Expanding Dance’s Reach

An Interview with Jana Meszaros


Jana Meszaros is a certified DanceAbility instructor who is passionate about expanding the communities she reaches to include those in rural towns outside Eugene, OR. She shares how she got involved in DanceAbility, its impact, and why it’s important to reach people outside of big cities.


How did you get involved with DanceAbility and what was your previous dance background?

I grew up in Gold Beach, Oregon. The population was around 1,500 people at the time. I took weekly classes while growing up and became the quintessential little girl who didn’t want to do anything else besides dance. I earned a degree in dance from the University of Oregon with a minor in business. After I graduated, I worked in children’s theater for a couple of years as a choreographer and technical director.

I moved to the Bay Area in 2011 and interned for two years with Kathleen Hermesdorf at her company, La Alternativa. During that time, I worked closely with Albert Mathias, the music director of the company, trained as much as I could, and held two choreographic residencies in San Francisco. The experience became my real-world Masters, seeing what it was like to actually have a career in dance. While my undergraduate university degree was indispensable, it didn’t give me a good idea of how dance could translate into a sustainable career, especially considering the state of the arts at the time.

After I moved back to Oregon, I ran into Alito Alessi at the Breitenbush Contact Improvisation Jam. We immediately started talking about DanceAbility and how it could be a potential future for me. By the end of the jam, I was offered a work-study scholarship for the certification. I am incredibly grateful for the entrance he created for me into the work. This is my second year teaching, and I’m now choreographing and performing with my dance partner Kelcie Laube, as well as serving as rehearsal director for the company. Working in mixed-abilities dance has broadened my skills in every way imaginable.


How often and where do you teach?

There aren’t a lot of DanceAbility teachers in the United States, whereas there are hundreds internationally. When I got certified, there were few DanceAbility classes in Oregon. I was thrust into teaching regularly, which was absolutely the best way to learn. I am the lead teacher in Lane County. I teach four weekly classes, which include teens and adults in Cottage Grove and Eugene. I was also teaching in Junction City, but we’re on a break until we can get a bigger group together. I teach workshops as they come up and have taught during National Dance Week at University of Oregon, as well as teaching modern dance and improvisation as a substitute teacher at Lane Community College. Just recently, I began teaching workshops to a group of Latina mothers (and sometimes their babies) through an outreach program via the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene. Across the board, I work with families, teens and adults.  Anytime I get thrown a workshop, I never really know who’s going to be there, but that’s the strength of the pedagogy — adapting your lesson plan to the group.

What have been some of your greatest obstacles in this work?

By far the hardest skill to master is those first five minutes when everyone arrives and you have to make quick adaptive decisions. For instance, if someone comes who is blind, I have to change anything I’d planned that is vision-oriented. I’ve been lucky because I’ve had a lot of challenging groups, and by challenging I mean very diverse, so when people come who don’t fit in my lesson plan, I’ve had to use my intuition to make a decision about what’s best for the group. Oftentimes, you just have to trust that you have all the information.

Improvisation is what we’re studying, and being able to improvise within a pedagogy is a great skill. Improvisation is a lifestyle. And it brings me to an interesting thought: The skills involved in DanceAbility all revolve around improvisation and design. And those two skills, in a broad context, are applicable in any industry or facet of life. In that way, dance is an elementary building block for anyone’s education.

In the past two years, how have you watched the groups you work with change and, conversely, how have you noticed yourself change?

In one-time workshops, more often than not someone will come up and tell me something they learned that they really appreciated or relay an experience they had that was wonderful. Something about this improvisational form has the potential to give people something they didn’t have before, even if it’s just permission to move creatively.


With my ongoing classes, I get to see progression, which is wonderful. The coolest thing about ongoing classes is that it’s challenging to me. I have to not only see what the people who come to my class need initially, but also to grow my curriculum with them, at their pace. My class at Cottage Grove have advanced beautifully. When I first started the class, most of the students didn’t have any dance experience. Now, they practice full improvisational scores. I tell them they are doing something professional dancers regularly train to do.

How would you like to expand what you offer in the future?

Revisiting the idea that dance and improv are building blocks for general education…my mother is a fourth grade teacher in Brookings, Oregon. They don’t have a PE department; it’s up to the homeroom teachers to offer something PE-related every day. I don’t think this is uncommon in public schools these days. Most of the time, teachers have the kids do something simple like play dodgeball or run around the track, but I love to hear her stories of when they expand out of the expected by offering yoga or creative movement. It’s required that the kids participate in some movement activity. I’d love to see public educators experience a DanceAbility orientation, because it completely blows open the possibilities of what can be done with the body and how to bring expression, free form, and problem solving into the classroom. I’ve had a couple of talks with school administrators about this. There’s interest but not always funding. One of my goals over the next year is to go back home and teach some free classes.

What kinds of attitudes toward dance have you experienced in smaller communities versus large metropolises where dance is more present?

In my experience, dance in smaller communities consists mostly of ballet. If there’s any dance at all, it’s ballet class, which is pretty specialized. It brings up the idea that dance is only one thing. We’ve done lots of meeting and networking to get people to come to class. It’s part of broadening the idea that dance is not just for girls who like to wear pink tights; dance is for everyone. My interest in bringing dance to these areas is about introducing people to their bodies. For young kids, it might also be the chance to introduce them to a possible career in something that’s artistic, physical or health-related. And for adults, it might be a better suited alternative than other mobility practices. It bears all the benefits of any movement practice, but stands out because of its expressive aspect, which is also what you get in ballet class. Dance improvisation changes the notion that dance is only for certain populations.

I’ve also found that sometimes children will stop dancing as they grow up unless it’s part of a professional track. Part of the history of improvisational dance is the idea that you don’t have to want to be a professional dancer to be part of the dance community. It’s beyond that narrow focus.


Any other thoughts?

I don’t know what I would be doing if I didn’t have the one instance of being exposed to dance as a kid. There was one woman, Anna Powers, who was teaching dance weekly in my hometown. From age five until I was a sophomore in high school, I took her class. When she stopped teaching, I took over, with little to offer as a teacher other than heart. I have no idea where my life would be if I wasn’t exposed to dance through that one teacher. It led me to pursue dance as a professional interest. I really commend anyone teaching in smaller areas or piloting a studio in their hometown. It’s incredibly important to keep the dance tradition going outside of urban areas.


For more information on Jana’s classes and work, visit www.vitamindance.com.