NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Alyssa Thostesen, Dance Facilitator, Arts Access Program at Matheny . Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.
Creating An Inclusive Dance World
From accepting identities outside of the gender binary to celebrating diverse body shapes, abilities, and aesthetics, the dance world has been slowly embracing the idea of otherness in studios and performance. We, as a community, have taken major steps towards inclusion since the early years of codified dance that were fixated on appearance and sought perfection found in the ideal dancer physique through years of exploring and committing to the notion of diversity. We must continue to learn and practice inclusivity to all facets of otherness, and embrace our differences, disabilities, race, cultures, and eccentricities to foster a bright and vibrant dance world. A universal design of space and culture centered on accessibility can help make this happen.
Defining Otherness and Disability
Otherness describes the differences between us, but more specifically, it is the differences found when comparing an individual to the ‘ideal’ or ‘normal’ person. In the classical dance world in Western cultures, the ideal body has been defined as lean, flexible, and of average height. The overall appearance of a dancer and the ability to maintain long hours of focus and discipline impacted their value to a company or choreographer. The term otherness can apply to anything from a dancer who is considered too tall or curvy to fit into the ideal dancer aesthetic to describing the limitations in the mobility of a dancer, their range of motion and muscularity.
Disability then describes the relationship of otherness or impairment against obstacles society places in front of them. The dance world presents many physical, social, emotional, cultural, and behavioral obstacles which result in the disabling of members of the dance community. Dance studios and performance spaces without ramps, clear pathways, or wide enough doorways, and teaching styles which rely on visual and auditory cues while simultaneously striving for perfection and assuming physical ability are two kinds of barriers keeping individuals from being fully involved with the dance world that we as a community have the power to change.
So, What Do We Do Now?
The dance world strives for diversity and inclusion, and a more accessible dance space creates the opportunity for all to celebrate this art form to its fullest. The following ideas can help ignite the change towards making dance education and performance more accessible to everyone.
At its most basic definition, dance is an exploration of movement, and the term tends to encompass the study of technique or specific physicality that we learn through years of training. Point your toes, straighten your knee, engage your core… all familiar phrases in many dance classes. But movement and dance are more than these tiny details and learned shapes. Dance is ever changing and embodied, living knowledge that we explore each time we move, be it choreography, walking, stumbling, improvisation, or embracing. Dance is physical as much as it is imaginative, emotional, and social. Dance connects the body with the environment and connects individuals with other people. It is beautiful to watch, and it is beautiful to experience.
Let’s challenge the confining definition of dance as a paradigm of expressive physicality and expand it to include the exploration of movement emotionally, socially, and introspectively, so that it becomes inclusive of all embodiments and to allow dancers to shine without the pressure to form the exact shapes and movements we have associated with professional dance.
Utilize Inclusive Dance Teaching Practices
To help us practice this expanded definition of dance, we must adjust our way of teaching. Take the focus away from appearance, from shape and technique, and focus on the experience of sensing, feeling, and living in the movement. This adjustment could manifest in a change in language with how we address students and dancers with a greater individual approach to account for diverse adaptations which could be as simple as changing the would ‘straighten’ to ‘reach’ to allow for body specific interpretations of the movement.
It can change the way we choreograph: moving away from precise bodily details to a more accessible language created through energies, dynamics, or feelings. It can alter learning outcomes in classes of all ages and levels to have a less visual and appearance-based outcome. Re-centering dance from a strictly specific and codified technique to a kinesthetic and lived experience would then allow for teachers to embrace bodily differences without necessitating separate classes for students outside the ‘norm’ or ideal body. Inclusive studios, like inclusive classrooms, can and have proven to be beneficial for all students socially and emotionally with a focus on compassion, motivation, and acceptance.
