Creating More Access to Cultural Dance Forms

An Interview with Kyra Newton of Blissful Dance

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; PHOTOS BY ALEX MCINNES AND KYRA NEWTON

Kyra Newton is the founder of Blissful Dance, a new accessible dance company in Calgary, Alberta, with the mission of creating digital dance classes in various dance forms for people who are Deaf, disabled, and over the age of 50 with mobility needs. Here, she talks about how cultural dance forms like West African, Bhangra, and flamenco could expand through accessible pedagogies and how she’s going about creating more access through digital formats with dance teachers who are well versed in each dance form.

West African class for Blissful Dance

Image description: Three dancers appear against a white wall. The dancer on the left is standing with both arms raised above their head. The dancer in the middle is squatted down to the side with their head down and one hand on the floor. The dancer to the right is seated with one arm raised above their head and one arm on their chest.

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Can you tell me a little about your own dance history – what kinds of performance practices and in what contexts shaped who you are today?

I grew up mainly doing ballet. At age 15 I was told, like many dancers, that my body was not good for ballet and that I was too big, so I shifted into contemporary and modern. I did my degree in dance and sociology, which opened me to recreational therapy for people with disabilities and senior homes. I graduated and landed in the sphere of teaching dance classes in senior homes, and I offered workshops for people with disabilities here in Calgary.

Because I got shut out from professional ballet when I was 15, I became interested in other people who are shut out of dance because of their disability or age. Throughout my upbringing, I was always confused why there were separate classes for people with disabilities. For example, there was one Bollywood hip hop fusion class just for people with Down syndrome at my studio.

I joined Momo Movement Dance Theatre, an accessible contemporary dance company in Calgary, for two and a half years, where I worked as artistic director. I’ve also worked as a support worker both during university and after, which lended to teaching workshops and looking at different pedagogies.

Within the past three years, I have been diagnosed with an auto-immune disease, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue, which add challenges to continuing as a professional dancer in the non-disability realm. It’s as if my past self is serving my present self with the exploration I have done in disability dance methodologies.

How did Blissful Dance come about?

A week or two into the pandemic in March 2020, I was on Zoom all the time taking yoga and dance, and I started reflecting on how there was one demographic of people teaching, and a pretty narrow demographic of people attending the classes I was in. I noticed there weren’t closed captions or ASL, everyone was able-bodied, and the way things were taught was academic in terms of language. You’d need an in-depth understanding of dance to engage.

In reflection of this, I wrote and received a grant to create ten cultural dance tutorials. I have found that classes for people with disabilities are often creative movement or improvisatory. This is great, but from my perspective it creates another barrier from experiencing different dance forms. Cultural dance forms like flamenco, Kpanlogo, Dundunba, Bhangra, and other forms are usually practiced by able-bodied people of a certain age.

That started the journey of creating ten pre-recorded tutorials. They will be released in May 2021. From there, I looked at what else we can do, so we started offering Zoom classes to create more opportunities for people to experience cultural dance forms.

How is Blissful Dance structured?

We focus on six dance forms: Bhangra, Kpanlogo and Dundunba (which go under the category of West African dance), hip hop, flamenco, creative movement, and ballet for all bodies. Each tutorial is 25 minutes long. There will be a membership package that people can purchase that’s good for a year where they’ll have access to the 10 pre-recorded videos anytime and up to 24 live-streamed Zoom classes. Each dance form is taught by someone who has experience in each of the forms. While the tutorials will be released in May, the Zoom classes started in February and are ongoing.

What are some of the ways you have made these dance forms accessible?

Every tutorial is either closed captioned or has picture-to-picture ASL interpretation. We have three people in the pre-recorded tutorials: the facilitator, a standing dancer, and a seated dancer. The teacher shows the traditional movement full out. The standing dancer shows the movement more minimally, and the seated dancer shows the movement from the torso up.

For example, there are quite a few rhythms in Bhangra, Kpanlogo, Dundunba, and flamenco. We take the rhythms and put them in the arms, hands, shoulders, or head. The videos show a physical demonstration and the facilitator verbally cues it as well. We tried to look at the root of the concept, like: How do you plié in different body parts? Each exercise followed the root concept and then expanded on it.

As a result of COVID restrictions, our Zoom classes have featured just the facilitator, not the demonstrators. I did a case study of Zoom classes for four weeks for the Deaf and hard of hearing community as well as people with other disabilities, and for those I taught a portion of the class seated, and a portion standing.

Bhangra class for Blissful dance

Image description: Three dancers are in the corner of a room with white walls. They all have their arms clasped above their heads and are leaning to the right. The two dancers nearest the camera are standing and the dancer in the far corner is seated in a chair. A bright circular light is in the right side of the frame.

