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International Dance Day and the Pave to Inclusion

Today, April 29th, is International Dance Day, established in 1982 to highlight the diversity and talent of dancers globally, as well as to celebrate all forms and genres of dance. It aims to encourage participation in dancing. The date was chosen as it is the birthday of Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810), the creator of modern ballet who published a famous paper outlining a method for teaching dance [link]. This year is the 40th-anniversary celebration, which has a heavy emphasis on diversity and yet the dance industry at large is notoriously inaccessible for Deaf and disabled dancers for numerous reasons.

I am a profoundly Deaf and an autistic wheelchair user and growing up, I was extremely into musical theatre; I was involved with several choirs, danced whenever I got the chance and acted in all my local theatre groups from the age of 6. I was fortunate enough to go to competitions and perform around Europe and to perform professionally at the Oxford Playhouse, as well as to Princess Anne and Queen Elizabeth II. Due to the pressure that I was putting on myself from dancing, singing, and acting every spare hour I had outside of school, I got extremely ill. Following a diagnosis of ME/CFS [link] and hypermobile Ehlers Danlos Syndrome [link] and becoming a full-time wheelchair user, I quickly realised how inaccessible the dance industry is.

Like many others, I spent years trying to find a teacher who was even prepared to allow me in their studio [link]. This can be due to misconceptions that remain about the reliance and need for having a strong physique and good mobility. As such, there are many within the dance industry who hold onto the assumption that a Deaf or disabled person can’t dance and is a safety risk. This often means that many wheelchair users cannot even enter the studio or take part in competitions and exams. Deaf dancers are rejected before they even get through the door purely because they are Deaf and assumed to be incapable or bad at dancing if they can’t hear the music in the traditional sense. In 2022, there is also still a severe lack of support in place, falling through the gaps of financial support to ensure a person has a PA or the session is BSL interpreted. As a result, this burden of ensuring support is in place often falls on the Deaf or disabled person themselves, relying on using their support system for other aspects of their lives or privately financing it. This is especially true for small dance companies, which might have the absolute best intentions but cannot financially fund such costs.

Dance is predominately a field that holds very archaic views on who has the capacity to dance including eligibility to enter dance exams and competitions to this day. It was only in 2018 that Chloe Henderson at the age of 10 became the Royal Academy of Dance’s (RAD) first disabled student to pass a syllabus exam [link], despite such companies stating that they embrace diversity. While reasonable adjustments and special considerations can be put in place to how the exam is run, this must be registered with RAD by the dance teacher or parent (or candidate if over 18) ahead of time and the Deaf or disabled dancer still must perform to the same standard and to the same criteria [link], only that the examiner will be ‘aware’ that the dancer is Deaf or disabled.

Unfortunately, only some dance teachers and studios are accessible, and even fewer try to be inclusive and accessible to Deaf and disabled dancers. This barrier persists greatly for many Deaf and disabled people trying to access dance, and despite prominent Deaf and disabled dancers and teachers, it is still a struggle even to get recognition. The dance industry, unfortunately, is still an area which is not accessible to lots of Deaf and disabled people a lot of the time (but we're working on that!).

Rose Ayling-Ellis has smashed barriers on Strictly this last year by showing that Deaf people can dance (and win!), as well as dismantling stereotypes about the reliance on music to be able to dance. Rose has shown the world that Deaf people can participate in dance [link], but she is not the only Deaf dancer and there are many disabled dancers and teachers in the UK breaking assumptions. Many Deaf and disabled people dance or want to start dancing, but sometimes the inaccessible and often exclusive industry can lead us to feel apprehensive about joining.

So, what do our professional Deaf and disabled dancers and teachers have to say?

Alissa Nehrlich, she/her – Disabled/Neurodivergent Dance Artist Social media: Instagram [link] and website [link]

Style of dance: Contemporary and Ballet

What is your advice?

Network as much as possible both with fellow disabled/Deaf people in the industry as well as others in general. Also, find your niche and don’t be afraid to go for it. Inclusion and accessibility obviously still have a long way to go but some of that can be an advantage when wanting to start something new as there isn’t much competition. Reach out to other people in the industry with questions, advice or for mentoring. They may say no or not reply but it could also lead to a great working relationship and contact.

An image of a white woman wearing black footless tights and a black full-armed leotard. She is standing on both tips of her toes, with her legs in a squatting position. She is holding her hands above her head, which is looking to the left of her. Behind her is a busy street of shops.
Alissa Dancing/Credit: Dancers of London (alt text included)

Jayden Reid, he/him – Deaf dancer

Social media: Instagram [link]

Style of dance: Street Dance

What is your advice?

Never be ashamed or shy of who you are. Mental strength comes first because with mental strength you are invincible. Growing up I loved dancing, but I was self-taught my whole life - I was too scared to go to classes because I thought that I wasn’t great, and my deafness would ruin anything. But being confident broke barriers, boasting about yourself using your dancing skills impresses people - show them what you’re made of 24/7. Mental strength breaks barriers for you, never let anything touch you.

