Teaching Tips

4 Key Principles for Teaching Inclusive Dance Classes, From National Dance Institute’s DREAM Project

Eduardo Patino, courtesy NDI

If you're like many dance teachers, you'd like to be able to teach inclusive dance classes for both disabled and nondisabled dancers—but you don't necessarily feel qualified.

But Kay Gayner (associate artistic director at National Dance Institute) and Agnes McConlogue Ferro (board-certified pediatric physical therapist) want to assure you that starting an inclusive dance program doesn't have to be intimidating. Last month in a series of online trainings, Gayner and Ferro shared their best online and in-person practices from 20 years of NDI's inclusive dance program, the DREAM Project. Here's what Dance Teacher learned when we had the privilege of tuning in.


1. Start by Understanding the Parameters...

Ferro and Gayner suggest that teachers of inclusive classes meet individually with each dancer and their family before the group meets for the first time. As Gayner says, "It's not really an assessment, but a meeting with the children and their caregivers where we talk about goals for the project." This meeting can involve movement games, discussion, and observation to see how the dancer moves naturally and what might potentially be expanded upon for increased participation in class.

"This is so we walk into day one knowing a lot about what movement possibilities there are and what safety precautions (like asking permission to touch a shoulder, or how to assist a child with standing up) we need to share with the partners," says Gayner. (However, parents are not obligated to share details or diagnoses with teachers, and you should not share diagnoses with the class, other than "need to know" safety information).

For nondisabled dancers, this meeting can be spent on practicing good partnership techniques, answering questions and talking about expectations, fears and goals for their own journey in the program.

Two middle aged white women smile and strike a "running" pose at the front of a classroom filled with students of all ages, some of whom are using wheelchairs

Gayner and Ferro. Photo by Hillary Savoie, courtesy NDI

2. ...Continue by Expanding Those Parameters

It's essential to recognize that the dancer you're working with is not defined by your understanding of their abilities on any given day. Especially with degenerative diseases, Ferro notes, the range or quality of movement a child performs one week may drastically change the next.

Instead, get to know each dancer as an individual, and stay observant. Ferro directs teachers to keep asking themselves: "What do they like? What are the things that work for them? What doesn't work for them? What's available to them? How can we expand upon that?" In the virtual and in-person setting, caregivers and siblings can help with facilitating this continuing individualization of movement vocabulary.

3. Collaboration Creates Choreography

Choreography for an inclusive dance class or performance should always be created in close collaboration with the dancers, their caregivers, and any physical/occupational therapists you're able to include. Rather than adapt a "conventional" step or phrase to the abilities of those who are in the class, start with the ideas sparked by how your students uniquely move, and adapt from there. "There can be eight to 10 translations of any given step," Gayner says.

A collaborative process is still possible in the virtual setting, Gayner and Ferro say. You might try creating breakout rooms, utilizing the chat box to give and receive feedback, including more improvised sections, and facilitating safe interaction with the physical environment each dancer happens to be in. Do yourself a favor, though, and let go of "left" and "right," they advise. Instead, reference "dancers' choice of one side and then the other."

Ferro sits on a chair at a ballet barre, with a student on her lap, who holds on to the barre. Ferro leans down, smiling at the student

Ferro partnering an NDI student. Photo courtesy NDI

4. Disability Does Not Equal Fragility

While teachers might feel extra concern about the safety of dancers in an adaptive class, as Ferro says: "You don't want to wrap them in bubble wrap! By making the effort to communicate with dancers and caregivers, you can figure out what active participation—as opposed to passive participation, which is participation defined by limitations—looks like for each child."

Most importantly, Gayner says, foster an emotionally and psychologically safe studio environment. "When challenging situations arise, we talk about it with everybody," she says. Reinforce that if medical needs arise, an adult in the room will take care of them; check in with partnerships frequently to ensure everyone feels comfortable; and (in the remote setting) ask students to keep their cameras on at all times.

Above all, Ferro and Gayner say, inclusive classes should keep the focus on what each child can do, not what's unavailable to them.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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