Talking to Arielle was such a pleasure - she is so articulate and passionate about dance.
Photos: Mary Speed
Talking to Arielle was such a pleasure - she is so articulate and passionate about dance. She has a BA in psychology from Western Connecticut State University and has completed MS coursework in criminal justice and psychology at Central Connecticut State University, and is certified in Progressing Ballet Technique and will soon start the process to become certified in ABT’s National Training Curriculum to teach dance. Arielle is known on Instagram for advocating for accessibility in dance and amplifying the voices of dancers with disabilities, since she herself has experienced what it’s like to be a disabled dancer.
Let’s get to know a little more about Arielle:
Where do you currently dance, and what is your dance training background?
Currently, I train under Zimmi Coker, who is an ABT corps de ballet dancer and is also certified in ABT’s National Training Curriculum. I started dancing when I was 6 at Larnell School in New Fairfield, but I did the majority of my training when I was in college and grad school. I danced at the Academy of Dance Arts in Brookfield, then at the Freyer Academy of Ballet in Wilton.
What has your experience in the dance world been like? How does your disability affect your training?
My experience in dance has not been the best, but I don’t blame my teachers. I wasn’t fully aware of how my disabilities affected me until a few years ago. I have Inattentive-type ADHD and Complex PTSD, but I didn’t realize how those two conditions were working together to seriously affect my ability to take in information and remain present in class. There were times in the studio when I would completely shut down and not be able to pull myself out of that. Now I know that I was struggling with processing auditory information and that I have very low frustration tolerance. I grew up being subjected to emotional abuse because I was repeatedly told that I’m stupid. Now, when I can’t figure things out, it triggers those memories and sets off panic which ultimately results in me having flashbacks. That’s not something that dance teachers are trained to deal with or even to identify in class. It’s something quite severe.
I have a legitimate task-trained service dog, Sweeney, who provides early alerts to panic attacks based on increases in heart rate and other behavioral indicators. He gives me a chance to do something to intervene so I can return to the present moment. Additionally, I’ve learned how to adjust the way information is presented to me in class so it’s much easier for me to process. I take private lessons instead of group classes. I’m much better about speaking up for myself now and explaining what I need. Zimmi has been an amazing support for me as a disabled dancer. She’s always willing to listen to what I need to make class accessible to me. Just today, she was teaching me the Entrance of the Shades over Zoom. I was completely lost and starting to panic. She picked up on it before Sweeney did and reminded me to write down what she was saying instead of just listening to it. I ended up writing out the steps during our lesson and was able to easily put them back together once I read them on paper.
What inspired you to start sharing your story on social media and also to create the @disableddancersofig Instagram page?
The service dog community taught me a lot about accessibility and accommodations. I felt that was something that was missing from dance and would’ve made a difference for me as a disabled dancer. I decided to start Dance of the Differently-Abled to share my experience of disability in dance and to start the conversation about how to bring accommodations to dance. “Differently-abled“ is a term that means that a person with a disability is accommodated to the point that a given situation is fully accessible to them; it means that their disability is no longer disabling. It’s a priority for me to make dance fully accessible to other disabled dancers too.
I started Disabled Dancers of Instagram because we deserve a space to be valued and uplifted. I used to push large, mainstream dance feature accounts to include disabled dancers with more regularity. 20% of the world’s population is disabled. 1 in 5 people have a mental illness. The majority of disabled people have hidden disabilities. I’m tired of seeing a tiny subset of disability being rarely represented as though that’s good enough. It’s not good enough. How will disabled dancers ever matter if we don’t even enter into people’s minds as existing? So, I created a space where disabled dancers exist in a way that is reflective of the reality of disability. I don’t just feature people who use mobility equipment. I feature dancers with physical AND mental illness. I feature dancers of color. I feature LGBTQIA dancers. I make a point of seeking out those who are the most overlooked. To me, those are the dancers who need the most support.
What has dancing looked like for you during the pandemic?
It has been a blessing in disguise for me. At the start of the pandemic, I was just returning to dance after taking about 3 years off. During that time, I gained weight and became pre-diabetic in 2019. I lost 100 lbs at this point, so coming back to dance was as much about re-building strength as it was about re-learning proper alignment in my new body.
The pandemic let me connect with teachers that I never would’ve had the opportunity to learn from before. In addition to getting to take lessons from Zimmi, I had private lessons from Skylar Brandt and Nicholas Rose. I’ve had weeks where I was able to dance 5-6 hours a day by taking Instagram Live classes. I treated this as an opportunity I would likely never have again. I worked hard and took full advantage of everything available. I can see the results of that work paying off now. I’m going to be dancing from home for the foreseeable future.
What are some of your dance-related goals?
I’m going to make ballet truly accessible. I’m going to be attending ABT’s National Training Curriculum certification course next year- I had put it off this year because of the pandemic. I will be the first service dog handler to attend to the course and to complete all levels of the certification. Disabled dancers deserve access to the same dance training that is given to non-disabled dancers. and I’m uniquely situated to work with disabled dancers because of my own experience with disability and my educational background.
What has been your favorite purchase from Beam & Barre?
Everything I buy from Beam & Barre is outstanding. I will say that my favorite thing about Beam & Barre is the team of people who run the store. I was there last week for a pointe shoe fitting- the store was so clean and I felt very safe there. My service dog and I were welcomed without issue. Whether it’s my vegan skin-toned So Dança ballet slippers or the Bloch Serenades I’ll be getting in a few weeks, Beam & Barre always makes sure that I have exactly what I need without exception.
Final thoughts from Arielle: “I hope there is a time when all disabled dancers are truly accommodated. That doesn’t exist yet, but I will always fight for that and strive to make that possible for myself, my students, and all disabled dancers. I always speak up. Some people say, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” but I don’t have a big stick; I have a big mouth and I’ll run it for disability rights so long as I have breath in my body. We deserve better.”
You can follow Arielle on Instagram at @dance_of_the_differently_abled and @disableddancersofig