Dancing With The Angels
Posted March 11, 2016on:
One week ago today, Polly Dunn, my childhood dance teacher passed away. Those of you who have read “Distracted Girl” know what a wonderful role model and major influence on my life she was. She was more than just a dance teacher. She was like a second mother to all of us dance students.
In addition to my ADHD, I also had some gross motor delays and poor coordination as a child. This made it difficult for me to participate in gym class, play sports, or do any other athletic activity. My parents signed me up for dance lessons, hoping that it would improve my coordination. Dance was challenging for me as well, and if I had studied with a more traditional dance teacher who emphasized structure and competition, it is likely that I would have quit dance at an early age and never returned.
However, Polly was far from a traditional dance teacher. Many dance teachers have competitions and give awards at recitals to their best dancers every year. Polly, on the other hand, often said, “I don’t believe that dance should be competitive. If you want to compete, play basketball or some other sport. At my dance school, the goal is not to be better than all the other dancers. It’s about being the best dancer that you can be, and it goes for each and every one of you.”
Polly often came up with creative ways to include dancers of all levels and abilities. For instance, one year she choreographed a dance to Whitney Houston’s version of the national anthem as the opening recital number. The more advanced dancers performed a complicated dance with lots of leaps, twists, and turns on the stage. Meanwhile, I marched down one of the aisles of the auditorium carrying an American flag. Another dancer with disabilities, Julie, marched down the other aisle, also with a flag. When we reached the stage, the other dancers were jumping and turning so much that no one even noticed Julie and me sneaking on the stage behind them. When it got to the line, “our flag was still there,” all the other dancers lay down on the stage and Julie and I waved our flags. Everyone applauded at the display of patriotism, and Julie and I felt proud to be a part of that moment.
Another instance of Polly’s inclusivity happened when I first danced on pointe. Like all young ballerinas, I was eager to progress to this exciting level. Pointe is performed wearing special toe shoes, and it requires the dancer to have taken several years of dance instruction so that her quadriceps muscles are strong enough to support her. Most girls are ready to dance on pointe at age 12, however, due to my poor coordination; I was still dancing in soft ballet shoes for beginners when I was 15. Eventually, Polly told me was ready to train for pointe. I worked hard, and Polly finally told me I was ready to dance on pointe late in May. Since it was only a few weeks before the recital, Polly didn’t have time to teach me a dance on pointe to perform that year. However, she found a way to accommodate me once again. She had the high school seniors who were graduating dance the finale, and then all of us dancers who were on pointe came out boureeing on our toes, formed a semi-circle around the graduating senior, and gracefully stretched out our arms in gesture to her. That was Polly’s way of including me on pointe in the recital. She never told any of the other dancers that she did so especially for me, so that I wouldn’t feel stigmatized or embarrassed. Another dance teacher might have waited until the following year for me to dance on pointe in the recital, however, Polly knew how hard I had worked and was eager to include me that year.
Those are just two of the many examples of how Polly sought to include all her dancers, regardless of ability. It is only recently that other dance schools are learning the importance of what Polly knew all along. Last year, I gave a presentation to dance teachers at the Boston Ballet’s adaptive dance program, a special program for dancers with disabilities. I gave them tips on how to make their school inclusive to all, and I talked about how Polly made her dance school inclusive to me and others.
Goodbye, Polly Dunn. We will never forget how you taught us not only to dance, but also to love and the importance of helping others. Now you are in Heaven dancing with God and the angels, and teaching the little cherubim their plies and arabesques.