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Making dance a space for people of all abilities with Lauren Morris

Making dance a space for people of all abilities with Lauren Morris

Melissa sits down with Lauren Morris, the founder and Executive Director of Move Inclusive Dance, to talk about creating a dance studio specifically for people with disabilities of any kind.

Melissa: Welcome to the cultur(ED) podcast. I’m Melissa Jezior, your host. 

On this podcast, I have conversations with culture makers in the world today to unpack the visible and not so visible forces that make up this often overlooked superpower of organizations. 

In season four of cultur(ED) we’ll be diving into a topic that more and more organizational leaders are paying close attention to: How to create more inclusive spaces. There’s no denying that diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) is a high priority issue for companies today. Many leaders are investing in DE&I, realizing their responsibility to create meaningful change in spite of the history of injustice that has marginalized unrepresented groups within the workplace. But to be successful, it takes more than just making a public statement, supporting DE&I causes or hiring a DE&I manager. It requires a commitment to creating an inclusive culture and inclusive spaces where employees feel valued, accepted, and willing to bring their whole self to their job. 

Today, we’ll be talking to Lauren Morris, founder and Executive Director of Move Inclusive Dance, located in Nashville, Tennessee. Lauren established this dance studio specifically to meet the needs of people with disabilities of any kind. Welcome, Lauren! 

Lauren: Thanks for having me, I’m excited to be here. 

Melissa: Yes, I’m so excited to talk to you and learn more about you and your business. Maybe you could tell us about your inspiration to start Move Inclusive Dance. I understand you started it as a summer camp, and that it’s grown and was really meant to fill in this gap in the Nashville community. What’s your founding story, your origin story? 

Lauren: OK, so I, as you could probably guess, grew up in a dance studio. I took my first dance class when I was three years old. And I always say, for as long as I can remember, dance was my safe space, it was my happy place, it was where I wanted to spend all of my time. I loved just my teachers, and being in the classes, and learning new skills, and then getting to perform those things. It was just something that was really, fulfilling to me. And when I really look back at my life, now as an adult, I can see how transformative it was in a lot of ways. Especially, once I got into like, my teenage high school years and you start experiencing more emotions for the first time and just going through different phases of life. And dance was a place where I felt like it was safe for me to express myself and be myself and to just have this outlet that was really important for me. 

And, something that’s interesting now with what I do is that I previously didn’t have any personal connection to a person with a disability of any kind. I didn’t grow up with a sibling or a family member that was disabled. At the school that I went to, it was not inclusive in any way. There was a special education class of course that we would see in the cafeteria or in the gym for PE but we were not integrated in the classroom. 


And so, for whatever reason, when I was around the age of 13, I was on the way home from the dance studio (which was a very normal occurrence for me, I was at the dance studio pretty much every day after school). And so, for some reason, my mom and I started talking about this girl that I knew from school, but like I said, didn’t know well, because I didn’t have interactions with her. I would just see her. And now, I know that she had Down Syndrome. At the time, I did not know that because I wasn’t familiar with all the different types of disabilities. And so, we’re talking about her and I was talking about how she, I guess, was dancing in PE that day or something. And for whatever reason. I asked my mom, “why is there not a dance studio for people like her?” And my mom said to me, “I don’t know. Maybe you’ll start one someday.” And that sounds like that could have been like a very huge moment, where I’m like, “this is going to be my purpose.” But it was not that at all, it went in one ear and out the other, because I didn’t have that personal connection. So, I was like, “no, that’s just a random thought I had, that’s not what I’m going to do.” 

I knew that dance would always be a part of my life. I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t necessarily think that I ever wanted to open a dance studio. I thought that I would probably go more into performing after college. But I didn’t know for sure what I wanted to do at that point, because, yes, again, I was 13 years old. So, fast forward. I graduated high school. I go to college and I decided that I’m going to major in dance. And there were two channels I could pick between I could go the performance and choreography route, or I could go the dance education route. 


