By Lyndsi Pace, program manager, Tanner Dance

Since the 1990s, Tanner Dance at the University of Utah has been holding classes for children with disabilities and due to a community need, they recently launched two programs for adults.

In January 2016, they began Elevate Theater Company, a musical theater program for performers with disabilities over the age of 15. In the program, students engage in classes of singing, dancing and acting, and work on memorization and mobility skills. Students explore a variety of emotions framed in various scenarios as they prepare for their annual show. Previous performances included “Oh The Thinks You Can Think!” from “Seussical the Musical” and “Press Start,” a musical about classic video game characters who decide to hold a fundraiser to earn gold coins to obtain more lives.

Tanner Dance worked with the mother of one of their students to create the program. Joan Provost, whose son has a congitiive disability, has advocated throughout her son’s life to get him access to the best programs to increase his activity levels and opportunities for friendships. She and Tanner Dance worked closely to model Elevate Theater Company after Detour Company Theatre in Phoenix that facilitates the production of multiple musicals each year performed by hundreds of participants with physical and/or cognitive disabilities.

The second program Tanner Dance created is titled LEADD, Learning and Engaging through Arts Discipline and Development, which launched in August 2016 to provide afternoon art classes to adults ages 22 and up with physical and/or cognitive disabilities. Students work with experienced arts specialists and therapists to learn music, dance and visual art. Through these experiences, students can enhance skills like verbal communication, spatial awareness, interpreting directions, working with someone else toward a common goal, recognizing themes and patterns and asking for help. Last year, students ended the program with an art gallery and performance titled “Self-Portrait,” where the exuberance and joy of the performers was palpable.  

Both LEADD and Elevate Theater Company are currently accepting new students for the 2017-18 academic year. Tuition is subsidized by various government and private sources and Tanner Dance offers needs-based scholarships and is also a provider for the Utah Division of Services for People with Disabilites. LEADD and Elevate would not exist without the tireless help of dozens of community volunteers, including university and high school students who participate alongside students and assist in their learning.

Nathan Dunn, a Salt Lake County resident with Down syndrome, participated in both the LEADD and Elevate programs. His mother Ann Dunn said, “They have helped him be creative, strengthen his mind, improve his conversational skills and provide him with continuing education on a university campus.”

Providing an engaging and joyous life for adults with disabilities is a community effort, and Tanner Dance is grateful for the support that makes this possible.