D-Dance Workshops Promote Body Positivity for Kids With Juvenile Diabetes

Deanna Paolantonio leads a workshop. Photo courtesy of Paolantonio

Deanna Paolantonio had been interested in body positivity long before diabetes ever crossed her mind. As a Zumba and Pilates instructor who had just earned her master's degree in dance studies, she focused her research on the relationship between fitness and body image for women and young girls. Then, at age 25, just as she was accepted into the PhD program at York University in Toronto, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

What felt like a huge obstacle eventually became a source of inspiration. She continued to research ways dance can promote confidence and a positive body image in the classroom, while threading her new-found knowledge and experience with T1D into her work. Her program D-Dance is the first in North America that integrates T1D education with creative dance.

One of the main goals is to cultivate a supportive community. "Although there is a large diabetic population in North America, type 1 makes up a very small percentage of that population," says Paolantonio. "There are not many people who speak openly about having type 1 and dealing with it as a dancer."

Her workshops for dancers ages 7 to 18 are held at public and private schools and at dance schools throughout Canada. Participants take classes of different styles, attend sessions where they learn strategies for managing their T1D and engage in creative dancemaking activities that build confidence and community.

T1D is often referred to as juvenile diabetes and requires daily insulin injections using a needle, insulin pen or insulin pumps, and glucometers or glucose monitors to regulate blood sugar levels constantly. Dancers with T1D can experience increased thirst, extreme hunger, weight loss, fatigue and frequent urination. The disease reacts to every type of exercise differently, so the workshops educate dancers on what the signs and symptoms are and how to manage them in class.

"We discuss what happens to blood sugar during different kinds of dance classes or on a show day or competition day," says Paolantonio. "We also make checklists for what goes in a dance bag and the specific add-ons for diabetes." There are discussions about food, specifically carb-counting. "The main thing to pay attention to is carbs—to determine how much insulin to take," she says. She plays games with the younger students and has discussions with older students to guess how many carbs are in a given food, to better manage their food choices without the aid of labels.

The disease can have a severe impact on a dancer's body image, especially as they go through puberty. Paolantonio's model for body positivity programming has three prongs: body functionality, belonging, and body-based aesthetic ideals. "Body functionality" refers to focusing on one's body's abilities over its physical appearance. "Belonging" indicates making students feel comfortable in the classroom. "Body-based aesthetic ideals" means challenging society's existing notions of beauty and worth as they relate to the body.

The workshops typically run from 10 am to 3 pm. Dancers are divided into groups based on age, and the day starts with a Body Brainstorm, an exercise where students attribute different adjectives and action verbs to various body parts. After a class warm-up, students can use those words as a launching pad for generating dance phrases in small groups.

By using the body to create, workshop participants cultivate an appreciation for everything it can do. "D-Dance includes individual reflection time and bigger discussion with others. It's communal, it's creative and it can be adapted to the needs of specific students," says Paolantonio.

The community extends past just the students. One of D-Dance's main sponsors, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, sends speakers to meet with parents to discuss their management strategies. Dancers are also welcome to bring a "Dia-buddy," a friend or sibling for free. "The hope is that they gain an increased understanding of what the friend goes through and more knowledge of how to help them," says Paolantonio.

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