And even though I was more drawn to performance and choreography at the time, my mentor, my dance teacher that I had had since I was three years old, encouraged me to major in dance education because I would graduate with my certification to teach in the school system too. So, if the performance thing didn’t work out, I would have this education piece to fall back on. And so, I said, ‘OK, that makes sense.’ So, I majored in dance education. And up until your junior year, all the dance majors are kind of doing the same thing. Once you get into your junior and your senior year, that’s when you really start to have classes that are more specified to the education side or the performance side. And once I got into those education classes, it was just like a whole new world was opened up to me, and I realized how much I loved to teach, and it filled this, I don’t know, I had a passion, not only for the dance side of it, but for the teaching side of it, as well. And, my senior year, in my capstone class, we were instructed to do a presentation on something in the world of dance and it could be anything you wanted. And so, all of my classmates are choosing famous choreographers or famous companies and just doing research-based projects on them. And I’m like, OK, I want to do something that’s really different, what can I do? And this idea, resurfaces. And so I said, OK, I’m going to do my project on a dance company or a dance studio for people with disabilities. And so, I sit down to do some research, and I don’t really find much out there. And I’m like, oh, this is interesting. And so, I said, I’ll just do the project on why I think this should be a thing. So, I give the presentation, and I’ll never forget, I’m walking back to my seat, and one of my professors stops me. And she’s like: Number one: Why have you never mentioned that? Number two: You have to do that. And, again, I was like “me?” No, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Yes, I have this dance side, but I don’t know anything about working with people with disabilities. I wouldn’t know where to begin. 


And so it just got pushed, again, to the back of my brain. Fast-forward again. I moved to New York, I’m doing the whole dance thing, I’m taking classes, and trying to figure out what this next step is for me. I worked at a company called Pure Barre, which is a ballet barre-based fitness studio. That’s a big franchise a lot of people probably heard of. And on the side, I started interning at a non-profit dance studio, called Groove with Me, they’re fantastic and they offer free dance classes to girls in East Harlem. While I was there, yet again, this idea resurfaces and I realize this is a similar concept, to this idea that I’ve always had, it’s just for a different community of people. Right? And so, I’m going to take advantage of this, and I still don’t think I’m ever going to do that thing, but in case I do one day, I’m going to learn everything I can. And so, under working with that executive director, I learned about grant writing. I learned about what it means to be a non-profit, because there’s just so many things that go into it as opposed to having an LLC or just a standard business. And so that was a huge learning opportunity for me. And then when I moved to Nashville, which is where I am now, I just still couldn’t get it out of my head, and I’m getting to my point here, you mentioned at the summer camp – I finally said, “OK, I have to try this, but I’m going to start small. I’m not going to do anything crazy. So what does that mean?”

So, I thought, I can take off work for one week, I can rent a space, and I can have a dance camp, a summer camp, and just see who shows up. See how it goes. See what kind of feedback we get, and it may be a total flop, and I can say, “OK, I’m never going to think about that thing ever again.” Or, there might be something there. And obviously, there was something there and it was very successful, and at the end of the week, all of the parents were ready to sign up for the next thing. And that was the beginning. 


And so, we opened the studio a year after that, and ever since we’ve been at it every week teaching classes, to people of all ages, all abilities. And it’s been really, awesome to just kind of see it come to life. 

Melissa: Wow, that’s so impressive, like in so many different ways. I think almost the fact that you, as well, just didn’t have any personal connection to it, but then, really figured out. How did you come up to speed? 

Lauren: Absolutely. And that’s a very important part of the story that I want to make sure never gets lost. When I decided to do the camp, I grew up with a friend of mine who, we went to the same dance studio our entire life, and then she also received her Bachelor’s in dance education. But then she went on to get her Master’s in special education and she did not live in Nashville at the time. We weren’t in touch. It wasn’t like we were super close, but our moms actually were really good friends. And so, my mom was in town visiting me. We went to lunch with this girl’s mom, and she’s like, “what’s going on? Tell me what’s new.” And I said, “Oh, actually I’m working on this thing. I’m thinking about doing a summer camp, and I was like but I’m really nervous. I don’t really know where to begin. I need somebody to help me figure out how to adapt the dance curriculum for whoever signs up.” Her daughter’s name is Megan – and she was like, “you need to call Megan. She would have some great advice for you” because at the time she was in the school system teaching special education classes, but still teaching dance on the side. 

