consulted with participants and their parents and carers, ensuring we respected peoples wishes and answered concerns. We provided clear and accurate info about Covid-19 measures to enable people to assess their own levels of risk, and within our capacity we adapted to specific enquiries and requests. We’re continuing to do this as we head into winter, reassuring disabled and clinically vulnerable participants that our spaces are safe and considerate of everyone’s health. Something we believe will remain part of best practice in facilitating inclusive spaces for a long time to come.

Nicky leans on a ballet barre, her image is reflected to us in the mirror

Peeking at herself in a mirror, Nicky smiles as she presses her hands against a ballet barre, another wooden barre crosses above her head. Nicky is white woman, her dark brown hair up in a bun, she wears a pale aqua blue long sleeved top.

Despite new procedures and guidelines – our groups bounced back into the studio and their return was as Nicky Norton, who runs our Guildford Youth Dance Company and Stepping Stones, says “Joyous, absolutely wonderful! I burst into tears…”. The community fostered in our groups remained solid over the lockdown and was refreshed upon our return. As much as being online gave dancers an opportunity to keep moving and stay connected with Stopgap, in inclusive classes the importance of physical connection and facilitated physical spaces is key.

“It became very apparent very quickly, the impact that it had on everyone’s wellbeing, being able to be together again” says Christian Brinklow, who runs our adult community group Troop. On returning to in person classes you are reminded of the social benefit of community dance, with space available for chatting and connecting one-to-one and in smaller groups. On video calls in larger groups, the careful facilitation of conversations with muting and unmuting so you don’t speak over each other means that relaxed free flowing discussions are often impossible.

When speaking to Jenny, a disabled dancer in Troop who uses a power wheelchair, I was thrilled to hear just how happy she was to be back to in person sessions. “It’s just easier”, Jenny mentioned to me, when referencing things like communication, interacting with people, and creating movement translations. For Jenny, interacting with a laptop and using platforms like Zoom is a challenge for her mobility and limits the independence she has in sessions. Though Zoom and other social platforms make dance classes available in a wider sense, it’s important to recognise barriers that potentially exclude people and navigate them accordingly. This is not to say one format is better than the other, there is value in both online and in person sessions – accessibility needs to be considered and continually a part of the conversation.

For Troop this term, Christian has trialled hybrid working with participants both in the studio and online. Allowing us to keep in contact with dancers living in other parts of the country and other parts of the world. This also allows dancers to join the session from home when things like travel and accessing in person aren’t possible (for example the recent petrol shortage in the UK). It gives disabled dancers the option to still take part in class when energy is low, conserving the energy normally exerted on travelling to class and instead using it to enjoy dancing. Though for Christian it takes an extra level of focus to multi-task across physical and digital space, he’s facilitated it with care and deliberation. It’s also led to our annual community Winter Platform including both live performance and recorded film, further enabling groups and participants to contribute.

There is an important consideration to be made moving forward about balancing an online presence with in-person sessions. We’re committed to providing quality dance education in both realms, but most importantly ensuring they are fit for purpose – meaning that we must tailor the teaching and session content to what works online.

Though we’ve returned to more in person activity, as an industry we cannot remove all the online opportunities that were available during the pandemic and neglect the communities that needed to access the arts from their own spaces way before Covid. The pandemic shone a light on inequalities for disabled people, so it is important that the light does not get turned off and issues ignored.

Christian and Chris sit on the dance studio floor

During a candid studio moment, Christian and Chris sit together as they listen to other dancers around them in a circle. Christian looks across the circle to another person in the foreground. Chris leans against Christian with a hand on his shoulder.

There is still a necessity for online sessions

It makes dance more available to marginalised audiences, going a small way to equalise access to art and culture. Whether it be education or performance, increasing the opportunities for people to connect with art online enables a wider audience to experience dance when they might not have previously done in person. For example, there are multiple barriers to dance education: environmental barriers such as proximity to an accessible studio, financial barriers such as travel and attendance costs, numerous other social and organisational barriers.

There is much more financial accessibility when there are a wide array of free to view online classes – making fitness, yoga, dance more available. Getting to London for a professional class is so expensive and inaccessible for many, so finding an inclusive contemporary dance workshop to attend online is ideal. However, it’s important to mention that for a lot of artists and organisations, producing free educational or artistic content for audiences without adequate funding and support isn’t possible. So moving forward, the cultural sector needs to consider digital output that is both economically viable for artists and financially accessible to audiences.

Being online enables cross-cultural collaboration, connecting people across the world who would likely never be in the same room.

To be able to dance from home with no one watching can be great for neurodivergent people, especially when you don’t even need to have your camera on! There is also less pressure for those new to dance to have a chance to try it out without fear.

For many disabled people, especially neurodivergent and chronically ill folks, you expend so much effort and time getting out of the house, travelling, adjusting to ableist environments, repeatedly considering all the alternative outcomes for your day when assessing your levels of energy and health; all of this often overshadows the activity itself and leaves you depleted for the following days. To be able to attend and participate in activities from home in a familiar space where you can set up as you need to and don’t have to travel is so valuable to many.

And, for those whom Covid-19 is a real, immediate threat to their health and have been forgotten about by many in reopening plans, it provides a safe way to stay invested in their dance practice at home. In future I hope that more online classes are made more accessible with a real consideration for Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people.

