For Leah McGee, 2011, Doctor of Physical Therapy, A Chance to Dance, the organization she founded, is the perfect combination of passion, opportunity, and knowledge. A Chance to Dance is a Lake Jackson, TX based non-profit that provides professional dance instruction to children with special needs. Leah holds a bachelor’s degree in Education from Baylor University with a major in health science studies and a minor in dance. Her advanced degree is from TWU Institute of Health Sciences – Houston Center and she works as a licensed physical therapist. TWU Alumni Connection interviewed Leah about what inspired her, what her biggest challenges have been and what she sees for the future of A Chance to Dance. We wish you all the best, Leah!
When did you start A Chance to Dance? What or who served as your inspiration? In 2010, A Chance to Dance (ACTD) began simply as a dance class at a local studio in Clute, TX. After the first semester, it became clear the program would flourish best as its own entity, so in January of 2011, ACTD was established as a non-profit corporation. http://www.achancetodance.org/
Identifying one event or person responsible for my inspiration is difficult. I’ve had a love for music and dance since I was born and am blessed to have parents who afforded me the opportunity to start dance classes at age 3. Dance is a part of who I am and in my soul I’ve always known I wanted to incorporate dance in my life and in the lives of others. My Mom was, and is involved with special education. I was fortunate enough to see and hear about different types of children with special needs when I was growing up. The experiences my mother shared greatly influenced my future decisions. I remember as early as college, telling my roommate that one day I wanted to the chance to teach dance to children with special needs.
Dance is such a multi-faceted art. Dance is a way to express yourself, a way to tell a story, a way to keep your body healthy and fit, and to socialize and have fun. Unfortunately, these children often aren’t given the same opportunities that most of us are given in life, including the chance to participate in art and sports. Dance has left an impression on my life and I wanted to share that with children who see and face the world in different ways. My inspiration comes from the love of this art expressed through the unique abilities that I find in these children each day.
I began ACTD as a student physical therapist studying at TWU-Houston and this served as the final piece to the puzzle. Learning the clinical skills required to physically teach a child in a wheelchair or a child who has difficulty making sense of their environment equipped me with the tools I needed to make my dream a reality. It was the perfect combination of Passion, Opportunity, and Knowledge.
What has been your biggest challenge as you moved forward? The biggest challenge initially was building a curriculum from scratch. In 2010, there wasn’t much research or public information on adaptive dance. I researched the evidence on the techniques and benefits of therapeutic dance, adaptive ballet, and so forth. In fact, this research was compiled as a Critical Appraisal Topic (CAT) I submitted as an assignment in physical therapy (PT) school at TWU. Not knowing how to structure the class elements, define our expectations of the students, or create the criteria of eligibility for the program was difficult. Simply put, shaping the content of the program around the heart of our mission was challenging. Fortunately, my Artistic Director, Kyndell Goff, was by my side and brought forth all of her expertise as a dance instructor from main-stream studios and as school teacher for children with autism. Together, we combined her expertise, and experience with my research and clinical skill to develop a solid foundation for ACTD. The next challenge was navigating the business aspect of our venture. We had to educate ourselves on lots of basic business principles and sought help from local business owners.
As our program has become more defined over the years, the challenge I face now is continuing to create and learn ways to maximize each child’s function in our program. Each student is truly unique in his or her needs and so is the way they express themselves through the art of dance, which requires an ever-evolving innovative approach to bring out the very best in each of our dancers.
Is there a particular memory or occasion that you hold as special? There are so many precious memories that I have from ACTD. One dancer thanked me for teaching her how to dance- the irony is that truly, she had taught me so much more in my two and half years with her. I may have given her words to call movements and a room with mirrors that she can move in, but she has taught me that dance transcends past the limbs and technique. It is much grander than that. Dance is better captured as the fulfillment of a limitless spirit free of physical barriers. In almost 20 years of dancing, it took this student and these dancers to truly teach me that. It’s one thing to know that dance moves past the body, and quite another thing to feel it in your heart that dance is part of the soul.
How did you come to enroll at TWU? Have you kept in touch with the department there in Houston? Have you returned to speak to classes about your experience? TWU-Houston was my top choice school for physical therapy, not only because of its high reputation, but also because of the easy access to The Medical Center and the structure of the program itself. I have definitely kept in touch with the school and continue to attend the annual research day each year. I lectured on pediatric orthopedics in 2013 and I’ve been lucky enough to receive an invitation to return this year. I have also enjoyed teaching their current students in the clinical setting at Shriners Hospitals for Children-Houston, where I currently work. I would love to speak more about adaptive arts and creating opportunities for children as a physical therapist. It is a great honor to be a part of their lives. Quite frankly, PT school gave me the rest of the tools I needed to make ACTD a reality. Realizing that one’s potential as a therapist expands past rehabilitation is enlightening and will move our profession forward.
What do you see as the future for A Chance to Dance? I hope to see ACTD become an inspiration and/or model for other studios in hopes of empowering them to create their own programs for children with special needs. They are most definitely an underserved population and I look forward to sharing all that I have learned in order to make this happen. I’d also like to see the local program continue to grow to include the older teenage population and I foresee this happening as our current students continue to age. I was able to meet and discuss curriculum with the director of the Houston Ballet adaptive ballet class prior to its start in 2012, and I would love for ACTD to have more opportunities like this in the Houston area. I’ve had a few TWU students come and observe/volunteer with our classes at ACTD and I hope to see this continue as well. Video of Recital – http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=iILupYwVNdo
An undocumented goal of our program that is inherent to the art of dance is for our students to find their own way to create motion and dance, and to be confident of their motion, especially when taking the stage to perform. I hope that we are able to allow some of our dancer’s dreams to become realities.