I didn’t know this, but she had a personal goal to eventually fuse those two things together for her career. And so, I was like, “yeah, I’m going to give her call.” So, I called her the next week and I’m like, “Hey, how you doing? First of all, I haven’t talked to you in so long, but here’s this idea that I have, and I’m hoping that you maybe have some tips for me.” And she was like, “Well, first of all, that’s awesome. Second of all, I don’t know if I’m overstepping here, but I would love to come up and teach the camp for you because I’ll be off in the summers” because she was teaching in the school system. And I said, “Yes, absolutely.” So, she came up. She taught that first camp. And, at the end of the week when all of the parents were coming in and saying they were ready to sign up for the next thing, I looked at her, and I said, “I know you’re going to think I’m crazy, and I don’t have any answers for you in terms of what this is going to look like, but, mark my words, this time next year, I’m going to open a studio where we can offer this all the time, and I want you to be there with me. I want you to help me build this curriculum and really make it something special and that’s legit” because I was missing a huge piece of what we needed to make it successful.” 


And so, she said, “Yes, absolutely, I’m in!” And within a few months, she talked to her husband and was like, we’re moving to Nashville. And so, she’s here. She’s our Program Director and she builds the curriculum for us. 

Melissa: Wonderful, So, is she your Program Director now? 

Lauren: Yes!

Melissa: Oh, that’s amazing. I just find it so fascinating, because I’ve started my own business as well, but I started in an area that, I was an expert in, so I had a lot of experience and expertise so I just find it particularly amazing. Honestly. 

Lauren: Yeah, and I’ve, of course, since done various trainings and lots of research. That’s a common question I get, and that’s something that I always have wanted to be very transparent about since that very first summer camp is like, “Hey, she’s our in-house expert of all things inclusive dance because that’s important: our families, they need to know that we know what we’re doing, and that this is a safe space for their kids or themselves. We have a lot of adults that sign themselves up for classes as well. And so, she’s awesome. I’m lucky to have her. 

Melissa: That’s amazing. And they say that’s part of leadership, too, is being able to understand what you know, what you don’t know, and making sure that in the areas you don’t know, you figure out how to get up to speed and assemble the right team. So, congratulations! It sounds like you’ve done just that. 

Lauren: Thanks! 

Melissa: So tell us about your studio. Take us to your studio: what does an inclusive dance space look like for people with disabilities?


Lauren: Yeah, I would say, at first glance, you probably wouldn’t notice that it’s much different than a typical dance studio. Whenever we first started, I remember having a conversation with someone in this coalition group that I had joined here in Nashville, and I was explaining to her what we were doing; I was like, “It’s not just for people with disabilities. We actually do have some people that come, that are typically developing individuals, but are intrigued by the idea that they can learn traditional dance techniques in a space that’s very unique because they are around people who they may not otherwise cross paths with – but we definitely don’t see as many of those students. So, it’s designed for people of various disabilities, but everyone is welcome at the same time,” and she was like, “That’s so interesting, you’ve basically just flipped a typical dance studio model on its head.” So, like you mentioned in the intro – especially now more than ever – and this is great -but places are wanting to be more inclusive, right? 

So, they are trying to open their doors to people of all different types of backgrounds, and whatever what you have, but we’ve done the opposite, where we have designed it for those people. But we’re also like, “Anyone else can join us, too!” Some examples of some of the things that we make sure that are always in place for our students or anyone that comes through the doors: we use a lot of visuals, that’s really helpful for our students. You were to go take a typical dance class, the teacher may start by telling you what to expect, or what we’re going to do. And sometimes, they won’t even do that. But for a lot of our students, knowing what is expected up front, and knowing what the schedule is going to look like is critical for them to have a successful class.