Christian dancing in the studio wearing a bright blue t-shirt

In a blue walled studio, Christian leans back mid-movement, his head pulled back, chest arched and eyes up to the ceiling. He is white with dark short hair, he wears a blue sports t-shirt. Behind blurred in the background, standing and wheelchair dancers observe.

Creating Quality Online Content – Our learnings

Though the future of digital content in the arts and culture sector is still uncertain, it’s clear that many participants and audiences still have a desire to participate digitally. So, what advice do our teachers have for those willing to commit to creating online educational content in the future?

“One of the key changes for my teaching was fine-tuning language and the precision of my instructions, when working online I needed to convey information through only my voice and 2-D body on screen.” Says Nicky, who alongside our Youth Companies, supports a young disabled dancer through a bespoke learning experience combining professional practice and our IRIS Respond level with a Bronze, and now Silver Arts Award – the bronze Arts Award being led nearly entirely online.

Whereas in a physical space you can work side by side with participants, demonstrating movements and gently guiding their bodies in space – on zoom you don’t have the luxury of anything tactile and dimensional to help dancers understand. Add in things like dodgy internet connection and pixelated screens, often teachers needed to rely on their voice to teach. This helped them to focus on the most important elements of their exercises and tasks, which then informed the descriptive yet open language they’d use.

If you’d like to learn more about open language when teaching exercises, Christian put together a blog about the teaching tool ‘F.OL.D.S’ (Find it here: Teaching Tools)

Over the lockdown we collated a lot of other resources, such as this blog with tips and tricks for teaching and learning online.

In the case of our live-streamed Facebook sessions, teachers couldn’t view participants as they danced. Which meant instructions had to be clear and open, and we repeated similar structures each week which allowed familiarity. Teachers utilised objects found around the house and pieces of furniture to help support exercises and inspire creative tasks. As participants were joining from home – often siblings, parents and carers would pop in and out of Zoom, saying hello and even sometimes joining in. These tender familial moments of connection and joy are something you don’t often get to witness during in-person sessions.

Alongside developing tips and tricks for making Zoom classes an inclusive space, it seems that time, patience and creating a supportive online space was just as important. Christian mentioned that something he’s taking forward into physical classes is “letting things take the time they need”; when working inclusively this is a principle to stick by!

For Cherie Brennan, who runs our Farnham Youth Company and Thrive an educational programme for vulnerable young people, she noted the importance of “having the opportunity to check in – even that moment to just say ‘How are you?’”.  For many, life was significantly different and having a safe space to talk and share was key to wellbeing. It was a delicate balance to both acknowledge everyone’s collective experience of the pandemic but also provide a distraction and opportunity to escape.

Cherie in a peaceful moment of partner dance

Cherie, a white woman with brown hair, sits with legs extended along the floor and gently reaches down to cradle another dancer’s head as they lay with eyes closed. She wears her long hair in a ponytail, a burgundy vest top and light brown trousers with a black and white stripe along the side.

Growing through change

Not to diminish the joy felt at our return, we also reflected on the mental and physical impact of the past years both on teachers and participants. According to One Dance UK in their latest report on dance education in the UK, ‘81% of educators reported their student’s mental wellbeing had declined. [And] 63% of educators state their own mental wellbeing had declined.’ (Find One Dance UK’s report here)

The threat of chronic exhaustion triggered by the pandemic is very real, in particular for teachers, health care and key workers. How strenuous it is to process the past few months whilst also moving through the challenges of the present. It’s really taught us as a company to prioritise mental health and the need for rest and removal of pressure. This isn’t a perfected process, it’s ongoing, and we’re aware that the effects will still echo for years to come.

The isolation of lockdown, though challenging, gave people the opportunity to reflect inwards. For Nicky it gave time to “re-evaluate what I do and how I do it, honestly reflect on what I enjoy and ultimately, appreciate myself”. This then meant that Nicky could prioritise her workload moving forward and develop a healthier work and life balance.

For Cherie she prioritised self-care and nourishing her own practice:

“We love what we do and we love working with our young people, but if we don’t take care of ourselves, then we can’t be the best we can for them. I think that’s definitely something I’m trying to get better at … I have to nurture myself in order to be a better facilitator for our young people”.

It is essential that mental wellbeing be prioritised during such a uniquely challenging time. As is noted in the report by One Dance UK “no one has prior experience of recovering from a global pandemic, where many have lost loved ones and endured unexpected changes to their lives and future plans.”

Final words

I’m sure, like me, if you hear someone use the word ‘unprecedented’ one more time, your head might spontaneously combust – but as overused as it is, it’s pretty fitting. Perfect to describe something never experienced before on such a scale. For me, after a new experience I find it a real source of wisdom to reflect with one another. Not only do you have space to express and decompress, but you also get the opportunity to see just how much has been achieved. That is certainly my experience spending time with three of Stopgap’s skilled, knowledgeable, and wonderfully humble teachers. They’ve helped pioneer our approaches to online and hybridised inclusive dance education, keeping young disabled people dancing throughout a global pandemic.

To fellow teachers and learners alike, Cherie, Christian and Nicky leave you with these words of wisdom…

“Trust in your knowledge and keep your curiosity” – Nicky

“Be unapologetically yourself – your young people will get so much more from this than you’ll ever realise” – Cherie

“Invest in yourself and your practice, and get excited by what you are doing” – Christian