RASHMI BECKER SHARES HER JOURNEY INTO INCLUSIVE DANCE
by ASJAD NAZIR
Two years ago, Rashmi Becker set up Step Change Studios to address the gap in opportunities for disabled people.
In that time, her inspirational organisation has supported over 2,000 disabled people to dance, which includes many for the first time, and created productions to enable them to perform with able-bodied artists at prestigious venues.
Most recently, she produced Fairy Tales at Sadler’s Wells in London with 20 disabled and non-disabled artists from around Europe and the highlight was a piece bringing Indian classical dancers together with a wheelchair dancer to create an Indian-Latin fusion.
Recently, Rashmi also ran the UK’s first ballroom dance programme for people with sight loss.
These latest chapters in the trained dancer’s journey are not only making a real difference but also spreading joy among performers, audiences and participants who did not have access before.
Born and raised in London, Rashmi started as a competitive ice skater at the age of four and began dancing to help her artistic development on ice. “As the younger sister of a brother with autism and learning disabilities, I became aware of the benefits of dance from an early age as music and movement were a fantastic way for us to connect,” explained Rashmi.
As an adult, she became involved in various advocacy activities to support disabled people to have a voice and the same opportunities to participate in society.
Rashmi began working with social care charities that supported disabled people and became concerned by the sedentary lives of many she came into contact with.
When she became a board member of the English Federation of Disability Sport in 2013 and joined the Board of Sport England in 2018, the issue of inactivity and lack of accessible opportunities became even more evident. “One in five people in the UK has a disability. Disabled people are twice as likely to be inactive than non-disabled people, yet seven out of 10 disabled people want to be more active. I decided to do something about this and applied to the Dance Enterprise Ideas Fund and pitched my idea to establish an inclusive dance company. I was delighted to be awarded the grant and set up Step Change Studios in 2017.”
Step Change Studios has had a single vision to provide accessible dance opportunities from grassroots to a professional level. The organisation has made a real difference through community-based work where they have given everyday people of all ages access to dance and a chance to perform on stage.
The professional dance work has also made a powerful impact with projects such as the UK’s first inclusive ballroom dance-inspired show and the recently-staged Fairy Tales with 20 disabled and non-disabled dancers.
The work has made a difference, but also built bridges of understanding and made many realise opportunities are there for the less abled.
She admits that lasting positive change can be slow, but says it’s greater through collaboration. “As vociferous as I am about dance, I continue to be heartened by the impact dance has on our participants.”
Having worked on so many transformative dance projects within the disabled community, Rashmi is unable to pinpoint a favourite.
Although she has done high-profile work – like presenting the only dance piece with a disabled artist at a Royal Festival Hall gala to celebrating 70 years of India’s independence – the work she is most proud of is in the community. “The community-based work is where Step Change Studios makes the most significant impact. We recently ran the UK’s first blind ballroom programme and it was just fantastic to see participants transform both in their dance ability and confidence. We had many tearful moments as people achieved one personal milestone after another.”
Rashmi has many heartwarming stories of individuals whose lives were transformed and says her students make her want to do more because they love dance, work hard, never give up and have an amazing attitude. “When I see the positive impact of dance on people’s lives, it is motivating and affirming.”
She encourages people of all abilities to get more involved in dance and says there are organisations around the UK that can help, such as One Dance UK, People Dancing and her own Step Change Studios. “In the short time since I established Step Change Studios, I have seen a positive change with more people and organisations involved in dance opening themselves to being more diverse. But the dance sector still lacks diversity. While 20 per cent of the working-age population is disabled, in England, just four per cent are employed in the arts. Mainstream dance providers need to be proactive in welcoming disabled and other under-represented groups.”
Step Change Studios is now going international and Rashmi recently spent time in New York learning about the city’s approach to disability and dance.
This will be followed by a UK-US collaboration that has received funding from both sides of the Atlantic and will be staged in September. Other future plans include an exciting project in partnership with a local London authority that will allow disabled people to get the ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ experience, a new programme for people with sight loss and live performances.
The long-term plan is to continue developing more opportunities for people with Step Change Studios and greater diversity in dance.
Rashmi cites her childhood inspirations as Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit, Helen, Gene Kelly and now all those she works with who abandon themselves to the love of dance. She has had the most amazing journey in dance, but has also faced challenges in her life like trying to look out for her disabled older brother.
Dance has helped her through difficult times. “Dance is a sanctuary for me. As well as the physical benefits of being active and developing my abilities in dance, on a basic level, dance is a magical outlet. It makes me happy, allows me to be creative, and to navigate the everyday challenges in life. I gain the same benefits from dance like many of the Step Change Studios’ participants. Dance raises both my heart rate and spirits!”
Rashmi finishes off by telling us the biggest lesson her work has taught her and it is one everyone can learn from. “When I was a child I used to be concerned with what people will think. I was afraid to raise my hand in class or to be different. The success of Step Change Studios is largely because I have not been afraid to try, to experiment, to fail, to seek help and take advice, to recognise my abilities and the abilities of others. I set out to try to do something, and that something has changed my life.”