Founded by Rashmi Becker (pictured), Step Change Studios is a dance organisation committed to making dance accessible for everyone, with dancers of all ages and abilities.

Prior to the pandemic, they facilitated dance in a wide variety of styles in a variety of locations such as care homes and health care settings, schools (including SEN schools), libraries, venues dedicated to arts and culture, sport and leisure and outdoor spaces.

Responding to and learning from the Covid-19 Pandemic

At the start of the pandemic, Step Change Studios moved online and offered weekly dance sessions. These included ‘Sense Saturdays: Dance for Exercise for disabled adults’ and ‘Sunday Session: Dance for Disabled People 16+’ on Zoom, and ‘Seated Dance for Over 50s’ on MeetUpCall.

The move online was prompted by a request from one of the participants of their sight loss dance programme, who reached out to ask about remote delivery. This participant-driven demand was key for Rashmi, with Step Change Studios’ transition online being guided by conversations with group members.

“We were very upfront with our participants that this should be a two-way process. We wanted to hear what was working and what was not.” (Rashmi)

The Studios’ first digital programme was, therefore, for blind and partially sighted people. Moving online not only involved learning to master the necessary technology, it also completely transformed the group’s understanding of communication, in terms of how dance is taught during the sessions. Before the pandemic, physical contact was central to Step Change Studios’ dance classes; however, having led sessions online, dancers began to think more about the language that they used and how they were communicating.

“It completely transformed and challenged the way we communicate, the way we teach dance, and the language that we use. Previously, we were reliant on physical contact and, often with other types of dancing, on people being able to copy. It was a fantastic learning experience and what was brilliant about it is it worked. Once we had everyone on screen, we had to help guide them so that we could see them at the other end, in order to be able to coach them. But people were actually following, and they were dancing. They were doing the moves correctly and having fun and being creative.” (Rashmi)

The participants’ eagerness for Step Change Studios to continue dancing together during the pandemic reflects how important the group is as a space for social connections, with members seeing the group’s online presence as one way to combat the risk of feeling isolated during lockdown. The members of Step Change Studios fostered this sense of community by building in time at the beginning or end of each session to chat with each other. Setting aside time specifically for catching up with other dancers has proven so valuable and enjoyable that the group are keen to continue this element of the digital dance sessions in the future, whether in-person or online.

During the pandemic, Step Change Studios also teamed up with the London Youth Games to run a virtual dance challenge. While this dance challenge took place online, it offered an opportunity to foster a sense of local pride. A team, made up of disabled and non-disabled dancers, created a series of dance routines. They came up with a different dance move each day for six weeks and they encouraged people to have a go and try out the routines, as well as to send in audition videos or competition entries to the London Youth Games team.

Participants had a chance to win points for their local borough and, at the end of the six weeks, the top three boroughs were announced. This gave people a chance to represent their local community: “It wasn’t just about the individual, it was about winning points for your local borough, about being a proud Londoner” (Rashmi). As well as giving people the opportunity to move, get active, and experiment with a range of dance styles, this project was a physically integrated dance opportunity, with disabled and non-disabled people participating together.

Overcoming the challenges and finding the benefits

While unequal access to technology and to the Internet often negatively impacts those from lower socioeconomic groups, another aspect of the ‘digital divide’ is the lack of accessible design, which can exclude people with certain disabilities. For example, Rashmi observed that screen readers are not always entirely reliable and, more generally, that many providers of digital commercial products had not sufficiently considered accessibility when designing their product or service. Nevertheless, the increased use of many digital platforms over the past year has encouraged change. Rashmi reports having conversations with tech companies to discuss issues that they may not have previously considered.

“People are more aware of what the barriers are and there are more conversations about trying to overcome them, which we wouldn't have had if we weren't all forced online in such a short space of time.” (Rashmi)

Furthermore, while there have been challenges, meeting online has offered numerous benefits to Step Change Studios. While they were already working to bring dance to communities in spaces that suited them, remote delivery has greatly increased accessibility. Digital dance sessions have created the opportunity to reach a lot of people who may not have otherwise been able to attend in-person for a variety of reasons, such as being unable to leave home or travel, living far away from a real-life class, or having existing time constraints. Moving online has also created opportunities for new types of dance sessions, especially group sessions with care homes.

Moving Forward

Step Change Studios plans to combine both online and in-person dance activities in the future. This is because the advantages of running Step Change Studios online would be lost if the group were to return to face-to-face delivery alone. Additionally, having asked members whether they were happy to switch back to dancing in-person or whether they wanted to continue online as lockdown restrictions began to ease in March and April 2021, Rashmi found that the overwhelming majority of the group chose the latter. This demand for a continued digital offering, despite potential feelings of ‘online fatigue’ or ‘Zoom fatigue’, demonstrates that it is important to recognise that individuals have very different feelings about returning to in-person sessions.

Step Change Studios is moving forward using a blended approach that incorporates both in-person and digital activity. This blended approach has opened up lots of opportunities for new collaborations and new ideas. For example, having recently obtained funding to work in partnership with Metro Blind Sport and the Vision Foundation, Step Change Studios has created a digital platform aimed towards people from a South Asian background who are blind or partially sighted. This blended project, Dance Dosti, aims to use dance to get people moving. 

The project has involved the creation of a digital platform, followed by live programmes piloted in areas with higher South Asian populations, specifically targeting people with sight loss. Digital content was produced in different languages (English, Bengali, Gujarati and Hindi). To inform and develop this work, Rashmi has engaged with people who are blind or partially sighted, and the dance sessions have been created by a South Asian team of dance professionals.

“The most important thing is to understand who your stakeholders are and who your key audience is. At the moment, I'm looking at South Asian Community groups, faith groups, disability groups. I’m building a network of people who have links to the audiences that we're trying to target, in order to test out material and to have conversations to understand what they like, what they don’t like, what works and what doesn't.” (Rashmi)

The dance instructions included in the online platform have been created with the intention of enabling blind and partially sighted people to follow movement based on verbal prompts, thereby building on the lessons learned about language and communication during lockdown. This project exemplifies how Step Change Studios’ experiences during the pandemic has allowed them to gain new skills (both in terms of technology and communication) that can enhance the work that the organisation was doing in-person prior to the pandemic, in a way that further increases its commitment to inclusivity and accessibility.

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