So, every single class, we start with a visual schedule. So, it’s not just words. There’s images that are incorporated into that so they know what’s coming and what they can expect and what we expect of them as well. So, lots of visuals. We have tons of sensory kind of tools and props that we incorporate into every class. We actually have a big sensory wall in the studio as well that’s just three different panels. So, one panel is zippers and doorknobs and latches, and then one panel is just like, these little small mirrors that you can see your reflection in, And then, one panel is all textile so it’s a rough piece of material and a really soft piece of material. And so sometimes we’ll incorporate that into a lesson in some way, or we also just make our students aware that if they ever need a break to calm down, they can go to that wall, and they can flip those switches and they can play with those doorknobs, and like that. That’s totally cool. 


But, we also have various things that we have in our storage closet that we bring into class as well. Scarves…there’s something like a sensory sock, which is basically like a full body sock – you can go into that just makes you feel contained almost – makes some people like me. Even I love a weighted blanket. It gives you that sensation of just, “Oh, I’m safe in here. OK, I’m held tight.”

We have lots of little fidgets that we’ll incorporate into the lesson. And that’s what I think makes us unique is that we’re not just saying, “here play with this fidget and that might help you calm down.” We use that as a starting point to create a lesson for movement. We have these tubes, they’re called popping tubes or something, Megan uses these a lot, and you’ve probably seen them if you have kids – you like pull them and they make a really, kind of a funny sound. So, you can make shapes with them, you can connect them. And so, we will have students, you know – an example could be that we say, “OK, everybody gets a tube. Make a crazy shape with your tube.” And they don’t know where it’s going, but they make a crazy shape. They make the shape. “Now, make that shape with your body.” So, then, they have to make that same shape with their body. “Now, make that a dance move.” Then, they have to make a dance move. Then we put all of those dance moves together, and we have a phrase. So, just finding really unique ways to connect all of the senses rather than just the physical body is also something that’s really important for our students. 


Melissa: Awesome. So, you mentioned the sensory wall that you have – that’s meant more for not so much for the act or the art of dance so much as giving people the ability to be able to create the space to dance, right? So if they need a moment to take a break, it’s almost more like a break wall in a way.

Lauren: Yes, there’s like a bench over there. And before students ever come to their first class, we have some materials that we send out, either to them or their parent or caregiver to prepare them. Again, it’s really just setting the scene for them before they enter the studio we’ve found is key. So, we have, again, using visuals, we have a visual it’s called a social story that we share with them before they come. And so, it just takes you through exactly what the studio looks like, exactly what the layout is, where the wheelchair ramp is, where the bathroom is, where the break room is, in case you need to take that break. So they know all of these things before they even get to us. And then, hopefully, that just makes them feel more comfortable once they’re actually there. 

Melissa: So, do you have feedback from your students on how they feel in the studio, or what inclusion looks like to them in terms of the studio itself? 

Lauren: Yeah, we are always looking for feedback from our students, because we want it to be – we realize that, not even just for people with disabilities, every single person on the planet is unique, right, and has different needs. And so, we want to make sure that we are catering to whatever that may be. And we actually just celebrated our three-year anniversary in the studio last week. And so, we had this little celebration party for some of our most loyal supporters. And we had two parents that spoke at that event. And they both were just sharing their stories. I didn’t ask them any questions. I was like, “I just want you to tell me about your experience being a parent of a student that comes to the studio.” And both of them put a major emphasis on how when they entered the doors, they felt like we just understood them. And that they feel, most oftentimes, misunderstood when they enter a new space. People don’t know how to accommodate to their child’s needs, and it’s not that people are trying to be rude or mean. They just really don’t know how to handle what they need. 


And so, that was huge to me, to hear that all of these little extra things that we’re trying our best to put in place for them, it’s actually working. They do feel like they’re heard, they’re understood, they’re seen. And I think the biggest part of that is us just being open to the feedback. And, making sure that they know they can speak up and say, “hey, this is not going to work for us.” And we say, “OK, we’ll order whatever on Amazon like right now to make it work or we’ll totally change the plan.” We joke among the teachers all the time: we have to be the most planned teachers, probably in the world, but also the most flexible and that your plan, pretty much – it rarely goes according to the plan that you have because you just don’t know what to expect based off who’s in the room and what kind of day they’re having. You’ve got to be ready to just roll with the punches. So, flexibility is key. 

