Our Executive Producer, Sho Shibata, writes about what we learned from sustaining inclusive dance classes during a pandemic…
Here is an audio version of this blog:
Being able to connect through digital platforms during the pandemic is a blessing, but these platforms brought particular access challenges for an inclusive organisation like Stopgap. In this first of a new series of blogs created to share our experience in developing and applying inclusive methods with the sector and beyond, our Executive Producer, Sho Shibata, writes about what we learned from sustaining inclusive dance classes during a pandemic.
Part 1: Teaching Dance
When the Covid-19 pandemic arrived on our shores and national lockdown was declared, there was a huge collective sense of loss and disorientation in the performing arts sector. Being able to connect through digital platforms was a blessing, but these platforms brought particular access challenges for an inclusive organisation like Stopgap. Like everyone else, we are in a perpetual process of making further improvements, but we wanted to share our discovery so far today in conjunction with what would have been Disabled Access Day (www.disabledaccessday.com/about/), which had to be cancelled this year due to the pandemic.
Achieving full inclusivity on digital platforms during the pandemic has been and will continue to be difficult, but facing this front-on enabled Stopgap to dig even deeper into our process of breaking down barriers. It has taught us an enormous amount about what everyone could do to make dance more inclusive in the future.
Last month, the company came together collectively to reflect on our digital journey of the last 12 months, and this blog sheds some light on how we ‘made digital work’ by focusing on our efforts on sustaining our dance classes during the pandemic. We will describe our approach to producing work in a future blog.
The Challenges of Online Teaching
Like everyone else, one of the first things we did in lockdown was to move dance classes to digital platforms. We felt it was important to develop a digital and remote way of sustaining our dancers’ practice and began utilising Zoom, which soon revealed its limits. Stopgap as an organisation has a wide range of individuals: Some have learning disabilities; some are autistic; some are physically disabled and some are not disabled. Our method of providing access has always been about understanding each individual’s preferences and needs and finding the right balance of inclusivity in delivering classes.
In the context of dance classes, for example, the rule of thumb is to use open and inclusive language to give instructions, but the usage of excessively open language could be confusing for those whose learning styles require greater specificity. But of course, being too specific could result in the class becoming non-inclusive. In face-to-face teaching, the company had processes in place that responded to these varying preferences within the flow of any given class, but Zoom posed us with a particular difficulty in communication:
- Zoom is not conducive for facilitating smooth and subtle dialogue within group sessions
- Zoom sessions of 1 hour+ are exhausting for all, so the classes needed to become short and succinct, putting time pressure on how much talking the class leader could do
These challenges meant that the nuances of our pre-pandemic inclusive methodologies had to be re-examined. In regard to dance classes, the leaders had to develop a more efficient format of language use that struck the right balance. They had to get even better at giving instructions that had enough specificity but at the same time were explicit enough about being open to varying degrees of outcomes.
As we began to do more of these sessions, we expanded our offer to a wider range of people outside of the company, and we began streaming recorded versions of the classes online so that more people could access our classes at their own convenience. The pandemic was affecting different people in different ways, so widening opportunities to engage in dance classes felt like a useful step to make for the industry. We have since made a commitment to releasing these class videos on weekly basis in the form of Home Practice (Find Home Practice on YouTube here), which has created an opportunity for us to reflect even further on our inclusive methodologies.
Making pre-recorded classes available on public online platforms meant that we now no longer had any idea of who was accessing our classes or what their preferences were. This has perhaps been the most significant stimulus for Stopgap. Pre-pandemic, our inclusive methodology had been focused on knowing who was in the studio and ensuring that the content and delivery could match their access preferences. In our current team, we don’t have any dancers who are blind or visually impaired for example, so our day-to-day classes had not always considered using audio description. However, releasing pre-recorded classes online meant that we had to expand our process of access provision to cater for all possible preferences.
It would have been easy to go through the motions and tick-box access provisions, but that has never been our process of inclusion. Providing access has always been about the preference analysis of particular individuals and responding to it. This is because plastering on access provision as an afterthought has the tendency to render the programme not fit-for-purpose.
For example, it’s debatable how useful it is for visually impaired dancers to have an audio described version of a dance class when the class leader is continuously speaking whilst demonstrating, and captioning instructions for D/deaf dancers is not particularly usable if the teacher is speaking the instructions while the participants are copying floor exercises.
The process of making dance classes inclusive has to be done during the process of each exercise being made, and the challenge of online delivery is to anticipate an array of access preferences of prospective participants who may come across our sessions months after publication. Getting this right takes a considerable amount of care and investment but paying due attention to this has greatly improved our dancers’ teaching skills.
Home Practice now involves each class leader trialling their exercises to a cohort of their peers within and outside of Stopgap (we invest in external dancers coming in with specific access needs that our core team lack). The peer group then give feedback as a part of the leaders’ planning stage before them going into the studio for filming. This gives us the opportunity to analyse access preferences from different perspectives while also discussing intended outcome for class takers. As Home Practice videos are released on a weekly basis, this trial session takes place regularly. Home Practice is only in its second season since its launch last autumn and there are still many more investigations to be done, but this level of analysis has already improved our dancers’ teaching skills and how we go about imagining how different people engage with our digital output.
Here’s a little selection of our Home Practice classes and workshops
Ultimately, we have collectively assumed a new ambition for our teaching practice, which is captured by Lucy’s previous blog in which she states:
“What considerate facilitators we will be when we are patient enough to prepare learners by sharing a full exercise with audio description, when we can offer clear counts for movement with playful sounds for cues, when we can demonstrate with exactness body specific movement whilst using perfectly descriptive open language simultaneously. What nurturing dance teachers we will be when we can feel comfortable enough to give fair feedback to all our dancers – whilst finding time to share all the positivity of developing one’s own dance style.”
Although we have high ambitions for digital inclusivity, we are also realistic. Making everything accessible to everyone is not always possible. What is possible, though, is to strike a balance within a particular programme, so that taken as a whole it can have universal appeal. Within Home Practice, for example, we are committed to having a series of audio classes specifically created with blind and visually impaired dancers in mind. These classes involve a teacher speaking instructions in a way that lets you practice the class without the need for looking at a screen. We also ensured D/deaf and hearing-impaired dancers could access the class by providing a YouTube video with a dancer interpreting the instructions on film alongside captions.
Find the YouTube version here: Audio Class
Over the course of a whole season of Home Practice, our aim is to make each class as inclusive to a wide range of dancers as possible, while putting together an overall programme where each class focuses on a specific access preference. So when the whole season is complete, it will become a programme that has something for every access need, and over the course of a few seasons, the choice for specific individuals increases.
All the while social distancing restrictions are in place it is difficult for our team to come together to create and present dynamic and expansive dance works as a company. However, what we have learned through Home Practice will have an impact on how we produce and present artistic works once we can get back into the studio. We will consider our audiences’ access needs much earlier at design, planning and creation phases than previously, and this might mean any given production will have multiple editions.
For example, rather than creating audio description at the end of the production process, we can continuously imagine how the production could be presented as a full-on audio piece in its own right, which may well open up new creative avenues during the creation process. We could also create a series of audio pieces that can be animated and captioned by a visual artist for non-hearing audiences.
Thinking about different possible ways a piece could be consumed throughout the creation process could open up a whole new array of creative output per production. That could be a lot more exciting for makers and audiences than retrospectively sticking on access preferences.