New York NY
“If you have a body,” says Melissa, “you can dance. Period.” A teaching artist with a focus on special education, Melissa is the founder and director of Born Dancing, a nonprofit dedicated to inclusion in dance. “In our productions, there’s no separation between pros and novices, those that are able-bodied or those with a disability. It’s about coming together in dance as people, and supporting each other throughout the process of creating a show.”
It was on the subway one day that it dawned on Melissa that she’d never been in a dance class with somebody in a wheelchair or with an obvious disability. “Where do they go? I wondered. Obviously they can dance.” That realization motivated her to give children and teens with disabilities the opportunity to perform, design, and produce a show alongside professionals.
“Dance is non-verbal,” she says, “so for those for whom the social-emotional is difficult, they light up in a way they haven’t before. Suddenly there’s equality. They learn that they can communicate in a different way. Their typically-abled peers see them succeeding, and even have to rely on them for instruction. So both sets of students see each other in a different light. They realize that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Everyone has areas in which they can shine. It’s why we mix everyone together.”
“Arts education is integral to who I am. Over time I realized that quite a few people have limited access to dance. They do not get to experience the joy of taking classes, or putting a show together. Some were almost automatically excluded. I created Born Dancing out of a strong desire to bring more people into dance performance and production. If you want to dance with us, we will make it work, and have a good time in the process. I believe in challenging students to do more than they may have thought possible. The ‘How are you ever going to do this?’ space is where I live.”
How do you produce a vibrant learning environment?
“I hire lots of dance and theater professionals. As part of their responsibilities they are asked to work with a small team of high school students with disabilities. The students learn and work as apprentices, and are part of every aspect of the preparation and planning, technical rehearsals, and performances.
“Often designers and stage managers will tell me that they have no experience working in special education or with people with disabilities. I tell them that that is exactly the point: nothing special should be required to work with people with disabilities other than the willingness to do so, and the willingness to learn from each other. Everything else can be worked out. The same is true for many of the professional dancers. They may not have worked with young children or children with special needs before, but as long as they are excited about dancing together they can serve as mentors and collaborators.”
How do you foster youth leadership?
“I assume strength in my students and scaffold challenges so they can succeed. When they are presented with a move like learning a difficult floor roll, something in them lights up and they want to rise to the occasion. In working through it, I ensure they not only build self-esteem, but empathy. I’ll say, ‘If you’ve already mastered it, please help a fellow dancer learn it as well.’ By giving them a responsibility to their peers, they can use their newly acquired skill and deepen their understanding. The process of teaching puts the focus on understanding what the difficulty is and helping someone else through it.
“I also give students responsibilities behind the scenes: placing the props and set pieces, steaming costumes, being on headset (everyone loves to be on headset!). We give them a leadership role, like videotaping rehearsals and classes, interviewing their peers, or giving cues. In these roles they can practice and apply what they are learning about effective communication, theater etiquette, delivering on a task, and being part of a team.”
How have you evolved as a teacher?
“This work is unbelievably exciting, and the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve become much better at accepting that not all classes are great, not all rehearsals are delightfully fun, and sometimes things just go off the rails. I still pick it apart when that happens, but I know and trust that it’s all part of the process. Realizing that something didn’t work allows me to figure out a better way that does.
What is an example of a good day?
“A day when a student says, “This is HARD,” with a big grin on their face as they accomplish what they couldn’t do 10 weeks or 10 minutes ago.