An Interview with Robin Olive
BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT
Robin Olive is the founder of Straight Up Abilities, a nonprofit in Los Angeles that offers opportunities for people with different disabilities to take dance classes. She shares her experience teaching students with both physical and developmental disabilities around the greater Los Angeles area.
How did you start Straight Up Abilities?
I am a professional dancer in Los Angeles and, about 10 years ago, I was looking for extra work. I wanted something steady, so I thought I would teach. I saw an ad in Backstage West looking for teachers for a special needs dance program. I knew nothing about it. I just knew it was an outlet I would enjoy, as I believe everyone should dance. I answered the ad, and it was for Zina Bethune’s Infinite Dreams program. I knew nothing about working with people in wheelchairs, teaching blind or deaf students, or teaching intellectually disabled students. It was a little scary. Zina threw me in a room with able-bodied people and had them act as if they were autistic or in a wheelchair, and said, “Teach them dance.” I said, “What?!”
I started teaching with her program in 2008, going around to different schools in Los Angeles. Zina was one of the pioneers in Los Angeles of disabled dance. Unfortunately, she passed away in 2012. Working with the rest of her team, we tried to keep Infinite Dreams going. When the nonprofit started to fail, I decided I could do it on my own. It’s amazing when you do something you believe in how fast it can grow. In 2016, I started Straight Up Abilities. It’s now its own nonprofit.
What kinds of classes do you offer and for what kinds of communities?
I teach in Studio City, Pasadena, Anaheim, Long Beach and El Segundo; I kind of move all over the greater Los Angeles area because I realize there’s a need and a lot of people can’t just go to a central location. At the moment, I am the primary teacher for all the classes, but in the next year I will be adding some teachers. As for students, my youngest is age four and my oldest is probably 55. Most of them have an intellectual disability like Down syndrome or autism, but we are open to all abilities.
We learn all different styles. I am a trained dancer and I was brought up doing ballet, tap, jazz and hip hop. I try to incorporate different styles in my classes. However, I find with many disability dance programs that it tends to be more classical and contemporary styles. I try to spread a message to the younger community to be more inclusive, to hopefully encourage them to grow up to become more open-minded adults. In order to do that, I feel like I need to appeal to them and seem cool. Hip hop is my favorite style of dance and what I’m best at, and generally what the kids like best, so I focus mainly on that.
How do you demonstrate different movements that might work on one body but not another?
It’s always a growing process. I learn every day a new way of teaching. Sometimes I might have to go through five or six different ways of explaining or showing the choreography in order for it to be understood. It only makes me a better teacher. I am a flexible teacher and dancer; I don’t think there’s just one way of dancing. I respect technique, but I don’t think we should be locked into rules with dance. You can’t teach soul, and that is very important when dancing. My classes are choreographed but we do some improvisation. It’s different for each student. I love a challenge, and that’s one of many reasons why I enjoy doing this.
I have an advanced group of students, most of whom I have worked with for years. If we are asked to do a performance, I always take them. They perform several times throughout the year. They performed at the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles a couple years back. A couple of them are on the hit TV show “Born This Way” on A&E. They are all young adults and are quite exceptional dancers. All of them dream of dancing and working in entertainment. We train at Millennium Dance Complex every Monday. They do ballet, tap, jazz and hip hop. I give them choreography, but when they get onstage they make it their own. We just had class the other night, and they didn’t exactly do my choreography, but it was amazing. They are true entertainers.
What sorts of challenges or obstacles have you come up against?
The dance community can be pretty cutthroat. But I’ve seen a big change just in the past couple of years. Social norms are being blurred and that is a good thing. I hope we have been some part of that change. I remember getting some side eyes by other dancers when we first started classes at such a huge professional dance studio. But now, the other students are more accepting. That’s my mission, to make disability normal. I’m fighting for inclusion, and for my students to be seen as the amazing humans that I see them as.
I also work with the LA Unified School District and Magnolia School District. In the public schools, special needs programs are mostly separated from typical students. I’ve had a lot of success with partnering the typical classes with the special classes. It’s a win-win all around. The typical kids see they are not all that different from the special students, and the special students get much needed comradery. Most people are just scared of what they don’t know. Hopefully, I teach the kids not to be scared of each other and be kind to one another.
When Zina first started her program, there were very few disability dance programs in the United States. Now, just looking online, there are so many dance programs for special needs students popping up all over. The change is happening.
Since you dance professionally as well as run Straight Up Abilities, have you seen any changes in the greater dance world, especially since it’s so commonly focused on body type and image?
Yes, like I said before, I think the lines are being blurred with dance, just like with a lot of societal “norms.” I have male friends who teach heels dance classes. My friend Auti Angel travels as a hip hop dancer and is in a wheelchair. My friend Kujo travels the world with an all differently abled breakdance crew called Illabilities. There is room for everyone to live out their dreams and, thankfully, society is becoming more accepting, in large part because of social media. I invite a lot of my professional friends into my Straight Up Abilities world. We are always amazed how free and uninhibited my students dance. That’s how we should all dance. That’s the one thing the competitive dance world could learn from my students. As dancers, we commonly wear our hearts on our sleeves and are worried if we are going to be the best and make the cut. My dancers don’t seem to worry about that. They are free.
What has been your experience working with people who have physical disabilities versus intellectual or developmental disabilities? Does one feel more accepted than the other?
That’s a hard question for me personally to answer. It would probably be more suited for one of my students or their parents to answer. What I do think is interesting is when all differently abled people get put into the same class or category. Especially in schools, you may see in one classroom students with physical disabilities and students with intellectual disabilities coupled together. They can be very different and demand very different ways of teaching. I think it’s changing slowly but surely.
How would you like to expand your work in the future?
I’d love to keep adding to our roster of students; open up more classes in the greater Los Angeles area; work more closely with the public schools and teachers; do more outreach nationally and globally; continue our mission of teaching inclusion. I want to create more work opportunities for my amazing students as well. We have a student teaching program, and I have several students that I’m hoping will be able to teach their own classes in the not-so-far future. We have plans to do some big performances in the next year, and I’d like to keep building on that momentum each year. The sky is the limit with these guys!
To learn more, visit www.straightupabilities.com.