UI introduces new 'all-inclusive' dance troupe


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The circle of dancers didn’t look like an ordinary dance troupe at rehearsal. They stood before their choreographer and followed her movements, but the oldest person was 78, and the youngest was only 9.

While only a few of them had a typical dancer’s physique, most deal with another commonality: a mental challenge. But those disabilitiess don’t stop them from performing with a passion.

Together, they make up the Combined Effort Theater’s dance company, a “radically inclusive” troupe, with a “difference in philosophy,” said Janet Schlapkohl, a UI adjunct assistant professor of theater and company founder.

“That’s been our mission from the onset,” she said.  “[Instead of] saying we allow someone to be a member, [we] say we want you to be a member because we think you have an artistic gift that’s unique — a creative spark that needs to be celebrated.”

Since starting Combined Efforts Theater in 2002, Schlapkohl’s new spin-off, the yet-to-be-named dance troupe, is just getting its start, after a première performance on April 27 at the Dancing Our Visions event in the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts.

The driver for the success of the group goes well-beyond the $8 ticket price for shows, built on a shoestring budget. A few key donors and the determination of the dancers keep the organization afloat, Schlapkohl said.

Costumes alone for a single performance cost between $150 and $200, she said.

“With the career path that I’m going on, this is just another great opportunity — one that I love now,” choreographer and UI student Zach Bird said. 

For 37-year old Sheri Breedlove, who lives with Down syndrome, involvement in the group comes down to one simple reason.

“I love to dance,” she said.

Jessica Anthony, another choreographer for the group, said it’s important to work with such an inclusive group because it broadens the stories and expands the art movement’s reach.

“I’ve been really impressed and struck by the attitudes of all the participants here,” she said.

“They’ve been really positive and willing to try new things and supportive of one another.”

Ryann Sirois, 26, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as a child, has been with the acting troupe since the group was founded.

“It’s healthy because it’s exercise,” she said. “It gives you energy. I just like dancing a lot.”

As far as goals go, Schlapkohl said, it would be ideal to partner with other local theater companies in the future in establishing programs operated in part by individuals with disabilities.

“We’re dreaming. This is like, long-term, wouldn’t that be great … right now, we use borrowed spaces.”

Steve and Donna Story, Schlapkohl’s parents, gave a large grant to the theater group to fund the company’s men’s choir.

“I would like us to be participating where they go to a show in Des Moines or even out of state one day, where this is a company that travels,” she said.

“I’m very interested in this idea of dance that can be used as a social change,” Bird said. “Not a lot of [the dancers] have the training that professional dancers have, so it’s very fun to see how teaching different styles — different types of movement — makes the participants feel their way through it, how they reflect on the movement.”

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