Lauren Russell, is a disabled dancer and leader who has been involved in We Are Epic’s projects since 2018, she has not only broken barriers but also continues to champion inclusivity within the arts.
We caught up with her in late 2023 to hear about her journey in dance, her plans for the future, and her ideas for a dance sector that’s more inclusive.
How did you get involved in the arts?
I started dancing when I was around two and a half years old. When I started primary school, I stopped and shifted to gymnastics for a few years, but eventually, I returned to dance classes. I stayed at the same dance school from age 8 until I went off to university at 18. But even after I’d gone to uni, I would try to get to dance class whenever I was back at home. I still think about the principal of that dance school really fondly, she played a big part in moulding my work ethic and me as an artist.
Can you tell us about your involvement with We Are Epic?
I’ve been on a slightly curvy route to get where I am today. For the last 15 years, I’ve been teaching in primary schools. During my time working in schools one of my highlights every week, both before using wheels and after, was teaching PE, particularly dance and gymnastics. It was genuine joy and that started to lead me back to dance and community arts.
Around six or seven years ago I got involved with Sidekick (a community dance company in Leicester). I then met the We Are Epic team, and I’ve been on this journey with them for five or six years now.
We Are Epic has been hugely supportive, they’ve really championed my development, both as a dancer, but also as a disabled leader. This year they’re supporting me to make those next steps in the arts, whatever that might look like, for example, Administration or Producing.
What are your key moments in your dance career over the last few years?
Dance is a huge part of my background and a massive part of my identity. I am a dancer, I’m like a stick of rock with ‘Dancer’ written through the middle.
But, as my health declined and my mobility was reduced, I stopped dancing. At that point, I was using a walking frame and wobbling around on crutches, so I stopped dancing because I physically couldn’t or at least I thought I couldn’t. I didn’t feel safe moving…and no dance leaders/teachers I’d met knew how to work with me safely.
That felt like a part of me, of my identity, was being taken away. I wasn’t a dancer anymore. So there was sort of a grief process, and I was trying to get my head around that. I tried filling it with other things, like more time in the theatre but it never quite cut it.
A teacher I’d danced with in the past sent me a link to Sidekick, an inclusive dance group, and I’m so thankful to her for sending me that link because now it’s seven years on and because I got involved my life has taken a complete 180.
I believed that the door had closed, I wasn’t a dancer anymore. Working with Sidekick opened the door a little, and that made me realise that there may still be a way of dancing.
That first dance class with Sidekick was one of the hardest dance classes I’ve ever taken. Not because it was technically difficult, it wasn’t. It was the confrontation of myself now as a disabled person trying to dance.
That was quite brutal. you’re in a room with mirrors all around you reflecting the wheelchair back. The leaders at Sidekick were so open, welcoming, and completely inclusive but I was the only wheelchair user in the room, and pretty much the only person with a physical disability in the room; everyone else had a learning disability.
But that first class, I sat at the barre, and I was crying. crying in class. The next hardest part was going back the week after.
There was a part of me saying “No, that’s not me. That’s not how I do things. That’s not how I’ve been taught.” but there was the other side of me going “You are a dancer, and if this means that you still get to dance, then this is how you do it. Don’t fight it, work with it”
I learned a hell of a lot with Sidekick, and I’m hugely grateful to them. When I was looking for further development, Sidekick linked me to We Are Epic.
What do you think the impact is of entering the inclusive dance space with such a strong traditional dance background?
For example, with ballet, there is a very set structure. If you say to anyone who’s studied ballet, “Show me a demi-plié” they know that language, they do it, and it looks pretty much identical across ages across the world.
But if you say the same thing to a seated dancer, we’ll all do it. But
we’ll all look completely different because we’ve translated the demi-plié to work for our bodies. There’s not the same consistency because there is no shared wheelchair vocabulary of what this looks like, and maybe there doesn’t even need to be.
I think that’s sometimes a barrier but actually also the most exciting, most beautiful part of inclusive dance.
That’s what's exciting. You're taking a very traditional prescriptive art form, like ballet for example, and allowing more creativity by opening it up to interpretation through unique bodies.
Yeah that’s what creating should be like, but then it’s getting in the room with the right choreographer or producer who is open to work with that level of creativity and embracing difference rather than saying “Well you can’t do what I’m asking of you so we can’t work together”
I’ve seen creatives say okay well they’re disabled so let's just do something very easy, and simple and not push the dancers.
Exactly – I think my biggest hate word is ‘just’ or “Well you just do that”.
No, I’m not just doing anything. My movement is equally as valid as anybody else’s in the room. And I’ve actually had to put more brain power into it because I’ve translated it rather than just copied it. It’s not “just” anything. That’s a fight.
