BodyWise Dance

Movement to Enhance Everyday Living

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Margot Greenlee, flanked by BodyWise artistic educators JJ Johnson (left) and Ryan Sellers (right) uses dance to help adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities learn life skills. Photo: Evelyn Hockstein

We began by tapping our bodies from head to toe with our hands and moving easily to the beat of the music. The instructor, Margot Greenlee, called it body percussion: warming up our skin, muscles and bones. Think about how you can dance to fit “you” best, she said. For a half hour I swiveled my hips, twisted my torso, strengthened my legs and gently shook my arms and shoulders to music with 12 other students, while Greelee watched us on video. The goal? Have fun and be able to move more comfortably through my day.

I was in a zoom dance class called Morning Moves 2.0. Greenlee calls it “Inclusive Dance.” “It’s an umbrella term for dance that is inviting to people of all ages and abilities,” she explained. “Unlike a more traditional dance class where the idea is to master whatever the teacher is doing, inclusive dance asks people to dance to their own best ability and edit or augment as they choose.”

Every weekday at 10 a.m. people from the DC metro area, other parts of the U.S. and from around the world get together on zoom with Greenlee or one of her artistic assistants. One student in my class was on vacation, zooming from his hotel room. Another participant was a classroom in Virginia of special needs’ teens.

BodyWise Dance artist educators Jeremy Hunter (at right) and JJ Johnson dance with intellectually and developmentally/disabled adults in northern VA. Photo: Evelyn Hockstein

The dance class is part of her company, BodyWise Dance, a business she created almost 10 years ago. “Morning Moves 2.0 was a way to keep our group together during COVID. Students hone skills needed for everyday life and alleviate some of the isolation we are all experiencing. It helps students have a smooth transition back into the world.” After the half-hour class students spend 15 minutes talking with her and each other.

Morning Moves 2.0 is an outcome of Greenlee realizing her passion for creating participatory dance-making, civic dialogue and creativity which is the foundation of her choreographic vision. Greenlee’s passion came from her research into the emotional, social and practical benefits of group dance in addition to physical benefits.

“A high percentage of us have some form of physical, emotional, or intellectual disability such as arthritis, depression, cerebral palsy or downs syndrome. Studies show dancing with other people elevates mood, creates social connection and develops creativity and confidence. Part of the power of the class is that we ask everyone to reflect, ‘How is my body today?’ ‘How can I dance that will help me feel good all throughout the day?’”

Each week Greenlee films one of the weekly classes for YouTube so people can watch any time.

Greenlee’s Inspiration

Greenlee’s approach to dance is based on 20 years of experience in community arts engagement as a solo artist and as a company member with the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange which took her all around the world. She has taught classes at the Hill Center, at the Capitol Hill Village and a class for people with Parkinson’s disease in northwest DC.

Margot Greenlee. Photo: Evelyn Hockstein

A few years ago, Greenlee began travelling to Russia in a peer-to-peer exchange program to share her work on inclusive dance. She said the Russians were interested in how people with disabilities cope with daily life in the United States. But COVID changed all that. “The exchange program has turned into a video project. Each artist creates a video leading an inclusive dance class. It’s in its infancy.”

The Future of BodyWise Dance

Greenlee wants BodyWise Dance programs featuring inclusive dance to help support special education teachers all over the United States and the world. “I’d like our curriculum to help older students gain as much independence as possible before they leave the high school setting.”

She said when you combine dance with classroom curriculum students often learn better and ideas stick longer. Greenlee experienced this melding of dance and learning first hand. She has been working for years alongside classroom teachers. “For example, when students learn about electrons, we will do it with a dance. I’d collaborate with teachers to discover what they want students to learn. Then I ask, ‘What is hard for students to learn?’ I then turn the concepts into movement. I lead students through a process of improvisation and choreography. We make dances together.”

Greenlee’s dream includes BodyWise Dance providing special education teachers all over the world with a library of videos they could use as needed to help teach and would be of low cost to teachers. “If teachers are leading a unit on how to take public transportation they would have short-format vides about how to take a bus around town. Not only special education teachers could use them but they would also be useful for fellow dancers and film-makers as well.”

Ways to Help BodyWise Dance

Greenlee said her video project, which is designed to support independence in daily life, is in its infancy. She has posted the videos on her website: danceeverydayproject.com. She would like readers to visit the website, watch the short videos and answer the survey that will provide much-appreciated feedback. “It will help us fine-tune or change course if needed.”

Greenlee is also looking for volunteers who have a passion for inclusive dance and want to help share globally and locally become a part of her team.

The last dance of my Morning Moves 2.0 class included four concepts put into dance moves by Greenlee that I believe encapsulate the heart of her program. It included: I am strong (muscle man), my feelings are important (flowing with hands in heart shape), I deserve to feel safe (hug yourself) and I deserve respect (shaking hands with arms outreached to include everyone). What better way to start your day?

For more information contact Greenlee at: [email protected]. You can log onto: danceverydayproject.com for more information about the videos.

Pattie Cinelli is a health and fitness professional and journalist who has been writing her column for more than 20 years. She focuses on holistic and leading-edge ways to stay healthy, get well, live from your heart and not your brain and connect with your authentic self. Please email her at: [email protected]