An image of Jayden Reid dancing; a black man wearing a red and white bomb jacket, a black hat, and grey trousers. He is inside a building street dancing; there is a red overhead with yellow writing, which cannot be read out. There are ticket screens suggesting it may be a cinema or bowling place. Jayden has his right arm bent behind his head and his left bend forwards.
Jayden dancing (alt text included)

Lola, they/them – Disabled dancer and former teaching assistant

Style of dance: Ballet

What is your advice?

As someone who spent many years as a teaching assistant, I think the most important thing I've taken from the experience is that transparent communication is key. Not everyone is going to welcome this, but that just lets us know who to avoid. Having your needs met is the most important step to making sure you enjoy your time. For example, I let people know that I can't do full days and would need frequent time off for hospital visits. I explained that my eyes were being affected and I cannot see them unless they were within my field of vision, so it was pointless trying to wave me down from across the room so to come and get me. I let people know that if I was laying down it was because I was feeling dizzy, it would soon pass and to not panic or try to move me. These conversations often take a while, so it can be helpful to ask for a specific time set aside to make sure everyone is on the same page. If you don’t feel comfortable, you're well within your rights to leave. Remember this is all about you!

Lola, a white nonbinary person, is sat across their manual wheelchair. The photo is in black and white so colours are unknown. They have a branded t-shirt under an open checked flannel shirt. They are wearing leather leggings and ballet shoes. They are wearing wrist supports on both hands and their nails are painted. They are wearing glasses and have short hair. Their legs are bent, showing off their ballet shoes in a pointed pose.
Lola/Photo credit: Hannah Todd Photography (alt text included)

Naomi Smart, she/her – deaf dance teacher

Social media: Twitter [link]

Style of dance: Ballet, Modern, and Tap

What is your advice?

As a deaf dancer, something I’ve found incredibly helpful is communication with teachers or choreographers prior to a first session! I like to make sure a teacher knows what I need to get the most out of a class, and I often explain the way things have to work for me. I tell them that I won’t hear corrections over music and that I need to see their face when they give feedback. As a teacher, I'm happy to have conversations with dancers individually to find out what would work best for them. Perhaps it is helpful if I send them the music separately so that they can listen with headphones or without the background noise, for example. It's about having communication to ensure that each dancer gets the best experience. Most teachers (including myself!) really appreciate these conversations, and they help to spread awareness of how to more effectively support disabled students.

Naomi, a white woman, is dancing on a path in the countryside. There is a brick wall and lots of grass. Naomi is wearing a red jacket; underneath you can see a white top and dark jumper. She has black leggings and grey winter boots. Using the weight of her right foot, her left leg is in the air, with her arms mirroring so that her right arm is angled in the air, with her right arm positioned in a diagonal line down. She has her dark hair tied into a hight pony tail.
Naomi dancing (alt text included)

Sarah Adedeji, she/her – Deaf dancer

Social media: Instagram [link]

Style of dance: Hip Hop and Afrobeats

What is your advice?

Being a Deaf dancer automatically puts you under scrutiny and the misconception that you surely couldn’t be good enough of a dancer because ‘you can’t hear the music’ - but you can; just not the conventional way. My advice to overcome this is to network with the dancers in the Deaf community. Do not be afraid to reach out and ask for advice. The encouragement and confidence boosters I have received from the likes of Chris Fonseca, Asnath [link], and Jayden Reid were enough for me to get out of my own box and change the narrative. Barriers will always remain barriers if we do not actively conquer them. Become acquainted with the dance teachers, create room for communication, and bring your sauce to the table. Offer suggestions on how to better lead the classes, do not hesitate to ask questions and remember that not every dancer is intentionally ableist. You may be the first Deaf dancer they encounter and that is enough for them to want to learn and understand on how you navigate classes, sessions, and the dance scene overall.

A black woman with baby pink all back braids is standing against a fence whilst looking down at the ground. Her braids are separated because the picture was taken during motion. Her grey cochlear implant is visible. She is wearing a black ribbed crop top and cream jogging bottoms with turquoise waist beads. A black watch rests on her left wrist and her right hand is pocketed.
A picture of Sarah (alt text included)

Interested in learning to dance or be taught by a Deaf or disabled dancer? Check out some Deaf and disabled dance artists!

Deaf teachers and companies:

  1. Billy Read at Def motion [link] (West Midlands and online)

  2. Chris Fonseca [link] (London and other areas)

  3. Deaf Men Dancing [link] (London)

  4. Green Candle Dance Company [link] (London)

Disabled teachers and companies:

  1. Amici Dance Theatre Company [link] (London)

  2. Anjali Dance Company [link] (Oxfordshire)

  3. Candoco Dance Company [link] (London)

  4. Corali Dance Company [link] (London)

  5. Dance Syndrome [link] (North West)

  6. Indepen-dance [link] (Glasgow)

  7. Kate Stanforth [link] (Newcastle or online)

  8. Touchdown Dance [link] (Manchester)

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