‘Sparks of individuality’: Disabilities don’t matter in Bath dance program

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BATH — They come to Michaela Knox’s class with different backgrounds, demonstrating a variety of talents and challenges.

But when they step out onto the dance floor, they move together as one artistic unit.

“There are moments in a class when dancers express their individual essence through movement,” Knox said last week. “I see these moments as sparks. Sparks of individuality.”

Inspired by what she has witnessed in 20 years as a dance instructor, Knox founded the Spark Dance Program, which she said is New England’s first program to teach inclusive dance to everyone, including people with physical, developmental and cognitive disabilities.

Knox, who grew up in Damariscotta, founded Spark – a nonprofit organization and affiliate of Danceability International, which offers programs in more than 50 countries – in 2016, while living in Durango, Colorado.

After returning to Maine she launched Spark this year with an eight-week session at the Bath Area Family YMCA. Those classes culminated March 6 with a half-hour performance by the dozen participants.

Danceability’s method, based in improvisation, “allows for every person to create their own movement, and for that to fit in with what we’re doing,” Knox told the audience prior to the show. “This is all about inclusion. It’s about dance, but it’s about inclusive dance, most importantly.”

The class allows each member to make independent choices. “Sometimes that choice means sitting out and watching,” Knox said. “And that’s OK, because sometimes a ‘no’ to the group is a ‘yes’ to yourself.”

A dance can be performed merely with one’s hands, in the case of a person recovering with limited mobility from a surgery or injury, she noted. But within the danceability method, all kinds of movements can exist together.

“We get to have fun; we get to move in a way that feels good to our body,” Knox said.

Second and third sessions have begun in Brunswick and Damariscotta, and membership is still open. Brunswick classes are at the Landing YMCA, 24 Venture Ave., Thursdays from 2-3:30 p.m. until May 2. No classes will be held April 11 and 18.

Other sessions are to follow this year in Camden, Windham, and Portland. More information is available at sparkdanceprogram.org.

“For me to go to a new community, I need to have a partner there,” Knox said. “To know that we have the interest, and at least eight to 10 students to make the class happen.”

The cost for those committed to a full session is $15 a class, or $20 for drop-ins. Knox can be reached for more information at 798-1995 or michaela@sparkdanceprogram.org.

She credited Spark’s partnerships with advocacy organizations such as Momentum, Elmhurst, Coastal Opportunities, Mobius and The Independence Association in bringing in new members and expanding the organization’s outreach.

“I believe that people with disabilities are the most isolated minority right now, especially in our country,” she said after the performance. “So for me, it was very natural to use dance, working with that population. Because … as a contemporary dancer, I see beautiful, authentic movements coming out of people who are not dancers all the time.”

“It struck me as a natural option, for people with limited mobility or cognitive differences to be able to move their bodies to music as a universal desire and drive,” explained Knox, whose students have included those with autism and cerebral palsy.

Bringing people with and without disabilities together through shared experiences does much to break down barriers and erase stigmas, she said.

“A lot of people are uncomfortable sometimes, approaching someone with a disability; it comes from a lack of understanding,” Knox noted. “But this is a common ground for everyone.”

Connections are made, and friendships form. Two people who might not approach each other in the supermarket now greet each other warmly.

“In that, we’re forming community,” Knox said, “between different groups of people who would otherwise maybe not know each other.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 780-9085 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

The Spark Dance Program in Bath offers classes to people with and without physical, developmental and cognitive disabilities.

Michaela Knox, who grew up in Damariscotta, founded the Spark Dance Program in Colorado in 2016. She brought the program to Maine this year.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.