Okay, we have to admit that we aren’t the best dancers. TBH, our repertoire of dance moves includes the grapevine, step and touch, and the running-man.
For many learners, the term dance can cause groans, moans and learners desperately trying not to make eye contact with the teacher in hopes they don’t have to perform a sequence of moves to music in front of the class. Organizing movement and finding the courage to perform in front of others can be socially and developmentally challenging for many. Now, imagine what it would feel like for a learner with a disability - awkward in your own body, unsure and possibly unable to perform certain movements you are asked to do.
Meet Christelle, she is the Executive Director and Founder of Dance PossAbilities.
We had the opportunity to collaborate with Christelle on her inclusive dance practice and share an up close and personal interview of how her company came to be.
LAURA & ANDREA: We always like to get to know the people behind the businesses we support. So in no particular order, let's get to know YOU! How long have you been dancing for?
CHRISTELLE: I was born and raised in the small town of Timmins, Ontario and I have been dancing since the young age of 5. My journey with dance all started in the basement of my fiancé’s family home where we would use long PVC pipes as bamboo sticks to learn the traditional Filipino folk dance called Tinikling. I can remember the sound of the pipes clapping together and the feeling of my little toes getting crushed if you were offbeat. (Interesting fact: my now fiancé, Joshua, was my first dance partner and now he’s my life partner. I wanted to throw this fact in just because it makes my heart smile.)
In our small Filipino community, we used to have annual Christmas parties where the children from all of the families would come together and perform different dance acts. We would go rehearse at each other’s house and it would be a whole production. This is what really sparked my love for dance. Up until this point, my training was primarily in the basement or at a friend’s house taught by a member of the community who volunteered to teach us. It wasn’t until I was 7 years old that I started dancing at Mick School of Dance, my first dance studio and my forever dance home. I fell in love with the studio life from day one and I went from having one dance class a week to training in a variety of dance styles such as Tap, Jazz, Ballet, Pointe, Hip Hop, and Acro. All of that to say, I have been dancing since I was 5 years old.
LAURA & ANDREA: Can you share some of your previous dancing experiences with us? We'd love to learn more about your journey!
CHRISTELLE: When I was 17 years old, I made the ultimate decision to move to the city of Toronto, where I have been very blessed to partake in a variety of opportunities in the dance industry. From dancing with Toronto’s NBA Raptors Dance Pak to The Girls Club a professional heels company, I have been exploring multiple avenues to further invest in my love for dance. I went on to dance for multiple artists such as Notifi, LOONY, Kelsey Vaz, Ylvis’s “What Does The Fox Say?”, New York’s Ginette Claudette, Allydice, Haley Small, Deborah Cox, Tag Team’s “Whoomp There It Is” and many others. One of my favorite stage performances was for the Pan Am closing ceremonies because that brought me back to my roots of Filipino Folk dancing. From music videos to on-stage performances, I have also involved myself in some work in TV and commercials such as Lucky 7 and the brand Pink Martini. Not only have I have been able to participate and involve myself in the commercial dance industry, I have been able to further use my experiences in Filipino Folk dancing to perform and model for Canada’s Filipino Fashion week and to tour with Philippine’s Please Be Careful with My Heart cast.
With respect to my teaching career, I have been teaching for 13 years and that sparked a different love and relationship with dance. Growing up, my mother always exposed me to people with different abilities and backgrounds. As a personal support worker and nurse, she would bring me to Community Living from time to time just to drop by and say hi. I remember the speech she would give my sister and I before going inside: “They are just like you and me. They are different but be nice and just treat them like people.” It was also in my last year of dancing at Mick School of Dance, where my dance teacher Ms. Mona taught a class for adults with disabilities and it was INCREDIBLE. To see them work so hard and to perform at the recital just demonstrated to so many people within our community that disability did not define their capability. Cumulatively, these experiences and simply the exposure led to my comfort and nature when teaching individuals with disabilities. That’s why it feels so natural to me.
In university, my adapted physical activity practicum teacher Archie Allison from Variety Village, recommended me to Kelly Arbour-Nicitopoulos, another professor who was looking for someone to be a youth mentor for her program called Igniting Fitness Possibilities. I remember Kelly calling my name over the microphone to come down to the front and having no clue about what was about to happen. I awkwardly walked down the many flights of stairs of this 200-capacity classroom. When I got to the front of class, she told me that Archie highly recommended me and to apply. That moment sparked my career as a Research Kinesiologist at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital and the University of Toronto which led to further experiences in the field of adapted physical activity at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and Special Olympics.