Break Down the Physical Barriers
Of course, re-imaging and redefining can only benefit our community if all dancers can physically enter the dance space and enthusiasts can experience dance to the fullest. There are limitless possibilities in how to make dance spaces more accessible. From sturdy ramps and wide doorways to wheelchair accessible seating in theaters and accessible bathrooms and concession stands, basic structural and architectural changes can allow patrons using wheelchairs to independently attend classes or performances. Normalize exiting and entering the space during class or while watching a performance, allowing both dancers and viewers the chance to exit the overwhelming sensory stimulation for any reason to improve comfort levels for all. Provide performance programs with large and simple fonts in highly contrasting colors for ease in reading for patrons with visual impairments. Offer options of ekphrasis or audio recordings poetically describing the visual aspects of the performance that can be made available through technology for audience members and students who either wish to experience dance differently or need the auditory input due to a vision impairment. The possibilities are endless when applying creativity to accessibility which creates a more impactful experience for all regardless of their relationship to disability.
The dance world has plenty of room to grow to be inclusive and welcoming to dancers, dance enthusiasts, patrons and more of all shapes, sizes, and abilities. Here are some steps we can take in the right direction:
- Redefine Dance to take the focus away from the appearance-based dance culture.
- Practice Inclusive Teaching to support every dancer and foster a greater dance community.
- Break Down Physical Barriers to allow access to all in the studio and in performance spaces.
An inclusive dance world would benefit all within the community and allow us to grow bigger and brighter, and we as dancers, choreographers, teachers, studio owners, patrons and lovers of this art form can make it happen.
For more information, check out the references below:
Baker, G., Kindon, S., & Beausoleil, E. (2022). Danced movement in human geographic research: A methodological discussion. Geography Compass, 16(8), e12653.
Charnley, E. (n.d.). Towards a new vision of dance.
Hamraie, A. (2013). Designing Collective Access: A Feminist Disability Theory of Universal Design. Disability Studies Quarterly, 33(4), Article 4.
Hermans, C. (2016). Differences in Itself: Redefining Disability through Dance. Social Inclusion, 4(4), 160–167.
Kuppers, P. (2000). Accessible Education: Aesthetics, bodies and disability. Research in Dance Education, 1(2), 119–131.
Linton, S. (1998). Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. NYU Press.
McCormack, D. P. (2008). Geographies for Moving Bodies: Thinking, Dancing, Spaces. Geography Compass, 2(6), 1822–1836.
Merriman, P. (2012). Human geography without time-space1. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 37(1), 13–27.
Hall, J. (2014). Philosophy of dance and disability. Wiley Online Library. (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2023, from
Alyssa Thostesen (she/her/hers) is a graduate of George Mason University where she received her B.F.A in Dance and minor in Early Childhood Education for Diverse Learners. She is currently a teacher at local dance studios in New Jersey and acts as Dance and Writing Facilitator for the Arts Access Program at Matheny Medical and Educational Center in Peapack, NJ; a fine arts program for adults with developmental disability. Alyssa is currently attending City University of New York: School of Professional Studies to earn her M.A. in Disability Studies.
Interested in learning more? Check out NDEO's Online Professional Development Institute (OPDI) Course:
OPDI-114: Teaching Dance to Students with Disabilities (Sept. 11 to Dec. 3, 2023) Professor: Sandra Stratton-Gonzalez; Member Tuition $520 and Non-Member Tuition $595; 3 NDEO-endorsed PDCs; 12 weeks; All children need opportunities to learn, create, perform and respond to dance in all its forms. Dance provides students, with and without disabilities, a means of expression and communication, an opportunity to collaborate with others in the creative process and the exploration of new movement possibilities. Through this course, educators will learn instructional strategies that successfully include students with disabilities in the PreK-12 school environment, dance studios, and community spaces. Course participants will acquire knowledge and skills needed to plan and implement an effective and inclusive Dance Education program. The course will address legislation related to students with disabilities, characteristics of different disabilities, content and teaching accommodations for learning in dance education, goals and assessment, viewing the performances (via video) of professional dancers with disabilities and a consideration of Disability Justice. Educators who teach in the P-12 schools, private studios, and community dance programs will find this course can assist them with the knowledge and learning experiences to provide meaningful dance education programs for students with disabilities. NOTE: This course does not address the young adult or older adult population. The main focus in on kids and teens. Register HERE
Photo credits: Two action shots by Julia Halsey courtesy of Arts Access Program at Matheny, head shot by Erica Victoria Photography.