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Meet the woman leading the way for inclusive dance

Written by guest contributor Stacey Soluade

Kate Stanforth was training to be a professional ballet dancer when suddenly, one morning at 14-years-old, her world was turned upside down and she became severely unwell, leaving her unable to dance. Although at one point Kate became too poorly to even think about dance, once her health had improved a little she found the drive to get back into the studio .

Kate later gained an associate teaching qualification with distinction. She started teaching dance from her wheelchair, and has built a successful career around her passion. The talented dancer has become one of the first ambulatory wheelchair users in a social campaign for a leading high street retailer; filmed a documentary for Channel 4; was signed by Zebedee’s, a leading specialist modelling agency; and has now opened her own inclusive dance school, Kate Stanforth Academy of Dance.

Kate is on a mission to make the dance industry more inclusive and to help everyone have the opportunity to dance...

Q. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m an inclusive dancer, teacher, and choreographer. In the past few years, I have connected with so many people who are in a similar situation to me. Many have had to give up dance altogether because of their health, or because it’s often difficult to access facilities or even to travel to a studio due to the many barriers in place for disabled people. That’s what I want to help change, and one of the main reasons why I’ve opened my dance academy - so that absolutely everyone can access dance.

Q. Your dance school is all about offering inclusive classes for those who don’t have access to adapted dance lessons. How did the idea come about?

It’s been a long process really... I completed my teacher's qualification about six years ago and that was while my health had gradually increased after being poorly for so long. I was so ill at one point I was paralysed, bedbound and housebound. But I knew I wanted to get back into the dance studio and teach.

One thing I continuously struggled with was finding an accessible dance studio. At one point I bumped into ex-Olympian Craig Heap while visiting Tumble Gymnastics and Activity Centre, which he built to be an all-accessible gymnastics centre. He kindly offered one of his studios for me to use and said that the space was there for me to teach dance in as well, whenever I was ready. I used it for my own choreography practice and I just knew this would be a great place to start teaching.

Then the pandemic struck, so during lockdown, I introduced free accessible dance classes online which got amazing feedback - the sessions had over 40 people attending every week and a worldwide audience!

Channel 4 asked to film a short documentary about how I was teaching dance through lockdown and that’s when I decided: 'Now is the time to launch my dance school. I’m ready.'

Q. How has your dance academy been received since it officially launched in March 2021?

The dance academy is incredible! My spaces sold out within the first day and I now have a waiting list of over 50 people. We have just expanded taking on two teachers, Jenny Legg and Esmee Halliday, who are a true asset to the school and allow us to reach more dancers.

The most exciting class which went viral before we’ve even started is the ‘Beatz’ class, which involves learning to tap with your hands with our specially made gloves. I recently went on ‘Steph’s Packed Lunch’ and danced with Steph and Oti Mabuse showing them this technique, which I think must be a highlight of my career!

Q. Why do you think the dance industry lacks a diverse representation, and how has that influenced your journey?

I’ve struggled with the dance industry for a long time. I’ve faced multiple cases of discrimination, which has been challenging, and I know there are still professionals who don’t take me seriously. Getting any job as a disabled person is difficult, but in the dance industry, it often feels impossible.

Times are changing now and inclusivity across society is being considered more and more, but I think the dance industry hasn’t quite caught up with that. For instance, we haven’t got too many dancers on the main stage who have a disability that I’m aware of, and there is still no representation or inclusivity when flicking through a catalogue of a dance brand. I am adamant this is going to change.

Sometimes it does feel like a battle, but every barrier I’ve faced I’ve made sure to turn into a positive, and it’s why I’ve made my dance school.

I’ve ensured my studio is an accessible place where we can offer our students adapted classes. I’m protective of my dancers and I want to provide the best environment and opportunities for them because they deserve that just as much as everyone.

Q. If you could choose one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Disability Equality, what would it be?

I became ill and disabled when I was 14 and I struggled with becoming a wheelchair user. I haven’t shared this before, but I used to feel so overwhelmed when out in public in my wheelchair that I would have a panic attack.

To have seen other people who were disabled represented through dance, mainstream media, and campaigns, would have helped to normalise how I felt about myself in a more positive way.

That was 12 years ago and it took me a long time to accept that it was perfectly ok to be a wheelchair user. It’s something which isn’t talked about much but is a common problem people experience, especially if they've become wheelchair users after previously being non-disabled.

One of the campaigns I was featured in was promoted in stores nationwide and I had so many people reach out to say how much it meant to see someone like them be represented in such a way, which was just phenomenal. It’s so important to have that representation and although it is getting better, it’s something I’d definitely choose to accelerate because we need more of it.

Equal opportunities is so, so important for me too and I always look to provide my students with opportunities others take for granted. For instance, I organised an event where I invited four West End stars to perform in a dance lesson, because we can’t attend performances due to accessibility - which really shouldn't be the case!

I’m one of a very few disabled dance teachers so I know I’m one of the first to highlight our struggles. I want to create a positive change and, hopefully, things are changing.

Q. What challenges have you faced throughout your career and how have you overcome them?

I didn't think I was ever going to be able to dance again! I worked extremely hard to get my dance teacher qualification as a wheelchair user, which in itself was difficult because it’s a system set out for the non-disabled, but I passed with 97%.

I soon started teaching ballet again but faced challenges I never had before. I’ve had my ability to lead a dance class questioned, have been told I need to be shadowed during my classes, and that I’m not a very good teacher due to my disabilities, which is far from the reality. Then there are the physical elements such as accessibility - not only facilities, but adaptations to certain things such as dance classes and assessments. I’ve just kept pushing through these challenges though because I love to dance and I know what joy it brings to others when they have access to it.

Q. What is it about the dance industry and the brands who participate in it that made you want to do this?

The main reason is I just love to dance, and I love teaching, so creating an inclusive dance school was a natural progression. My motto is that I want to teach anybody and everybody who wants to dance! I’ve had so many opportunities through my love of dance, such as modelling for commercial campaigns, and I’d love to help others like myself to have access to those opportunities as well. It's also fun offering classes to those who otherwise wouldn’t have access so they can just enjoy it without the worry of whether it will cater to their needs or if they can access the studio. Even though accessibility is the law, there are very few dance studios that provide sufficient facilities or classes. I want to take that stress away and make sure the focus will be on having fun in the class itself.

I’m opening the school to change the dance industry because we are going to show everyone how amazing our inclusive dancers are, and give everybody the opportunity to dance. The demand and need is there and we are delivering.

Q. If you could give one piece of advice to anyone about achieving their dreams, what would it be?

I always say to people, 'run your own race'. This means just focus on yourself, what you want to achieve and why, because when you believe in yourself you can achieve anything, no matter what barriers you come across in life. Just remember there is always a way and to use any obstacle as a reason to carry on. Also, be kind to yourself, take a break when you need to - that’s always important!

Q. Who do you look up to and who inspires you?

There are so many people, but the most obvious one is my mum. She works so hard and is so supportive of what I do. She has always been my biggest cheerleader which I know hasn't been easy for her because a lot of things I do can make me quite ill, but she understands why I do what I do and has always been there to help me.

Q. What’s next for you and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

My main focus right now is my dance school and I’m hoping that will grow to support many dancers of all abilities. I’m constantly learning so it’s really exciting and I learn just as much from my students as they do from me every session.

I would also love to be featured in a campaign for a dance brand, or even to collaborate with one to produce a collection of dancewear that’s inclusive for everyone - that would be amazing! Ultimately though, I’d like to give back to all the people who have supported me, and to build opportunities for others who haven’t had their break yet.

Find out more about Kate:

*All photos provided by Kate Stanforth.

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