Arts Profile: Co-founder of the All Bodies Dance Project, Sarah Lapp talks about working past perceived limitations to achieve her dream of dancing
'I want expectation'
Sarah Lapp can move her body in ways she never dreamed possible. Sitting in a café after her weekly private dance class, the 33-year-old dancer demonstrates how she can sit upright in her wheelchair, without the support of a backrest. Before she started dancing, it was difficult to hold herself up on her own.
“Now it's just natural, it's easy,” she says. “I mean, I wouldn't do it all day every day, but it’s now just a more natural thing for me, to just sit up, and balance on my centre.”
Lapp is a co-founder of the All Bodies Dance Project, a Vancouver-based society that puts on mixed-ability dance classes and performances.
She choreographs and performs in the troupe, is the administrator, and helps teach weekly mixed-ability community dance classes. She’s also on the receiving end of private mentorship. Thanks to a grant, Lapp has weekly one-on-one sessions with her mentor and All Bodies Dance co-founder Naomi Brand.
Lapp, who was born with Cerebral Palsy, says the private training is paying off, but the expectation that she could improve as a dancer wasn’t always there.
“There is that perception that ‘yeah, whatever she's doing, whatever you’re doing, is good enough.’ On the outside, that's great, but I want expectation. I want people to help me develop as a dancer,” she says.
The muscle spasticity that comes with Cerebral Palsy has also lessened,
Lapp says, as she demonstrates how she’s able to relax her hands more easily from their slightly-fisted resting position.
Dance, dance, dance
Ultimately, Lapp hopes to make dance her long-term career, but she does other work to pay the bills. At age five, she staged dance performances in the cul-de-sac outside her home in Surrey. Family and neighbours would come to watch the creative and vivacious young Lapp.
“Because I'm not able to stand, usually my version of dancing was on my back, just creating choreography,” she says.
As a wheelchair user, there weren’t many opportunities for Lapp to dance with groups as a kid. However, her love of dance was instilled by two rare opportunities early on. In 1994 and 1995, she was recruited to perform in a ballet for the Variety Children’s Charity Show of Hearts Telethon.
Lapp continued to dance as part of exercise routines in elementary school, but recalls that she “didn’t even dance in high school, dance wasn’t even on my radar.”
So, unlike most aspiring professional dancers, Lapp didn’t spend her teenage years in a dance studio, rehearsing ad infinitum.
It wasn’t until long after high school that she started dancing again.
While working as a client services manager for a non-profit, Lapp started attending recreational dance classes for wheelchair users.
From there, she was recruited to participate in and develop choreography for a wheelchair dance performance at the 2010 Paralympic Games in Vancouver.
“The Olympics is what started it all for me … I [tried] to create my own opportunities, and there were programs out there, but they were very short term.”
While the dance school for wheelchair users eventually closed, Lapp found a brief opportunity to dance with a theatre troupe, but it wasn’t until 2013 that she met Brand—a relationship that would change her life trajectory.
“I joined one community class. It was advertised on my Facebook for … people that were older than 55. But they had a mention that ‘if you have a disability, come join us,’ so I did,” she says. Lapp adds that the class “was nice, but it was kind of awkward, because I was the only sitting dancer.”
Brand was the class instructor, and Lapp got to know her through conversations after class. The pair quickly discovered they shared a passion for creating mixed ability choreography.
‘How they move’
Then, with the help of grants, Brand and Lapp started the All Bodies Dance Project along with Mirae Rosner. One of their starting points was to offer free mixed ability dance classes, an initiative they have sustained thanks to the support of community centre associations donating their spaces.
The classes happen at three different community centres throughout the week, and attract 10 to 20 participants, some with physical disabilities and some without. Every class starts off with a short check-in where people introduce themselves, state their preferred gender pronouns and say how people can interact with them during the class.
“Your [mobility or health] challenges don’t come into it, unless, of course, you want to share. Our main question is ‘What do we need to know in order to dance with you today?’ Because we realize that day-to-day things can change, so we foster a very open and safe environment … for people to discover themselves and how they move and how they create.”
For example, Lapp says she might tell the class, “You can interact with me, I’m OK with touch, just be mindful of my joy stick on the right because I use a power chair … just so people aren’t nervous about interacting with different bodies in the room.”
As for next steps, Lapp wants to choreograph a show she can take on the road. And aside from making dance her sole focus, she hopes to integrate mixed ability dance into the mainstream.
“By doing what we do, I think we are opening people’s perspectives,” she says.
“People are curious, [but] we still have a long way to go, as far as being seen as part of the field of professional dance.”
*Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Sarah Lapp's name. Megaphone regrets the error.