An important aspect of inclusion is empathy. When we are able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, it allows us to create bonds of trust, it gives us insights into what others may be feeling or thinking, and it helps us understand how or why others are reacting to situations.

In the interview below, Crystal Chan, Occupational Therapist who volunteered with The Dance Ability Movement for five years, shows how EMPATHY, combined with her passion for dance and occupational therapy, helped her better support Hayley, one of our dancers from Bradford, during the Take the Lead Workshop.

If you want to learn more about the workshop, please read our blog post “Believe in yourself, try new things and thrive!”

Thank you, Crystal, for kindly sharing your experience with our community!

  • How was your experience supporting Hayley in the workshop?

Taking part in the workshop with Hayley was a surreal experience. For four consecutive days, dance became the equalizer that brought everyone’s diverse dance styles, cultural experiences and unique personalities together. The sharing of dance and movement created trust and a culture of inclusion.

When I first met Hayley at the workshop, I wondered how I could best support her to experience the activities. I hoped my toolkit as an occupational therapist and the strategies used in The Dance Ability Movement dance classes could be carried over and would become helpful in this new space. One of the most encouraging aspects of taking part in the workshop with Hayley was seeing the other participants taking the initiative to invite, include and support her so she felt safe and included.

Through this experience, I was reminded of feeling nervous and shy when I first stepped into a dance studio. Aside from being afraid that I might not be able to keep up with the program, I worried that my differences would leave me feeling excluded or that I may not be welcomed by the other dancers. Stepping into new experiences can be intimidating but it helps when we’re not alone.

When Hayley invited me to walk with her into the workshop to share a weekend full of inspiration and fun, I knew I was perfectly where I needed to be. Never would I have dreamed that I would be given a chance to share full back-to-back days helping to make dance more accessible and empower others to take the lead in their community and lives through dance.

Combining my passion for creative arts and occupational therapy while being surrounded by a community of passionate young leaders that weekend is one of my highlights as an OT. I’m gently reminded that wonder and inspiration are around us — we just need to be willing to step in, notice and dance with it.

  • How were you working together to make the most of this experience?

Dance was the universal language that connected everyone. Our goal was for her to be comfortable in taking part in the activities and to have fun. Whenever we were learning a new dance or taking part in an ice-breaker, Hayley would often look in my direction to let me know if she was feeling the music or in the process of figuring out the choreography and needed some support.

Three girls smiling. The one in the middle is holding an iPad.In moments when she was getting into the swing of things, I would encourage her to try dancing with the dancers beside her or invite other nearby dancers to dance with us. If the choreography was challenging, we would take our own spin on it by breaking down dance moves and try a modified version. We often found value in the power of simple movements in expressing herself and connecting with the other dancers.

On the second and third day, we went into small groups to talk about how being a dancer can help us be leaders. During these discussions, I would encourage Hayley to use her iPad to share her ideas using the pictures and icons familiar to her to communicate with the rest of the group. I wrote her ideas down on sticky notes, where she would then add them to the larger paper that held all the ideas shared by the group.

  • Could you share one or two moments where Hayley was fully included and brought a new perspective or contribution to the group?

The workshops started early in the morning and each day had a packed schedule with high-energy activities. Her parents weren’t sure Hayley would be able to have enough energy to partake in all the activities. Taking flexible breaks to cool down when she needed them allowed her meaningfully re-engage into the group with more focus. In the end, she was able to take part all four days of the workshop.

For the last day of the workshop, each small group set out to choreograph a dance to perform to the rest of the group. When her small group was starting to create the group choreography, Hayley stepped out for a break and her mom thought she might have to call it a day because she expressed how tired she felt earlier on that morning. She surprised us with her desire to be a part of the group when we asked her if she would like to stay or head home. She took a sip of water and quickly rejoined the group to be a part of the choreographing process.

When she rejoined the group energized, she shared one of her favourite songs. When the group decided to choreograph and dance to her song selection, she instantly smiled. We could all feel that she felt more invested and included in the group dance than before.

Thinking back, I noticed that Hayley shared the same reservations I had on the first day of the workshop when I first walked into a dance studio. She was happy to dance but had some hesitation dancing with the other dancers that were new to her. In a short time, she warmed up to the other dancers and did not hold back to dance with them, especially on the last day. She learned the new choreography in a short time and even performed her infamous worm move as a solo as part of the group choreography. When another group invited the rest of the dancers to join them at the end of their performance, Hayley was thrilled to accept the invitation. She got up on her own and danced with so much uncontainable excitement.

Hayley taught me that we all share a part in supporting one another to experience life through dance. Before we knew it, the weekend was over but I was humbly reminded that dance has the power to warm and move the heart. That last day, everyone at that workshop left feeling grateful, connected and moved by the magic of dance.