Melissa: Why don’t we do that everywhere? Why aren’t we setting expectations in terms of what you are expecting from the kids? Asking for feedback and incorporating that immediately, right? Great idea, everybody, let’s do that!

Lauren: We will get that feedback from parents, specifically when we have kids that do not have disabilities that come to us. The parents will say things like that.  They’re like, “wow.” Sometimes, I say, I think our kids that don’t have disabilities they get more than anyone else does out of our program. And Megan and I had a conversation one time – I don’t remember really what we were talking about, I guess just accessibility things, in general – but she was like: imagine if the grocery store, for example. When you go to the grocery store, each aisle there’s all the words of what’s down the aisle. Imagine if there were just little images of beans, spices, fruit – you would navigate the store so much faster!

Melissa: So much faster! Maybe that’ll be your next endeavor, Lauren.

Lauren: Maybe! 

Melissa:  But I really that just sounds like smart communication skills. Like in other words it’s not that hard to be inclusive. I understand that takes effort and thoughtfulness and intentionality but it sounds sometimes so daunting and it’s really not.

Lauren: The basic principles of it are very simple. And I think that now in the world that we live in more than ever where it’s so divided and people just want to like disagree with each other. I feel like if places of business and just leaders had that approach, I think things would move a little smoother in a lot of ways. 


Melissa: So tell us about any mistakes that you’ve made along the way. Were there any key learnings on how you would do and what would you do differently?

Lauren: Yeah, I feel like we probably make mistakes every day. I know I do. Especially, like you mentioned, I think, starting a business in general, you have to know that you’re going to make mistakes all the time because you’re constantly just throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. And usually most of the things don’t stick, and so you just do it again until something does. That’s the part that no one else sees. Everyone else just sees what works. And they’re like, “Oh, my gosh. This is so awesome.” But there’s a lot that goes into that, right? But from the studio perspective just specifically I think in the beginning, we were so focused on – and we still are of course – but making it work for everyone and not having any protocol in place. Because, sometimes, certain classes aren’t going to be a good fit for every single person. And so, we would just be like, “nope, it’s fine. It’s fine. We’ll make it work; we’ll make it work.” 

And then unfortunately sometimes things can happen. Someone can get overstimulated because it actually wasn’t a good fit for them. There was too many people in the room, or the music was too loud, or whatever it may be. And things can go kind of south for a second. And someone may have an outburst of some kind or something like that. And it wasn’t that we weren’t prepared to handle those situations, but I think we were just trying too hard to be like this, “it’s got to work for everyone. It’s got to work for everyone.” And it still does, but what does that look like? So, we had to take a second and take a step back, I guess, and say, “OK, so, yes, we’re going to make this work for everyone, but there might be some people that can’t start in a group class right away. Maybe they have to start with one-on-one lessons, and then they build themselves into a group setting over time. Or maybe the class they really want to be in is just not a good fit yet. Not forever, but right now, it’s not. So, how can we make that a goal to get them into that class, so that it’s safe for everyone in the room, and everyone gets a good experience at the same time? Because we can’t put one person’s needs over another person’s needs. So, just trying to find ways to make sure that we’re still accommodating every single person, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has to be in the same group at the same time. If that makes sense? 


Melissa: It does make sense. And I love that idea. So it’s almost tailoring everybody’s experience: what they need with what you can offer with what takes into account other people’s experiences and building that. Yes, I really like that idea, because it’s not, “How do you take one thing and make it work for everybody?” But, you can take a series of things and tailor them all. So, I understand you’re expanding and making your programs available in more communities. How challenging is it to sustain your inclusive culture and hire the right people who share your vision and values? 

