Hilary Walsh is used to adapting movement for students of different abilities, but she never expected that she’d need to adapt entire dance classes to a digital format. Moving her practice online when COVID-19 struck, though, proved to be not so much a challenge for the St. John’s-based dance teacher as an opportunity for her students.
“There were some students who, when I had them in a classroom setting, would be following along, but they’d quite often get distracted,” Walsh says. “Some of those students did better using the online platform in which I was the only one on the screen and they were in their home environment, which was very familiar with no distractions.”
Adaptive dance classes make movement skills and artistry accessible to students with a wide variety of abilities. Walsh’s students range in age from six to thirty-two and include individuals with developmental disabilities, mobility impairments and vision loss.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Walsh is offering two adaptive dance classes online: Learn to Dance, which focuses on dance technique and covers styles from Broadway to hip hop, and Creative Inclusive Movement, which explores dance through activities like follow-the-leader, storytelling and prop work. Walsh is discovering that some types of dance are better suited to being taught in a virtual format than others.
“I find that ballet, where it is so structured, it’s a bit easier to teach through the screen because it’s easy to find a place in your house to hold a chair or to hold a countertop,” she says. “The movements that ballet begins with — the first position, the plié, the stretch — it’s much easier to teach that through the screen.”
Having fallen in love with dance at the age of seven, Walsh was torn between a career in dance and one in the health sciences when she graduated from high school. It wasn’t until she enrolled in a master’s program in public health that she realized dance itself could be an effective health intervention. Her interest in using dance as a pathway to physical, emotional and social wellness led her to complete a master’s in occupational therapy at the University of Toronto, where she undertook specialized training in teaching adaptive dance.
After returning home to Newfoundland, Walsh began leading her own adaptive dance classes. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, she was teaching four adaptive classes through Steffen Dance Studio: Inclusive Creative Movement for ages four to six; Creative Ballet/Jazz for neuro-diverse children ages six to twelve; Jazz/Hip Hop for children with physical disabilities; and Dance for Down Syndrome for ages sixteen and up.
The key to teaching adaptive dance, according to Walsh, is being able to adjust your teaching style to the needs and the strengths present in the classroom. The benefits to students, she says, can be profound. Apart from expressing themselves creatively, increasing their body awareness and expanding their freedom of movement, many of Walsh’s students have become more outgoing and have built lasting friendships with their classmates.
She recalls one of her youngest students who, before the pandemic, gradually transitioned from exploring movement alone to copying Walsh. At first, Walsh followed the student’s lead as a way to form a therapeutic relationship and introduce the idea of cooperative movement. Then one day, in a game where they were pretending to be horses, their roles switched — the student, who had been leading Walsh around the studio with a hula hoop, turned around and began to follow Walsh instead.
Following, Walsh points out, is a fundamental skill for any young child. Even in preschool and kindergarten, children are expected to listen to directions and abide by rules. The movement games Walsh uses in class also playfully encourage back-and-forth exchanges and non-verbal communication skills.
“There’s so much communication that you can get from body language, but as society we often forget about that. We live through our heads, almost. It’s interesting to bring it back down into our body and bridge the two,” she says.
In the near future, Walsh hopes to begin offering dance movement therapy classes locally as well. Unlike adaptive classes, which are geared towards teaching dance artistry to students with diverse abilities, dance therapy uses movement as a way to facilitate expression, ease anxiety, increase self-esteem or meet other therapeutic goals.
Walsh is already thinking about how dance therapy could play a role in helping people reconnect with their bodies and with each other once the pandemic ends.
“Technology is wonderful and it can connect us, but it lacks a sense of humanity and I think that’s where dance movement therapy really could help,” she says.