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Lesley Evans Ogden finds freedom and fun at a dance class for all abilities.

It’s Tuesday evening, and people are beginning to arrive for a dance class at Edmonton’s Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital. There are hugs, back slaps, smiles, greetings, and chit-chat around the sofas in the lobby. It’s immediately clear that this class is about more than just dancing.

We pile into an elevator and head down to the gymnasium, where we form a circle and introduce ourselves with improv movements. I am a tree waving in the wind. Then the class leader, Lindsay Eales, makes her way to the front of the gym and cues the music. Dancers disperse across the gym, facing her. Some are standing. Some are in wheelchairs. One is using a walker. Another leaves her mobility aid at the side and uses the handles of a fellow dancer’s wheelchair for support. One man near the back is standing on his feet, supported from behind by his mother’s hands cradling his hips.

I’m a bit nervous. I took ballet for many years as a child, and was never very good. I recall the kind of judgemental, competitive environment those formal, highly structured and regimented classes imposed upon participants. This will be completely different, but I’m still not quite sure what to expect.

The Solidance Inclusive Recreation Society was co-founded by Eales, an occupational therapist and a PhD student at the University of Alberta. Solidance provides an opportunity for individuals of all abilities, using a wide variety of mobility aids, to explore integrated dance, creative movement, improvisation, ballet, jazz and hip-hop. I’ve come here to participate as well, reckoning that to fully understand inclusive activities, one needs to be included.

Eales, dressed in black yoga pants and a burgundy sweat top, effusively demonstrates the dance moves at the front. A loosely fastened flap of her bright red hair flips through the air we follow along. The music is zippy and fast, the pace frenetic and fun. The moves are adapted, or transformed – changed and improvised based on the movement abilities of the dancers – moving arms instead of feet, or getting creative with the wheels, bars or other moveable or solid elements of their mobility tools.

Each participant has a different story of how they joined the community. Bobman Jeffrey tells me he was “discovered” in the brain injury clinic. “I come to the class because it’s physical exercise, and I really enjoy the people,” he says. “They mean a whole lot to me, and I look forward to the classes all the time.”

Jinny was in a car accident about five years ago: “I had danced as a child and as an adult, but of course had given everything up, and to come back and be able to dance – really dance – at my speed and my ability was just a huge gift,” she says. “My mobility has increased, my strength has increased… You keep doing it because you want to so much.”

As well as embracing a diversity of participants, the programme is financially accessible – $50 for three months of weekly classes, with subsidies available, and free for hospital inpatients. Some of the dancers also perform professionally in a company called CRIPSiE (Collaborative Radically Integrated Performers Society in Edmonton). Whatever money is made gets divided among the dancers, a welcome bonus, especially for those who don’t make much money otherwise. It can mean a meal out, or a chance to buy more groceries.

Eales knows first-hand about financial barriers to recreational opportunities. “My mom was a single mom,” she says, “and I have three younger sisters.” All were doing dance, so to reduce costs, her family cleaned the studios, but “it just became financially impossible”. However, “The public school system here has a really great performing arts high school, so I went from studio dance to that programme so that I could continue to dance.”

Pursuing occupational therapy at university, she dropped dance, considering it “not a feasible career”. But during her degree, she had “a period of pretty significant depression, and suicidal adventures”, and started to look at what activities brought her meaning. Occupational therapy, she explains, “is about enabling the activities that bring meaning to people’s lives”. While on hiatus from her studies, she realised there was no one using mobility tools in the dance community. That prompted her to begin exploring mobility and accessibility through dance.

The evening’s dance class is diverse, free-flowing, non judgemental and fun. It’s clear from the expressions of those around me that this is a meaningful environment in which to dance. There is a tangible feeling of freedom. This is not about ‘perfect bodies’ moving in perfect harmony through perfect space. This is dance as creative liberation from limitations. 

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