Lauren: So, we’ve been pretty lucky in that department. I’m definitely looking for very specific people to bring onto our team, and that they need dance experience, but they also need some professional experience either in an exceptional education classroom or maybe they’re an ABA therapist, or maybe there’s some type of experience that I did not have whenever I first started. Because, in the beginning, I didn’t put myself in classes solo until I knew that I did have the training and experience to actually lead these groups. And so, if someone comes to us and they want to be a lead teacher, they have to check all those boxes. And we’ve been really fortunate that we’ve had some really awesome people come to us that have both sets of experience, and they all have very different backgrounds. One is an ABA therapist, one is an exceptional education teacher, one, actually she came to us last year, and she was a part of a dance company (a professional dance company) that was physically integrated meaning there was like two halves of the cast in this company: one half, none of them have physical disabilities of any kind; the other half, they all have physical disabilities. So, she had this cool experience that no one else had of dancing with people who were different than her. 


So, it’s just making sure that you’re looking for the right type of people. And, like I said, we’ve been really fortunate that we’ve had some good people come our way. I think there are a lot of people out there. We have found since launching that there are tons of dance studios that are interested in having classes that are inclusive. They just don’t know where to begin. And I can relate to that, because that was me, you know? And so, we’re trying to figure out what that means for us: how we can help people launch their own inclusive classes and learn what we have had to learn along the way to make it happen. And so, hopefully, we can be a part of that in people’s experience as well. 

Melissa: So, where should someone begin when they’re trying to design either an inclusive dance class or just the concept of something more inclusive? Where do you begin? 

Lauren: I think that the number one thing that I would say has to be flexibility, which I’ve already mentioned because it is just a totally different ballgame. From a teacher standpoint: when I teach one of my classes at Move Inclusive Dance versus when I would teach a class at – I’ve taught dance for years, ever since I was 16 I’ve taught dance classes – and comparing the two: teaching at a just typical dance studio and teaching at Move Inclusive Dance, it’s exhausting because it is more everything. All of your senses are fully engaged at all times. Teaching, in general, you have to have a grip on what’s happening with every student, but it’s amplified by 100 in this setting because it’s just so diverse. You’re going to need to be flexible in that way and ready to just turn it on. 


You’re also going to need some sort of support, some volunteer support, depending on who signs up for the classes. Getting as much information as you can on the front end from the parent, or the caregiver, or the dancer themselves, about what their needs are. “What do we need to provide to make this successful for you?” That way, you can be prepared. Now, I will say, that can go either way: sometimes we’ll have parents that give us so much information, and we’re nervous, like, “oh my gosh, OK, are we ready?” And then the kid comes in, and they do fantastic, and they’re great. Or you may have a parent that is like, “no, I think we’re good,” and they show up in and you’re very unprepared. So, again, flexibility. Just being ready to roll with it, but you’re going to need support. You’re definitely going to need support. So finding some good volunteers is definitely key as well. 

Melissa: So, kind of related question but slightly different: what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in creating an inclusive space? 

Lauren: Gosh, the biggest lesson that I’ve learned… I learn lessons every single day, and I find myself saying this often, but it’s so the truth: I learn from our students, they teach me more than I could ever teach them. I’ve heard Megan say the same thing. It’s such an incredible position that we’re in to work with these people because, for me specifically (again, not growing up around anyone with a disability, not having a formal education, if you will, in disability studies), I didn’t really know what to expect. I had this place in my heart, obviously, for this community, and I wanted to use the skills that I did have to create opportunities for them, that I felt like they deserved, and they needed and why wouldn’t they have access to them? But, at the same time, there were so much for me to learn, and I didn’t know what to expect. And I mean this in the best way possible: I was so surprised at how able all of my students were. And I think a lot of times we work with a lot of people who are non-verbal, for example. So, a lot of times, people who don’t know any better, may not know what to expect in terms of what they actually know or what they can communicate with you. They just do it in a different way, is what I’m trying to say. 


So, every single person has so much to bring to the table. It may not look like what you have to bring to the table, or they may not do it in the way that you would, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. That has been really eye opening for me to just see what’s inside all of these people that we’re working with and how we can use dance to bring that out of them. Dance is just like the vessel: it’s not necessarily that we’re trying to make really skilled dance technicians. We do have some dancers that have unbelievable raw talent and could totally have a future in dance. And that’s super cool to see, but our goal is just to use our skill and our craft, which is dance, to bring their potential out of them so they can be better people, they can be more confident, they can make friends, they can go out and get jobs. That is the core of what we’re doing. 

