Inviting Everyone to Dance: New Fully Inclusive So Cal Dance School

The Center for Dance and Innovation aims to ensure dance continues to be a meaningful and progressive facet of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and the southern California community. As part of this mission, the recently opened School of Dance and Music for Children with Disabilities makes arts education accessible to children who are visually impaired, have autism, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, Spina Bifida, life threatening illnesses, and other complex needs. The school is also open to developmentally typical children, cultivating understanding and appreciation for diversity. The World Dances spoke with Susan Marie Kendall, Director of Community Engagement at Segerstrom, about this exciting program. Click here for more info.

Given the various needs of the students, why include all children of such mixed abilities in the same class?

The answer is a philosophical one. Our vision for these classes is that they reflect our society and world, and to create an environment that is both accepting and inclusive of a range of abilities where everyone feels welcome to participate. The Americans with Disabilities Act might be described as, essentially, making sure that everyone is invited to the dance, and that’s what we’re doing. We ensure everyone can physically get here and make accommodations for special needs, softer music or lighting for example. We encourage everyone to participate once they’re here. This program is all about that, even thought that participation might look super different from one kid to the next.

It’s really neat to see parents who are passionate about exposing their kids to the fact that not everyone is the same. Even though it’s a challenge to design curriculum that will be accessible and interesting to different ages and abilities, it’s absolutely worth it. The parents of the kids with disabilities love having the typical kids in the class. Some modeling of physicality and behavior comes from their peers. Having kids there that are developmentally typical to model behavior is great.

What is the school’s teaching approach?

Our faculty is wonderful. They are so passionate about helping the kids succeed and approaching them where they are. That is a key element of our success. We have no minimum requirements. As a fully inclusive program we are open to everyone. If you want to dance, we are here for you.

We have a three-person teaching team model. Each of our classes has a dance teacher who’s experienced teaching dance and preferably also working with kids with disabilities, a music teacher to provide accompaniment and teach a musical concept, and a licensed physical or occupational therapist in each class. The therapists are there for safety, to make sure that all the kids are comfortable, and to help guide movement when that is needed or appropriate. The teachers participate in a week-long intensive training that includes an overview of different diagnoses, inclusive language, program philosophy, curriculum, teambuilding, and more. We share further resources on an ongoing basis. 

How was the curriculum designed to effectively reach such a diverse student community?

We took quite a bit of time to write curriculum for this program. Among our dance teachers, musicians, and therapists, we have been fortunate to develop a knowledge base about which everyone is passionate. We have been extremely thoughtful about how the classes are designed. We start each class with a moment of welcome to see how everyone is feeling—whether we’re feeling overwhelmed or really excited. It’s important for our teachers to know that. Every class teaches a dance skill and a musical concept. We make them accessible to kids as young as four and, interestingly enough, for kids up to twelve. Each class ends with reflections, what we learned and enjoyed the most.

What else does the Center for Dance and Innovation do?

The Center for Dance and Innovation is one of the three pillars of Segerstrom’s community engagement. It is a fairly new initiative, though dance as a primary component of the organization’s programming is not new at all. We have 30 years of great dance history behind us, and this initiative is looking toward the future and ensuring that dance continues to be a meaningful part of what we do. This new school is one of those ways. The American Ballet Theatre William J. Gillespie School is another, and we foster partnerships to explore how dance and technology can interact.

How is this philosophy of inclusion expressed in other programmatic facets off the organization?

We are becoming more passionate about reflecting and serving our community. Segerstrom composed a statement of equity and inclusion that has buy-in from both our staff and board members. It speaks to having a diverse community that we highlight and celebrate in trying to help build a better world.

We are also currently working on building up our plaza, which will have a permanent stage. All programing there will be free. We will be looking for organizations and companies to present that represent what our community is.

The idea, looking forward, is to continue to make ourselves more accessible to our community in tangible ways that go beyond having great performances. Once we had founded the new ABT school, we asked ourselves, who are were not serving who might benefit a different concept of arts education.

What are the your ideas for the future of this program?

We are hoping to expand on the disciplines that we are able to offer, to include more music, add musical theater, creative writing, visual arts. We want to make it an comprehensive arts school for all kids to learn subjects they might not have access to otherwise. Once everything is tried and tested, we don’t want to just hold on to this for ourselves.  The idea is to share this with other communities that might benefit. 

Photo credit: Jake Fabricius