Kinder, gentler (funner) dance class ‘I adjust myself and what I’m doing,’ says ExplorAbility’s Jacqui Ladwig, ‘because… for the majority of things in their life, it’s the opposite, they have to adjust to everybody else’
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The dance class begins not with stretching or movements at the barre, but with a check-in.
How to register
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet School (380 Graham Ave.) offers three 10-week ExplorAbility sessions per year. Program fees are $90 for in-person classes and $63 for online classes. Visit rwb.org for more information.
Upcoming class schedules are:
• ExplorAbility for Parkinson’s: Fridays at 9:15 a.m., March 17 to June 2
• ExplorAbility for Adults: Wednesdays at 1 p.m., March 22 to May 31
Instructor Jacqui Ladwig walks around the semi-circle with two laminated cards asking each dancer to pick the face that matches their mood. It’s an opportunity to connect with students individually while informing how to approach the day.
“If they’re coming into class and they’re feeling nervous or anxious or upset or sad it’s good for me to know that,” says Ladwig, founder and director of ExplorAbility, a dance program for adults with disabilities offered through the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School. “Then I know, OK, today’s going to be an easy day or maybe we need a little extra support today.”
On this particular Wednesday afternoon, the group of eight dancers and five support staff is feeling good — if not a little tired. After some seated warm-ups and percussive music, however, the energy has shifted and the high-ceiling studio is full of smiles, laughter and happy stimming.
Ladwig doles out a bushel of gauzy teal scarves and the students find their own space to play with the props. They swirl the flowy fabric up and down, side to side, around in circles. Everyone’s following the instructions, but doing so at their own pace and in their own way. Autonomy is a big part of the ethos.
“The main goal is participation,” says Ladwig, who tailors the class to the students’ abilities. “I adjust myself and what I’m doing, as opposed to making them adjust to me, because… for the majority of things in their life, it’s the opposite, they have to adjust to everybody else.”
The emphasis on personal choice is one of the reasons Javan Nagtegaal is so keen on ExplorAbility. She has a say in the music and the volume and is encouraged to take breaks when needed. It’s a far cry from her previous dance experiences.
“I used to hate dance class, even though I like dancing,” she says. “I never felt included, it was too fast, too much or too hard for someone like me.”
Nagtegaal has been dancing in the program for two years. The studio at the RWB’s Graham Avenue campus has become a haven where she can move her body, connect with friends and express herself without fear of judgment.
“Growing up, I was always in hospital beds with tubes, needles, surgeries. I’ve always been sicker than my brother or everyone else who got to go do fun activities,” she says. “When I’m dancing, I feel healthy and I feel free.”
Her favourite moments are whenever ABBA plays and when the group practices the routine they’re learning, “It feels harmonic,” Nagtegaal says.
While there’s no recital at the end of the 10-week session, choreography remains a key part of the curriculum, which incorporates ballet, jazz and modern dance styles.
“Moving as a group, that ensemble feeling, is kind of unique,” Ladwig says. “It’s an important part of the dance experience.”
Daphne Wilcox has also had lackluster encounters in other dance programs. ExplorAbility is a hit because it’s challenging and varied.
“I like this dance class because there’s tactile stuff,” she says, referring to the scarves in today’s class.
Mom Lisa Wilcox has been on the hunt for daytime activities that satisfy her daughter’s creative bent — Daphne is into movement, music (jazz, in particular) and costume-making. In high school, there was ample extracurricular programming available to the family. Post-graduation, it’s been hard to find things to do that are both enjoyable and inclusive.
“We are a creative family that loves the arts and so we want to connect with other people with the same interests,” Lisa says. “It is difficult to find people of her age to build community and friendships with… so this is definitely a highlight of her week.”
Ladwig has been teaching with the RWB School for 35 years. She started ExplorAbility in 2009 after hosting a one-off, hour-long workshop for adults with disabilities. It was an event that changed the trajectory of her career.
“To see people moving in the space and having fun and listening to music… it was the most awesome thing ever because, traditionally, dance is very exclusionary, it’s not an inclusive environment,” she says. “Movement is medicine — for everybody.”
At the time, Ladwig had returned to university and was studying applied health. The potential she saw in the studio inspired her to pursue a master’s degree and PhD in dance and disability.
While her knowledge of adapted movement and neurodiversity have been a boon for students — some of whom have been attending every session for the last 14 years — programs like ExplorAbility have been slow to catch on elsewhere.
“It’s a smaller niche in the dance world,” Ladwig says. “If you don’t have education in disability on some level, there can be a bit of fear there for teachers because you don’t want to hurt anyone.”
As part of her PhD research, she’s developing a set of guidelines for dance teachers and schools, “so people have a little bit more understanding and can hopefully feel more comfortable adapting things,” she says.
Since its inception, ExplorAbility has grown to include a Friday-morning class for adults with Parkinson’s disease. Both programs are offered in-person or online three times per year.
Nagtegaal has some advice for would-be students who may be nervous about trying something new: “Keep an open mind,” she says. “If you love music and to laugh and to be happy and to feel seen — this is a wonderful place to be.”
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Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.