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 too