MISSOULA — A ballerina has a particular image attached to it, but a dance studio in Missoula is challenging the mainstream view of dancing.
The owners of Show Tyme Academy strive to make the studio an inclusive and equal-opportunity dance company.
Part of this inclusivity is a dedicated all-abilities dance class called DanceABLE.
Christine Kowalchik — who started Show Tyme 10 years ago in a little room at the Missoula Children’s Theater — says it had been a lifelong dream to start her own academy and provide a more inclusive environment than the one she grew up dancing in.
“It was sometimes not always the case where I felt like I was being seen as who I was,” she says. “It was very rigorous, it was very rigorous ballet. And so when I decided to open my studio, it was a place where I wanted everyone to always feel welcome whether their shape, their size, their height, their you know, grade, their race, their ethnicity, any of those things. You are welcome.”
Over the past decade, Kowalchik has grown her business from 24 students in a backroom to over 250 students with 80 different classes in their own building off of Murphy Street.
As a way to inspire the inclusivity she was looking for, Kowalchik started an all-abilities class with a colleague who had received training in special education.
It was in the first few years of the class that she met 11-year-old Tyler Schreckendgust who suffered a traumatic brain injury at just 25 months old. He was at a babysitter’s house when he fell out a three-story window, causing a stroke.
The entire left side of his brain was affected, causing mobility issues on the right side of his body.
Despite doctors anticipating a life-long vegetative mental state, Schreckendgust is now a high school student who is able to communicate clearly and participate in sports. One of his favorite hobbies is dance.
Since beginning in the Show Tyme DanceABLE program, Schreckendgust has competed in solo and duet categories in several styles of dance, from hip-hop to contemporary. He spends five days a week in a dance studio.
The DanceABLE program was canceled when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but thanks to Schreckendgust and his mom, Bambi, Kowalchik the program was brought back.
Tyler is now a teacher’s assistant for the class and has recruited many friends from his baseball team to join.
The disabilities of the students in the class range from autism to Down Syndrome to brain injuries like Tyler's. They offer a level 1 class for young kids and a level 2 class for high school students.
Addie Wood — who has danced her entire life and is currently on the University of Montana Dance Team — has coached DanceABLE for two years.
“Working with people with special needs and people with disabilities is something that I've been passionate about for a long time,” she says. “It's just really good to see these kids and build a relationship with them and see them grow so much.”
Wood remembers how the same students that will be performing a choreographed number at the academy’s winter showcase, were unable to dance at all when they started. She says their improvement is due to the supportive environment.
“I think it's a safe space, definitely, to do something that can be challenging for people who don't have the privilege to have a completely able body.”
A majority of the class is improvisation and play, encouraging the kids to move as freely as they want.
“So I think ultimately dance is something that we're meant to do,” Kowalchik says. “Our bodies physically are meant to move, and I think when you go into a classroom, every single person has the ability to move. And it doesn't matter what type of movement, but your body is meant to move. It's a universal language.”
Wood says the class isn’t something she ever saw growing up in the dance world, but hopes it inspires a break from the norm.
“So I just feel like, in the dance world especially, it's been very much a cookie cutter person who can be a good dancer, whether that's your height, your weight, how you look,” she says. “I think this program is really unique, and I think that's why it's so important is because now people are hearing about it, and I hope this inspires more people to be more inclusive in the dance world because it hasn't always been.”
DanceABLE and Schreckendgust have inspired Kowalchik to continue diversity and inclusion in all Show Tyme classes.
“I think the most amazing thing about DanceABLE is what it's done for the rest of the dance community at Show Tyme,” she says. “I think it's brought awareness to me and a sense of, Oh, wow. You know, there is an inclusivity and that needs to be spoken about and it needs to be normalized in dance, and Tyler pushes me to continue to think outside the box and to be a better director. I'm teaching 250 students and role modeling to 250 students that are then going to go out to the world and normalize that.”
Gabby Morelli — who has danced with Tyler during many of his duets — says the class has shown her that disabilities don't have to hold dancers back.
“I think that all abilities are very misrepresented," she says. "And I for sure didn't know a lot about it. And honestly, I'm still learning, but having people know that everyone of all ability can dance, and everyone of all ability can love it, is really amazing. And it's I think it's really empowering for people.”
DanceABLE will perform a hip-hop rendition of The Nutcracker at Show Tyme’s winter show at the Dennison Theatre on Dec. 21 and Dec. 22, 2023.
More information on DanceABLE and other programs with Show Tyme can be found on their website.