The number of children with learning and physical disabilities taking up dance classes has increased by more than a third in the months following the Paralympics, new figures have revealed.

Nearly 400 new students with varying degrees of disability have signed up for 2012/13 programme of Step into Dance, the largest sustainable community dance programme in the UK, according to the Royal Academy of Dance. Operating in some 200 schools throughout London and Essex, Step into Dance provides free, quality dance teaching to students of all abilities aged 11-18 years old.

Some 6,000 students are taking part in the 2012-2013 programme, of which 1,137 have a disability, representing an increase in demand of more than a third.

Step into Dance is a partnership project between The Jack Petchey Foundation and the Royal Academy of Dance. The Jack Petchey Foundation gives grants to programmes and projects that benefit young people with the aim of raising their aspirations and helping them play a full part in society.

A primary reason for this uptick is the inspirational effect of the Paralympics, according to Sue Goodman, artistic director of Step into Dance. “Prior to last summer, many disabled students would not have considered taking part in dance lessons,” she said. “However, the Paralympics has motivated them to see beyond their physical restrictions, and to be inspired by the possibilities that dance can offer.

“The Paralympics gave young people role models and a chance to see what is possible. Students can only aspire to greatness if they see it in front of them.

“Dance helps children to express themselves, gain leadership skills, build confidence, communicate better and interact with others in a non-verbal way. Young people with learning or physical disabilities will gain these skills in exactly the same way as their more able-bodied counterparts.”

The Vale School, Haringey, which caters for children with special educational needs (SEN) has been on the Step into Dance programme for 4 years. Head of expressive arts at the Vale School, Richard Tharpe, said: “Providing extra-curricular dance sessions with specially trained teachers – who understand the demands of students with special needs – means that we can offer a highly enjoyable and fun physical activity which boosts the confidence and self-esteem of our students.  Without access to activities like dance, the experiences and ultimately the life chances of many of these young people would be limited.”

Between 2011 and 2012, Step into Dance provided 41 SEN schools with dance teaching and performance opportunities. Since the Paralympics an additional 12 SEN schools have joined the programme.