Currently, I specialize in working with children and youth with disabilities and in creating inclusive and adapted programming for individuals with diverse abilities. This led to my creation of Dance PossAbilities, an educational platform, that trains dance teachers, dance assistants, adjudicators, and studio owners on building inclusive and accessible dance classes. I have been very blessed to be a guest and to teach at Special Olympics, SO Youth Games, Happy Soul Project, Dance Vocab, Inclusive Communities Canada, Variety Village, and in Mexico at DUBO Force. I’m very grateful for the many opportunities that have been given to me and for the many people that I have met along this journey.
LAURA & ANDREA: How are you continuing your love for dance today?
CHRISTELLE: I am forever a student. I’m a believer in practice makes progress and with that said, I continue to embed dance in my life by continuously taking classes, freestyling, choreographing, taking part in different productions, and by teaching online. Also, I personally do not embarrass easily, so you can always catch me dancing between grocery store aisles!
When I am limited by space, I am continuously listening to music and I am always practicing visualization. Every song and genre of music is comprised of so many layers, whether that be the lyrics, or the composition of each instrument involved in the song. I want to be able to articulate and isolate every instrument and lyric of the song with my body. It’s learning how to communicate the different parts of a song through movement. So even when I’m not moving physically, I’m dancing in my mind.
LAURA & ANDREA: If you were to choose 3 words to describe Dance PossAbilities what would they be?
CHRISTELLE: Warm, Creative, Open – Inclusion is not a fixed one size fits all recipe, and inclusion looks and feels different for everybody. It’s for this reason that we must always re-imagine inclusion and in order to do that, you need to be warm, creative, and open.
Our mission is to empower dance teachers and dance communities to re-imagine inclusion for every body.
LAURA & ANDREA: Picture the word 'inclusion'. What does this look like in your dance studio?
CHRISTELLE: Let’s go on an adventure! When I picture the word inclusion in the ideal dance studio that lives in my brain, I start at the parking lot where there’s proper way signage, seamlessly accessible parking spots that all lead to a large automatic entrance that is not designated for just individuals with disabilities, but for everybody. As you come into the entrance, there’s a huge lobby with multiple forms of seating, where I see people of all walks of life interacting with each other. Behind the receptionist, there are haptic vests and devices that allow individuals who are Deaf to feel the music, there are noise-canceling headphones accessible for our students with ASD, different sensory bins, and fidgets for teachers to incorporate into their teaching practices, and the list goes on! We would offer many different types of dance programs whether that be inclusive or adapted. Each dance studio space has accessible ballet bars that can be adjusted to accommodate varying heights, light dimmers for different light sensitivities, some-type of SmartBoard where you can draw, display your schedule/expectations for the class, and further enhance your ability to communicate with your dancers. All of our teachers and teaching assistants are trained and informed about each of their dancers and their specific needs. I can go on, but I hope you envision what I’m seeing.
The two places I can compare to, and if anybody has had the chance to experience these places (they’d know what I’m talking about), is Holland Bloorview and the Abilities Centre. These places are an experience from the moment you walk in through those doors to the moment that you walk out. Ultimately, inclusion in my dance studio is CHOICE. I believe that having autonomy over your learning experiences further enhances your motivation towards whatever you’re doing, which further bleeds into the motivational climate. That is how I picture inclusion.
LAURA & ANDREA: How do you ensure an inclusive program for all of your participants?
CHRISTELLE: I ensure that my classes are inclusive for all of my participants by creating a motivational climate. A motivational climate is different in every single one of my classes but the three components that I ensure to maintain are autonomy, competency, and relatedness amongst my dancers. I instill autonomy by always providing my dancers with some choice and control over their own learning, whether that is through choosing between different variations and modifications of a dance move, the intensity or tempo of a dance move, to the duration of a particular activity. To keep certain students motivated, I make sure to shape the program to best suit the needs and interests of the group. If a participant loves aquatic animals or Super Mario Party, I will connect the material to their interests to help motivate them and to further help them understand the material. I can proudly say that I am quite versed in Paw Patrol, Fortnite, and many other TV shows and videogames. This is how I build rapport with my students by doing my research and connecting the material to their interests.
In addition to autonomy, I do my best to foster friendships and relationships through teamwork and collaboration. Before every class, I do a sharing circle to help my students learn about each other and to allow each student to feel as though their voice matters by being heard by their fellow peers. When we do cyphers or freestyle circles, I always encourage my students to cheer each other on to create a safe and supportive environment. We leave no student behind! The cherry on top is helping my dancers feel that they are competent and capable of anything they set their minds to.
