WASHINGTON - Dancers - the ones who leap across advertisements, or writhe in the back of music videos - are often represented in a narrow shape and size in our collective American, media-molded consciousness: as graceful, slender, youthful and confident. And on a Thursday morning in September, in a black-box studio, the dancers who were warming up did generally fit that description. Clad in loose, comfortable clothing, their hair in high ponytails or hanging freely around their necks, they stretched and smiled, showcasing comfort with their bodies.
But when their visitors ambled in, the composition of the group changed markedly. The 20 or so guests had a range of intellectual disabilities, including diagnoses such as traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorder and Down syndrome, many of which inhibit movement. And they were there to dance.
The workshop was part of the inaugural Inclusive Dance Lab, a week of free events designed for both and able-bodied performers. Some classes were open to the public, while others matched local dance groups with regional organizations for the disabled.
The program's creator, choreographer Margot Greenlee, hopes to use what she observed in the workshops to develop a curriculum that incorporates specific dances and exercises for those who want to bring dance to people worldwide who have intellectual disabilities. "When I look around the world, I see multiple ways that dance can get in there and do something interesting," says Greenlee, who runs BodyWise Dance in Washington, which designs team-bonding programming, often with the goal of including those frequently left out of dance. "There's clearly this vast network of people out there doing this work. I want to start connecting these dots."
She was joined for the week by a trio of Russian choreographers who are pursuing similar goals in their home country. They helped her explain to the group the first activity: the three-name game. Each dancer said their name three times accompanied by a dance move. The group then mirrored the move and shouted the name.
Some movements were big, like Greenlee's, who crouched and mimed turning the wheel of a car. Others were smaller because they were all that the dancer could manage - a head shake or hand motion, which the group copied enthusiastically, often erupting into laughter as it did so. "The leadership goes very quickly from me to the group," Greenlee says. "That, to me, is successful because we get to practice that shared leadership, that moment where we can step forward and say, 'Yes, now that focus is on me.' "
Greenlee has been holding a weekly dance class for four years in a studio at the Fairfax County, Virginia, nonprofit MVLE, which works to empower and support people who have disabilities. The class draws 20 to 30 participants, including 29-year-old Matthew Chappell, who has a mild intellectual disability and autism. "Every day I do the class, it makes me happy," Chappell says. Brenda See, 69, agreed that when she dances, "it's a better day." Her favorite song to dance to is "Soul Man" by Sam & Dave. Greenlee's MVLE dancers are well-practiced in her techniques; the Inclusive Dance Lab allowed her to test activities on new disabled dancers as well.
In Washington, Russian choreographer Mariya Myakisheva explained to the dancers their second exercise. Her fellow choreographer Daria Baidina translated her words from Russian to English. "Choose a body part that it is OK for your partner to touch and point to it. Then the partner, with a very light touch, move that body part around, leading it." Across the room, people pointed to their hands, their noses, the tops of their heads, their knees, their shoulders. Soon, their partners were guiding those body parts in movement to music.
Chappell and his partner (MVLE dancers were among the participants in Inclusive Dance Lab) faced each other and held both hands, swinging them left and right and grinning. "A lot of people in our group have impulse-control issues where they want to grab or give a big hug without asking, and that's not cool in real life," says Greenlee. She also points out that, according to Justice Department data, people with intellectual disabilities are seven times as likely to be the victims of sexual assault. "I wanted to figure out how can I start to use physical contact in our choreography, but in a way that really trains for self-advocacy," she says.
Part of the inspiration for the exercise came from Greenlee's visit to Russia last year - funded by the Eurasia Foundation - when she first met the three Russian choreographers. "I saw people doing full-on contact improvisation with no permission or giving or asking," she says. "That does not work in the American culture, nor for me personally in the era of #MeToo."
Little research has been done on the benefits of dance for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, but it has helped those with Parkinson's disease by reducing tremors and offering physical, emotional and social benefits. Greenlee worked with patients who have Parkinson's and with veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder before she turned her focus to dancers who have disabilities. "All different experiences and backgrounds - that's what makes the work more meaningful," she says.
Greenlee's regimented training in ballet drove her to seek a dance career centered on inclusion and diversity. "I grew up in the tough-it-out ballet world. I don't want anyone to tough it out if they're trying to make art," she says. "Ballet told me, 'This is the only way to do it.' I realized this isn't the only way to do it."
In the coming months, Greenlee plans to share lessons and webinars online, documenting what she learned from the Inclusive Dance Lab. Meanwhile, she's continuing to work with the dancers at MVLE. The organization's president and chief executive, April Pinch-Keeler, says she's grateful. "It's been exhilarating watching individuals go from quiet wallflowers to very energized, saying hello, learning how to greet you professionally," Pinch-Keeler says. "Through art and music, it's an opportunity for people to feel the same things that we all want, and to connect to their lives and have choices on what they want to do and who they want to be."