In August 2021, LG Electronics Australia recognised Alyshia Clarke as a local hero in her community of Footscray, in the North-west of Melbourne, Victoria. Combining her passions for education and dance, Alyshia established a program in her local community with a powerful message and even bigger impact.
As a pre-service teacher and allied health assistant, Alyshia long observed the joy that creative arts brought to children with assisted needs. That’s why in February 2021, she decided to launch Dance 4 All – an inclusive dance school delivering specialised programs for children of all abilities.
We spoke with Alyshia to learn more about how Dance 4 All began, what her greatest challenges and highlights have been throughout her journey, and what lies ahead for the inclusive dance program.
LG: What inspired you to give back in your community?
AC: Over the past five years, I have had the privilege of working as an education support staff member and allied health assistant for children with additional needs, helping them achieve their learning and therapy goals at school. My students and their families inspire me every day – they are at the heart of everything I do. Providing them with a safe space to thrive, develop fundamental skills and be their true selves will always be a source of motivation, and seeing the pride in their faces when they achieve something for the first time makes my heart so full.
I am someone who has always valued inclusion, and I’m very passionate about ensuring that the needs of every student are being met. As a dance teacher, I have seen many students miss out on opportunities to perform due to the limitations of mainstream dance classes and the lack of recreational and social activities offered. It’s not uncommon in the world of dance to see children who lack confidence be ignored or not given a chance to thrive given their varying abilities.
I opened Dance 4 All to challenge this notion, and to ensure that every child gets the support and opportunities they need to succeed on their dance journey.
LG: How did you come up with the concept?
AC: My experience as a dance teacher and allied health assistant taught me the powerful impacts of creative outlets for children with assisted needs. Emerging studies have shown that when movement, sound and rhythm are combined, they can have immense effects on the brain.
However, I noticed that there was a lack of inclusive programs for all-abled children across dance schools in my local community. Having experienced the barriers to inclusion and stereotypes in my own past as a dancer, I wanted to dismantle barriers surrounding disability by sending a positive message of acceptance into my community; that everyone deserves the chance to dance.
I began developing the foundations of my program using a combination of invaluable knowledge I had gained throughout working in a special development school, my teaching degree, years of dance training, and additional qualifications in dance therapy.
The result was a student-centric program encouraging children’s development across five domains – physical, social, emotional, cognitive and language – in a fun and engaging way. It is specially designed to complement their existing therapy sessions, supporting the development of their gross and fine motor skills, cognitive processing, executive functioning skills, social skills and self-regulation, amongst other skills. The classes are conducted using visual aids to mirror what children are using at home and in school and allow students to bring along a buddy (parents, guardians, carers, therapists, siblings, etc.) to support their learning at no extra cost.
LG: What results have you achieved so far?
AC: Since officially opening our doors in February this year, the launch and growth of Dance 4 All has truly been a rewarding experience. When I first opened, I started with one “all-abilities” class to ascertain interest. Within a week, I had to arrange a second class due to overwhelming interest from the autism spectrum disorder community in Victoria. Prior to COVID-19 restrictions, Dance 4 All also formed partnerships with local schools in the area and delivered incursions as part of their weekly PE program.
With the support of my amazing team, students and families at Dance 4 All, we’ve been able to grow a community that is safe, free of judgement and offers understanding and mutual support. It is a safe space to create connections within the local disability community and form positive relationships with likeminded people. Some families even travel up to 45 minutes to attend our programs.
As a dance teacher, the biggest achievement is seeing your students succeed in their individual goals, no matter how big or small they may seem. In addition, since opening in February, I have seen students gradually develop confidence, begin to communicate more verbally, using visuals and gestures, develop strong friendships with their peers, gain new movement patterns and above all this, form a love of dance. It has been so great to see my student’s true personalities shine through, finding new ways to express themselves.
LG: Have you come up against any challenges?
AC: Being immersed in independent dance schools throughout much of my life revealed to me that most traditional studios lacked inclusive and accessible spaces for students. This is something I eventually overcame by opening my own studio, however, this was not without its own challenges. For instance, finding an accessible and affordable venue to accommodate the needs of our students was a long and tedious process.
Since opening, the most significant challenge has been the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought about the closure of our studio due to public health orders and restrictions. This has caused a stop-start environment which has been challenging for some of the students.
While we endeavoured to run online classes during this time, the general consensus from our parents was that most of the children struggle with online learning and shifting their lifestyles to virtual platforms. We understood that our dance classes can maintain a sense of routine, physical activity, social interaction and community support networks throughout these challenging times, so to accommodate, we offered both pre-recorded and live sessions free of charge to our families and all children in the broader Victorian community. In saying that, both our regular students and their families are looking forward to resuming face-to-face classes soon.
LG: What’s next for you and your initiative?
AC: Looking ahead, I would love to see Dance 4 All continue to grow and expand into a larger studio space that is purposefully designed for both children with additional needs and mainstream students. My hopes for the dance school include running multiple classes in multiple styles for children with additional needs of all ages and abilities, growing our offering for school-based incursions, and participating in local community performances, concerts and competitions for students who would like the opportunity.
I also hope to inspire the next generation of dance teachers by setting up a mentoring program and specialised dance therapy training, enabling them to take on leadership roles within the studio.
LG: What does being named an ‘LG Local Legend’ mean to you?
AC: Being nominated and receiving the LG Local Legend award has been such an honour and has affirmed my belief that we can all contribute to creating a better world when we see the person first, rather than their disability.
Being recognised for my work and seeing how far the students at Dance 4 All have come fills me with pride and has encouraged me to continue being a positive role model for the wider community. I hope receiving this award demonstrates to my students, and other children like them, that they can achieve anything they put their mind to and walk out of their class feeling empowered.
Looking forward, I hope the growth of Dance 4 All encourages conversations around greater diversity and inclusion in the dance community, dismantles negative stereotypes around disability, and promotes the message that everyone is capable of dance.
We would truly like to thank Alyshia for her dedication to her local community and wish her all the best as she continues to change the lives of children with assisted needs and their families, while inspiring the next generation of dancers. For more information about Alyshia’s mission, visit Dance 4 All.
If you know someone like Alyshia making a difference through their time, actions, talents and/or dedication to others, you can nominate them to be named an LG Local Legend by visiting: lglifesgood.com.au/nominate-a-local-legend.
We are looking forward to celebrating their achievements with you soon!