Meaningful participation looks and feels different for each student, but at the end of the day I want my students to feel that they are contributing to the group in a way that is meaningful, autonomy-supportive, and fulfilling to them. It is my role as a teacher to figure out how to do that all through dance. If a space is not accessible, if I lack equipment, or if the material that I prepared did not result in the outcome that I was expecting (slash I threw the whole lesson out the window), as long as I have all of the components of a motivational climate that’s all that I need in order to create a memorable experience and learning lesson with my students.
LAURA & ANDREA: What would be your advice to a learner with a disability who wants to pursue dance?
CHRISTELLE: This will sound absurd, but my advice to a learner with a disability is to F.A.I.L. as much as possible. The F.A.I.L. acronym stands for First Attempt in Learning. So, what I’m trying to say is try everything and try everything more than once. You’ll never know what you’ll discover about yourself and how you move until you try. When learning how to dance I would just learn about how your body moves as much as possible, to challenge yourself to do things that you didn’t think possible, and find different ways to move to reach the same end goal. No matter how many attempts you put forward, it’s your ability to get back up and try again that matters. Practice and repetition are key but what is of bigger importance is understanding that you may not get the right step right away, but with patience and time, you will get it!
LAURA & ANDREA: What do you hope for in the future for Dance PossAbilities?
CHRISTELLE: A mini story before I wrap things up! Every year, I travel to Mexico to teach about inclusive practices for dance teachers and to hold workshops of different dance genres for the incredible dance community built by a company called DUBO Force. In my first year in Mexico, I had a student name Luis and I did quite a bit of one-on-one with him during our group classes. When he first walked into class, he didn’t show a lot of engagement and responsiveness. On the first day, we bonded after quite the bathroom mishap, and from that moment we were attached at the hip! As the week progressed, Luis grew more comfortable and was answering questions in class, mirror movements, demonstrating a wide range of emotions, remembering formations, and the growth continued. Every time Luis looked at me with his kind eyes, I knew exactly what he was feeling although he was not able to communicate to me verbally due to his limited verbal skills and our language barrier. During the final performance, I can remember it like it was yesterday, his face was BEAMING, his smile stretched I swear from one ear all the way to the other. Just as we finished our end pose, I turned to look at Luis and from the top of his lungs, he screamed “GRACIASSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!” (‘thank you’ in Spanish) to the entire crowd as they applauded our entire group. At that very moment, huge crocodile tears ran down my face, my heart was so warm. It was at that very moment that I knew this was what I wanted to do.
So, what do I hope for in the future for Dance PossAbilities? My biggest hope is to encourage as many dance teachers and studios as possible to give dancers with a disability a chance. By inspiring teachers to adopt an inclusive mindset and practice, I hope to ignite a cascade of opportunities that will lead to more equal opportunities and increased representation within our dance communities. I hope to create more GRACIAS moments such as the one I experienced with Luis.
Using dance as a medium within the 2019 Health & Physical Education curriculum is a great way to build on fundamental movement and expressive skills. It can help learners develop the following:
- Skills: Stability, locomotion, and manipulation.
- Concepts: Body awareness, spatial awareness, effort awareness and relationship.
We had the opportunity to take part in a beginner dance lesson with Christelle, and are excited to share this collaboration with you! Christelle has taught us that starting out can be simple, and by having learners take part in creating opportunities to showcase their skills in different ways, they will be as engaged as we were!
The following video will teach some basic movement and rhythm skills that supports all learners with different ranges of movement and ability. Before watching the video, here are some tips to help you move:
- Accommodations are helpful tools you provide to a student to help them succeed with expectations, including making tasks simpler. For example, if the expectation is to move a series of steps to a fast 8th note pattern, you may ask the student to perform at a slower pace. Andrea will be performing the accommodated movements.
- Modifications are more intensive changes to an expectation, where you may find the entire expectation changes altogether. For example, moving to a rhythm from a seated position. Laura will be performing the modified movements.
Christelle's teaching style is evidence of her strong knowledge and understanding of how to accommodate movements so that learners have a variety of choices to move to the beat. Her experience in working with learners with disabilities is demonstrated as she integrates personal movement styles with ease and enthusiasm. Her attitude makes you comfortable in trying new things and encourages you to explore what makes dancing work, for YOU!
Thank you Christelle for collaborating with us to showcase movement for all learners and abilities. Dance PossAbilities gets our stamp of approval as it is the perfect representation of how physical activity and dance can be accessible not just for learners with disabilities, but also learners like ourselves who are still learning to expand our horizons past our learned dance moves from the 2000's - which we've heard have evolved since then? Ha Ha!