wide shit of a dance studio with three dancer in different poses in the background

Inclusive Dance of Tomorrow: Reflecting on what inclusion means in 2023

Here at We Are Epic, we’re keen on reflection. Sometimes, that means asking ourselves and our team uncomfortable questions that are bubbling under the surface. Over the last few years, we’ve been contemplating the term ‘Inclusive Dance’ and what inclusion means to our operations and projects.

As inclusive arts practitioners, we’ve all seen changes in the acceptance of disabled artists, and inclusive arts have moved more into the mainstream.

“​​Rambert’s Peaky Blinders last year (2022) was a stand-out in terms of disabled representation within a ‘mainstream’ [dance] company. I guess the reason it stood out [to me] so much is because it’s still very rare to see high quality work from a high-profile, mainstream company with a disabled dancer very much front and centre. Was it inclusive? Yes. Are Rambert an inclusive company? They don’t market themselves as such. But that piece certainly flagged that they work inclusively.”

Diversity, equity and inclusion have become more than just the boardroom buzzwords which they felt like 5 years ago.

Don’t get us wrong, there’s still a lot of work to do! 

Just look at the public outcry in Feb 2023 over BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing announcement that a dancer using a wheelchair will star in the 2023 season. Strictly is probably the most widely viewed platform for dance in the UK and is, more often than not, the only time the general public experience dance, outside of their own boogieing at festivals, nightclubs, and weddings, of course. In the last few years, the show has become more inclusive. We Are Epic’s board member, Kathryn Stamp, has been working with colleagues and the BBC to explore this. The backlash against the casting of a dancer using a wheelchair on the TV show has been negative and hurtful. The comments have hit the inclusive dance sector hard and undoubtedly affected disabled people across the UK.

“I read the first comment and my heart genuinely sank. And it only sank further as I scrolled through the ever-growing ableist reactions. I found myself close to tears. Not just because it affected me more than I thought it would but because I know what impact hate can have on a disabled person, particularly someone who’s young or newly disabled.”

Says Kate Stanforth, an award-winning disabled dancer, model and activist from Northumberland who was part of the We Are Epic, Count Me In Inclusive Talent Search in her reaction piece for Metro UK.

Against this backdrop, we ask ourselves, what does inclusion mean in 2023? And what does Inclusive Dance look like today?

What is inclusive dance?

Conversations like intersectionality and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) are becoming more and more integrated into people’s everyday lives. Inclusion is not just a topic on the fringe anymore.
This month, Laura Evans, Programme Lead for ID Dance Co at We Are Epic, led a discussion with ID Dance Co, an artistic talent development project run by We Are Epic. To reflect and open up these questions with Lauren Russell, a disabled dancer who uses a wheelchair and is part of ID Dance Co. and Jasmine, Lead Dance Artist of ID Dance Co. They began by exploring the question, “What is Inclusive dance?”

"A quick google search will show ‘inclusive dance’ as dance with disabled people. Pictures of wheelchair users and those with learning disabilities, sometimes alongside non-disabled dancers, are common. Historically (and in many places still currently), I feel this has been necessary terminology within the sector because other training routes and professional companies are not inclusive (and in some places actually discriminatory)."

"Inclusive dance is often seen as dance with disabled people, but it is so much more complex. Inclusive dance feels like an outdated term – does the sector need a new way of talking? If you are not an inclusive dance company….are you un-inclusive?"

"It’s not an easy thing to define! There are many definitions of inclusive dance, but I think some ideas that many of these definitions share include: ensuring equitable access to dance training and performance; celebrating individuality and difference; challenging bias and ingrained misconceptions about what and who a dancer is"

Inclusive Dance or Inclusion in Dance?

One of We Are Epic’s key programmes is ID Dance Co. Officially, it’s an ‘Inclusive Dance Talent Development Programme’, but what does that actually mean?

“ID provides a place for talented dancers from underrepresented groups based in Leicestershire at the start of their career to take part in technique classes and masterclasses and be supported to access other opportunities to further their dance careers. We link with grassroots organisations and local dance institutions to identify talented individuals who want to take the next steps towards performing, teaching or choreographing."

Inclusive Dance, as it’s understood in the arts sector, addresses the barriers that Disabled people face. It’s been around since the 1960s when societies looked very different for marginalised people.
Over the last 60 years since Inclusive Dance was founded, societies have developed. While barriers still exist, we have a more expansive definition and understanding of diversity, equity and inclusion and how barriers impact individuals. To us, it feels like there’s a disconnect between the meaning of inclusion in general society and in inclusive dance.
Has inclusive dance (and how it’s understood) fallen behind our modern-day understanding of inclusion?