Melissa: Do you have any advice, then, given all of this, for corporate leaders who are trying to create more inclusive spaces so that their workforce feels much like your students do? 

Lauren: Yeah, I think, just keeping all of those things in mind. Again, I’ll say, I guess this is the third I’ve said it: flexibility, flexibility! And knowing that just because you’re used to your typically developing workers doing things a certain way, that doesn’t mean that you can’t still get to the end goal with it looking different. You may need to provide those visuals. You may need to provide more upfront expectations of them. So, it may require you to come out of your comfort zone a little bit, but the end result is so worth it. And I’m, of course, speaking, mostly to intellectual disabilities right now, but on a broader spectrum, like for physical disabilities, just making things accessible. And we don’t currently have anyone with a disability on our staff or our board, but that is a goal for me, so if there’s anyone listening that’s very interested, hit me up! I realize that as we continue to grow and expand this organization, I can do all the research in the world, Megan can do all the research in the world, our families can tell us their opinion all day, but I don’t know what it’s like to have a disability. And so, I need someone in my corner giving their personal perspective and opinion.

I was talking to a friend of mine who uses a wheelchair about this recently, and I was like, “How do I find someone? Is that weird for me to approach someone and say, ‘hey, would you ever be interested in being on my team?’” And she was like, “No, don’t be afraid to ask, but also know that, say you find someone that has a physical disability of some kind, and they say, “Great, I want to be on your board.” Well, just know, you might have to adapt the way you do things.” She was like, “Are your board meetings in-person or are they virtual?” And I said, “Well, they’re usually in person.” And she said, “OK, well, you might have to always offer a virtual option because they may not be able to physically get to the space that you’re having your meeting in.” And just things that we don’t think of every day. So just having a very open mind and not being afraid to ask. Because I have found, in my experience anyway, that these people, they want to be included. They want to be a part of it, and they’re happy that you want to include them, genuinely. And it’s not just about checking a box and saying, “Oh, we have a person with a disability on our staff or our board.” It’s like, well, we really value what you bring to the table, or what you could bring to the table. So, how can we make this happen?


Melissa: Of course, it makes sense it would only continue to enhance what you offer to your students, I imagine, getting different perspectives.

Lauren: Absolutely. And not only bring another perspective, but also, I think it’s so important for them to see someone who may look like them doing it, and they can think, “Oh, well, I could be a dance teacher one day. Like, why not? Why wouldn’t I?” So, next year, we actually have a project that we’re going to be launching where we are bringing in a professional company that is a physically integrated dance company to come in and do an artist residency where they’re going to teach some classes to our students. And we’re going to open some stuff up to the community and do performance as well, because I think that’s so important that our students see people like them doing this. 

Melissa: So, here’s a question for you that we ask all of our guests: What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of culture? 

Lauren: I would say community. Again, referencing those two parents that spoke at our three-year anniversary party last week, they both highlighted how our organization, specifically, is not just a dance studio for them. It is truly a community that we have built, and that culture that they feel when they come through the door of being included and being heard and being seen means so much to them on the caregiver side. And yeah, community is the first word that comes to mind for me. 


Melissa: And if you could have a superpower, what would it be? 

Lauren: That’s an easy one for me. I would be able to be in multiple places at one time. I’m sure the other business owners can relate to that, too. It would be, yeah, nice to clone myself. And I’m actually getting ready to have my first baby, so I’ll be a new mom soon.

Melissa: Congratulations!

Lauren: Thank you! So, I’m probably going feel that way even more soon. 

Melissa: You will, I guarantee it! 

Melissa: Thank you so much for all of your insight. I wish you the best of luck as you continue to expand this so important dance program. I’m so excited to hear more about you and what you’re doing and thank you to our listeners for joining us. We have more inspiring conversations coming soon with leaders who are innovating when it comes to creating inclusive spaces. So, be sure to subscribe to cultur(ED) wherever you listen to your podcast so you don’t miss an episode. All right, thank you, Lauren!

Lauren: Thank you!