By Kate Stanforth
I’ve danced pretty much all of my life. It wasn’t long before I became obsessed with dance, training up to seven hours a day in the hope that one day I would be the next Darcy Bussell. Unfortunately, that dream came to an end when I was 14 and suddenly became unwell with ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis).
I’m 26 now, and I am an inclusive dancer, teacher and choreographer. In the past few years, I have connected with a vast number of ex-dancers who are in a similar situation to me. Many have had to give up altogether because of their health, and it’s often painful to even watch dance because it reminds them of their ‘old life’.
Those that want to tiptoe back into the dance world simply can’t because of the many barriers in place that disabled people face. That’s what I want to help change.
Being chronically ill is, and always will be, a grieving process. I don’t think it will ever be easy to view the ‘old life’ you had before without getting upset. The same thing applies to dance, it certainly takes time to come to terms with your new ability, and it is always hard to look back on your old technique, hopes and dreams.
Twelve years on I still can’t watch my old dance videos. I will cry through ballet performances, and I get incredibly emotional dancing. And that’s ok.
When I realised that I still loved dancing, and I was strong enough, I worked hard to get my teaching qualification. As a disabled teacher, I had to work hard to ‘jump through hoops’ in a system set out for the able-bodied, but I passed with 97%.
I soon started teaching ballet again but faced challenges I never had before. The younger students could run off faster than I could walk, I couldn’t demonstrate moves to new students like I used to and the payback was horrendous. I hit yet another barrier – my mind was ready, but my body was not.
I spent years trying to get to know my ‘new’ body. I would try different teaching methods, with different students. I tried sitting, then standing. I eventually decided instead of teaching from a static seat, I needed to teach from my wheelchair.
Even though I’ve been a wheelchair user for over a decade, I was terrified of the judgement I would get as a dance teacher. The children dealt with it best. They would ask a question about why I was on a wheelchair and then get on with it. One child even asked for a wheelchair for Christmas, which was a highlight of my teaching career.
I have 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.
I had what I’d describe as a ‘lucky break’ last year. I got scouted through my Instagram for ‘The Greatest Dancer’, and although I wasn’t successful, it meant that I created a short dance video for the first time since getting ill.
The video got picked up by a fabulous producer who then went on to produce a documentary about me and recorded my first dance in my wheelchair since getting ill. I choreographed a piece with one of my very first students, Tilli, and it was incredibly emotional.
Later in the year, I was chosen as one of fifteen inspirational people to feature in a TV campaign for “Tu” Sainsbury’s. I then ended the year flying to Miami to film with “George” ASDA as one of the first ambulatory wheelchair users in a social campaign.
I finally felt like I had my life back again. But my body was struggling. I had a severe reaction when I was in Miami, I slept for four hours on set for the Sainsbury’s campaign, and I had a big seizure-like episode filming my documentary.
The finished product, the social media ‘highlight reel’ at the end of the campaign looked fantastic, but behind the scenes showed the true picture of how my body was struggling through it all.
2020 is a whole new ball game for a lot of us. Never did I think that I would spend five months in my house shielding from a potentially lethal virus and receive so little support. Once again, I turned to dance to try to help others and get me through this unpredicted time.
I started my weekly inclusive dance classes online and I was pretty shocked when the sessions soon had around 40 people each week and a worldwide audience. I’d found what I wanted to do. I’d found my niche.
The sessions gained momentum, and Channel 4 picked it up to film a short documentary about how I was teaching dance through lockdown. As soon as shielding was up, I was desperate to get into a dance studio, but, as my condition deteriorated over lockdown I needed to find an accessible studio I could use.
At the start of the year, I bumped into Olympian Craig Heap at a new local accessible centre he runs. After having a chat about the importance of accessibility, he kindly offered me a studio room in the centre to practise dance. The room had carpet, no mirrors and no natural light. But at least it had more space than my bedroom!
My friend Demi Donnelly, who is a Youtuber, invited me to the studio a few weeks ago to film a fundraiser. When I arrived, Demi, Craig and the team had transformed the room into my own dance studio equipped with mirrors, wooden flooring, glass sectioning and a TV so I can stream my sessions. I don’t think I’ve ever sobbed so much before.
I’m incredibly lucky because now I have a safe space I can dance and choreograph. It isn’t without its barriers though. The studio is an hour away, and I struggle to find someone to take me there as I don’t have my full care package.
Getting the correct care and equipment, as a disabled person, is a constant fight as I’m sure many people will know. So we are still on a mission to get those things sorted.
My plan for my dance studio is to make the most inclusive space possible. Ultimately, I’d like to give back to all the people who supported me and build opportunities for others who haven’t had their break yet but show genuine passion.