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From Barre to the Chair: One Disabled Student’s Pivotal Dance Moment

Guest Blogger | 22 June, 2021


          
            From Barre to the Chair: One Disabled Student’s Pivotal Dance Moment

Photo Credit: Mariah Gravelin

Written by: Mark Travis Rivera

 

I will never forget the day that my dance teacher Erin Pride brought Sally Kane in as a guest teacher for ballet. Sally fundamentally changed the way I experienced ballet as a disabled dancer in that one class visit. 

You see, as someone who was born with cerebral palsy and started my dance training in high school, I felt a lot of pressure to work super hard. The day I took Sally’s ballet class, I was struggling to get my right leg on the ballet barre. I wanted to give up in that moment and Sally must have sensed that because she immediately pulled a sitting chair in front of me and said, “use this as your barre.” What Sally demonstrated for me in that moment is that a teacher can literally shift the way a student learns and develops. While some teachers might have dismissed my struggle to reach the barre, Sally wanted me to thrive in her classroom, so she came up with an alternative way for me to accomplish the task. 

After months of using the chair, I was finally able to reach the barre using my right leg. I could not have accomplished this feat without Sally’s belief in me and all of her students. You see, in order to create a dance space where all students can thrive, a teacher must approach each student and meet them where they are. Sally could have easily overlooked my struggle but instead, she came up with a solution to make sure I felt included in the classroom. 

I have committed over a decade of my life to working in the field of integrated dance, a subfield of the larger dance sector that includes disabled and non-disabled dancers working together to create work. During my time as artistic director of my own integrated dance company, marked dance project, I taught masterclasses for a wide variety of people. From disabled kids to disabled adults, and everyone in between. 

 

Here is some advice I want to share with you about how you can make your dance classroom a brave space where all students, regardless of their ability or identity, can thrive. 

  • Do a Check-In:  We know that students don’t leave their personal baggage at the entrance of the dance studio. Dance isn’t just about the body, it’s about the mind. During the check-in, ask your students how they are feeling that day...mentally, emotionally and physically. Asking is just the starting point. You must be willing to actively listen to what your students have to say. Empower them to be vulnerable and help cultivate trust in your classroom.
  • Ask about Pronouns: As we see a rise of transgender, gender nonconforming, and non-binary visibility in our society, we will begin to see a rise in students who dare to live their authentic life. Get in the habit of asking your students their preferred name and personal pronouns whenever you do introductions. For example: “HI, I am Mark, my pronouns are he, him, his. Dancers, as you introduce yourself, please share your personal pronouns.
  • Never Underestimate the Power of Inclusion:  It is easy to do something because it is trendy but including all bodies into your studio will fundamentally change your community for the better. For example, can you create a ramp to access your studio for those who use wheelchairs? Representation matters too! Which is why it is important to show dancers and choreographers of diverse backgrounds. Examples of disabled choreographers include: Marc Brew, Artistic Director of AXIS Dance Company and Alice Sheppard, Artistic Director of Kinetic Light. The power of inclusion is that everyone feels seen and heard––allowing young people to become who they ought to be without fear of judgement. My teachers personally believed in my ability to lead, choreograph, teach, speak, and write and because of that belief, my life is a reality I can be proud of.
  • Learning is a Two-Way Road, Be Willing to Learn from Your Students: While dance training can be rigid, it is important to adapt your teaching for the people in your studio. Allow your students to teach you what they need in order to succeed. Whether that means creating a translation for movement, or using inclusive language that reflects all students, learning how to communicate and move with today’s students makes all the difference and keeps you in the know, and dare I say, makes you the cool teacher! 
  • Commit to being a Life-Long Learner: Just like movement never stops, learning shouldn’t stop just because you’ve reached a certain level or because of your age. Take every opportunity to invest in your professional development as a teacher and commit to being a life-long learner. Read on various topics of identities and how you can make your craft more inclusive and accessible to all students. 

 

If I learned nothing else from Erin Pride and Sally Kane, I learned that teachers matter. In a society that devalues their contribution, I know that teachers are heroes without a mask or cape, shifting possibilities and changing the lives of students with each classroom session. So go, be the heroes that you already are and make sure all of your students feel the effects of your superpower: teaching!

 

Mark Travis Rivera is an award-winning professional storyteller. Whether it is through verbal or written communication, or through dance, telling stories is at the core of Mark’s purpose in life. A graduate of William Paterson University of New Jersey, Rivera earned a bachelor’s in women’s & gender studies with a minor in public relations. He is a member of the Gamma Zeta Chapter of Iota Iota Iota (Triota) National Honor Society for Women’s & Gender Studies and Chi Alpha Epsilon, the Educational Opportunity Fund National Honor Society. In 2013, Rivera received the Student Government Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his commitment to the William Paterson community. In the same year, he was honored with the Campus Pride Voice & Action Award for his work with the LGBTQ community. More recently, he won the Audre Lorde Award for Social Justice from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY. Rivera is the youngest person to found an integrated dance company in the United States. marked dance project, a contemporary company for dancers with and without disabilities, established in March 2009, made its debut at Rutgers University. The company has also performed at the Silk City Summer Arts Festival, the Painted Bride Art Center, the Mandell Theater, the Actor’s Fund Arts Center in Brooklyn, NY and New York University. Through MDP, Rivera has worked with choreographers such as Maureen Glennon, Caitlin Trainor, Stacey Tookey, Todrick Hall, Tyce Diorio, and Marinda Davis. After ten years of remarkable dancing, Rivera decided to dissolve the marked dance project and continue working as an independent choreographer. He has long used writing as a form of expression. His poem, Love Letters to Myself (Excerpts) was published in a new anthology, Between: New Gay Poetry. His essay, Marking My Own Path: An Inner City Dreamer was published in the anthology, I Am Here: The Untold Stories of Everyday People. Rivera’s writing has also been published in The Bergen Record, Herald News, The Star Ledger, Fox News Latino, and The Huffington Post. His debut collection, Drafts: An Imperfect Collection of Writing was published in August of 2017 through Amazon. Rivera resides in the Bay Area in California and currently serves as a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Coordinator for Nika White Consulting.