Who is your intended audience?

The grant was initially focused on people with physical disabilities, people who are hard of hearing or Deaf, and seniors. When I taught the four-week trial classes, we had participants who were Deaf, hard of hearing, seniors, or had cerebral palsy or developmental disabilities.

It feels tricky to narrow in on what demographics will engage. In some ways, we’re going to make these tutorials and do the best we can with the information from the case study and feedback we’ve received. We’ll put it out and gauge which demographic engages the most. I am prepared to find out from community members that the videos aren’t accessible and why. That would be great. It’s important for disability allies to have that feedback. It builds a framework. Right now, we have such limited accessible pedagogies. There’s DanceAbility, AXIS Dance Company, Stopgap Dance Company, and Candoco Dance Company. Those are the four pioneers of accessible dance. But the more we can have conversations about what’s accessible and what’s not for different people, the better.

Can you share more about Blissful Dance’s teachers?

Cindy is our African dance teacher. She is a confident Black woman and a student at University of Calgary. She has studied different pedagogies of dance and particularly focused on Deaf culture in dance. She was pretty new to making Kpanlogo and Dundunba accessible, so she was in conversation with her mentor and in conversation with me about how to make those dance forms accessible. Our flamenco teacher, Silvia, teaches seniors and has experience working with seated dancers and focusing on the upper body. I teach the creative movement and ballet for all bodies. Sara-Maya, our Bhangra teacher, is also new to disability dance. All of us live in Calgary.

What are some of the benefits and obstacles to offering classes digitally as opposed to in-person?

There are so many benefits, especially for the disability community who face barriers daily, including pain, illness, lack of or shitty transportation, and lack of support. All those barriers are stripped down in the digital world. You can be in your own space and control the temperature, lighting, and have everything you need. In that way, digital creates access and comfort.

Being able to show up with your video off is good to. It creates boundaries that can be really empowering: “I’m here in my own way that meets my needs.” Depending on the facilitator, in-person classes can create more expectations and pressure, and there can be only one way to be a participant.

Here in Calgary, there are only a handful of classes for people with disabilities, but online there are many more opportunities that can cater to someone’s schedule.

A challenge is engagement and finding connection. How do we keep the engagement of participants through a screen?  And if there’s just one facilitator, how do we educate different ways of interpreting or translating movement? If you look at the screen, all you see is 20 different boxes. You don’t get the energetic connection of 20 different bodies moving in the same space, and it’s hard to get inspiration from other people about how they move. That’s missing on Zoom.

Also, the majority of online classes are not accessible to people who are blind or have low vision. This is something I desire to shift in the very near future. As facilitators, we are aware of our language and we are moving towards creating audio descriptions for our videos and classes.

Another huge barrier is technological experience, especially with older people. Some of them aren’t comfortable with online platforms. If information is disseminated on Instagram and Facebook, that’s accessible to a segment of the population of people with disabilities, but not all. In my experience working in the community of people with Down syndrome, less have Instagram and Facebook. Their parents and support workers have to come across information for them. It creates the dynamic where I’m marketing to support workers and family, not the person directly.

How are you getting the word out about the classes?

We are using Instagram and Facebook, but I’ve also been talking to different agencies to build partnerships. These include day programs and care homes where people with disabilities go or live. I’ve been finding partnerships with those types of organizations to then bring the dance classes to the people so they can purchase a membership after the workshop. We do a four-week workshop and then I offer 10 percent off the membership.

How would you like to expand or grow your work in the future?

Ideally, once COVID is done, I want to build an even wider demographic of dance teachers and participants. Because of the nature of COVID, many people with disabilities didn’t feel comfortable being a demonstrator for the tutorials, which I totally understood. I was really trying to create work opportunities for people with disabilities. Having that option in the future would be fabulous. Each year going forward, there will be 10 to 12 new pre-recorded tutorials, as well as in-person classes in addition to the ongoing Zoom classes.

I love kids, so moving into the sphere of kids’ classes would be great, though not this year or next year.

Ultimately, I want Blissful Dance to resemble a studio or conservatory training where there are many classes and opportunities to train as a way to nourish the individual to become a professional dancer, teacher, and choreographer. In this way, we can create more diversity and equal representation of people with disabilities in the dance ecosystem.

flamenco class for Blissful dance

Image description: Three dancers are against a white wall. All three have their right hands raised above their heads and their wrists twisted and fingers splayed. Their left hands are on their waists. The two dancers on the left are standing while the dancer on the right is seated in a chair. A closet and miscellaneous objects are in the left side of the frame.

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To learn more, follow Blissful Dance on Facebook or Instagram, and check out their GoFundMe.

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