“inclusive dance” is a term used to relate to dance for and by people with visible and invisible disabilities. There is nothing incorrect or inaccurate about this, but we should recognise that it also presents some challenges."

"If we refer to ourselves [ID Dance] as ‘inclusive’ this will be interpreted within a disability framework by those in the [arts] sector. Whereas we’re aiming to go way beyond that because, by inclusion, we actually mean that we’re actively looking to work with any talented dancers from under-represented / marginalised groups so that we are representative of society."

This sentiment is felt by the entire team at We Are Epic. As an organisation that works across continents, languages and cultures, as well as in the UK, our focus has increasingly been on removing barriers that people with various identities would likely face.

“Disability is just one aspect of a person’s identity – so the term “inclusive dance” and its usage today does not always account for the intersectionality of a person’s identity and how there are multi-layered and complex barriers facing people in the dance industry.

For example, there are many disabled dancers who also face barriers to accessing dance training and opportunities because of their race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, age and their parental status. Does the industry’s usage of the term “inclusive dance” account for all of this? I’m not sure it does.

But it's what we have right now and conversations like this, where we examine and discuss what it means, are essential for moving to the next step.”

Perspectives on Inclusive Dance

We know that we’re not the only arts practitioners pondering the use of language and the relevance of the term ’inclusive dance. We’ve had many private conversations about this topic, but in today’s culture, it’s so easy to be cancelled for saying the wrong thing, and things are going unsaid and unheard. We reached out to our contacts at other arts organisations that create inclusive work and share our values of inclusion to bring this conversation to the wider public.

The problem is that 'Inclusive dance' is the associated term and *sign on the door* that creates a safe space for not only disabled people but people who have caring and general needs to be welcomed in. It's an outdated term, really, but without it, how does a disabled person or anyone who has needs know that they will be understood or welcomed. Sadly, the arts just doesn't fully operate in that kind of space yet. Perhaps we should reframe it and call those not working inclusively 'un-inclusive'. Maybe then we'd see a shift.

Inclusive dance as a term feels dated, and I still wonder if all these years later mainstream associate it as lesser in quality which makes for a harder job. I'm interested in how people represent themselves, show me your disabled artists, your disabled leaders, your inclusive processes and accessible spaces. Actions speak louder than words, one film or workshop doesn't cut it, inclusion is an embedded approach

We’ve had the ‘inclusive dance’ discussion at TIN Arts. The conversation often comes back to 'audience' - who are we trying to communicate with? For funders the phrase does provide a handy useful shorthand that generally is widely understood…For young people and parents (particularly those with disabilities) again I feel the phrase works. So where is 'Inclusive Dance' a problematic phrase in our discussions at TIN? When thinking about our 'place' in the dance sector and when communicating with audiences about performance work.

In the dance sector we seem to have Dance Organisations and Inclusive Dance Organisations. We see ourselves as a dance organisation that works inclusively to ensure all who wish to engage can do so.

I don't believe many within the dance sector understand that this is really all about practice - the development of individuals! For us, Inclusive Dance does not describe WHO we work with - rather it captures our belief that what has gone before us is in many ways not appropriate for what we need going forwards. Which is a more open approach, rooted in equity that celebrates and elevates all who wish to move to express and communicate through dance.

The Evolving Understanding of Inclusion

We see that it’s a time of transition for disability inclusion in the arts and media.

Mainstream dance in the UK is becoming more representational. There’s still a lot to do, particularly around ensuring that inclusion is not only a tick-box activity for contemporary dance companies.

Dancer Lauren sums up a lot of our thoughts well.

“Until recently, I would have called us an inclusive dance company, but I’m finding that language increasingly problematic because it doesn’t adequately explain / isn’t adequately understood what that means.

We are definitely a company that practices inclusion – actively trying to remove obstacles to people feeling welcome and valued within our practice.

My hope is that eventually, “inclusive” companies and specific training routes won’t exist because they won’t be needed. Recent media attention (and public outcry!) at the thought of a wheelchair dancer competing on Strictly or (gasp!) a wheelchair dancer moving their legs whilst performing on TV, just highlights how much work there is still to be done"

Does that mean we are a post-inclusive company?!

We’re not sure. We know that we want to make dance that includes people who want to dance but face barriers getting there.