That’s such a good point. How do you think that can be shared with other creatives?
This is a needed, ongoing and evolving conversation.
In early 2023 I was working with Propel Dance, the UK’s first Wheelchair-user Dance Company as part of a touring production of The Snow Queen. There were five of us in the show, all wheelchair users. I am all here for that and love it, but at the same time, I think that we need to cross that line between mainstream and disabled dance. If you are a talented, committed dancer, regardless of your body type, you should be welcome in any company.
I saw Rambert Dance’s Peaky Blinders show earlier this year.
Seeing Musa Motha centre stage, as a disabled dancer, absolutely holding his own within that company had a huge impact on me.
And yet, the show wasn’t even marketed as an inclusive production or anything.
I was an emotional wreck watching that show because that’s the representation that I want to see of a disabled dancer just being part of a mainstream company.
And then yes, I did, like blag my way backstage afterwards and go and meet him and say hi.
Incredible, what do you hope your next few years in dance look like?
I recently decided to make a huge scary exciting decision to leave teaching and focus on dance full-time. I want to dance, while I still can and I also want to develop as a disabled leader within the arts.
But It’s been a journey to get here.
About five years ago I started receiving more and more offers of paid dance work, and I was having to turn them down because I was working at school four days a week. I began to reduce my hours at school but then COVID hit, and it sort of went a bit downhill from there. It just felt like all of this had been ripped from underneath me.
Now I’m almost back to that point, I’m looking out there and I can see the opportunities are there and I know that there is work for me in the dance sector. So, I’ve come back to that really scary exciting decision again.
You know the longevity of a career for any dancer is short and I’m rapidly approaching 40, so I feel like if I don’t do it now I’m never going to do it. Equally, I’m looking for those chances where I can develop myself as a disabled leader within the arts. I have a placement that was arranged by We Are Epic with People Dancing, and I think that will be quite an important step to help me to move forward.
That sounds amazing, what will you be doing with People Dancing?
I’ll be working with People Dancing, a national organisation that supports community dance, the placement is funded through We Are Epic’s most recent grant from Arts Council England for their talent development work in Leicester’
It’s such a valuable opportunity that will give me experience working within an arts organisation and allow me to further develop my knowledge and skills. It’s a really good learning opportunity for me, and again, it wouldn’t have come about without We Are Epic.
There are also some interesting links with We Are Epic’s international work – the Inclusive Dance Network that they’re supporting to set up in Indonesia is really inspiring, and I hope that I can learn how that works.
It sounds like 2024 is going to be a very exciting year for both you and We Are Epic. Do you have any words for disabled people who are interested in a career in the arts?
I think it’s a bit different for me because I didn’t grow up disabled. I acquired that later in life. So I had the standard access to my local dance school. If I’d been in a wheelchair when I was 3 would my mum have encouraged me to dance? Probably not.
So, I’m well aware that I’m coming into this from a privileged background of already having that dance base which I’ve been able to build on as a disabled dancer.
But it’s a really hard door to beat down for young disabled dancers coming through.
With the work that I’m doing with both ID Dance Co and Propel, I hope that we can start to change mindsets and give your local dance teacher the confidence to include disabled people in class. It’s okay that the lesson might look slightly different for that disabled child, but they can be included and make progress.
Inclusion in dance is an ongoing generational conversation so it’s not something that’s going to be solved overnight. But I think the more that disabled artists are out there, publicised and praised, then that gives hope and inspiration to the next generation of disabled dancers and creatives.
To any young person who’s interested in the arts, I’d say push it. You’ll learn the line between a dance school that turned you down because they don’t have the confidence in how to include you versus the people/organisations that just say “no. end of conversation”.
Sometimes you need to put a bit of education in with those people and organisations and say “Look, this is what I need, can I come next week?” because they could be quite nurturing places. Whereas there are other organisations who will flat out refuse to include you. With them, it’s better to leave them to it, because you will find something else. You could be battling for years without changing their mindset, in which case that’s not the right organisation for you.
I think it’s really important as well to find your people.
I’m really open to disabled young people who are looking into a career in dance, approaching me and saying, Okay, what was your route? What have you learned? What have you experienced? For me to be able to pass on at least a nugget of knowledge and make their journey a little bit easier, then I’m winning.
Thank you, Lauren. The work you are doing is inspiring and motivating people to work and think differently about dance.
Lauren’s journey through the arts reminds us that dance is an art form that transcends physical limitations. Her story shows that with resilience, creativity, and the right support, the arts can be a space of empowerment and representation for everyone.
We can’t wait to see what the future brings for Lauren with her transformative outlook on inclusion and the dance industry, we’re proud to be one part of her story.