Dancing Without Limits: Building Inclusion Through Art
Dancer/Choreographer, Founder of DanceAbility International
2009 Fulbright U.S. Specialist to Mexico
Alito Alessi is a teacher and choreographer who has changed the world of contemporary dance through his pioneering work with people with disabilities. Inspired by his mother, a wheelchair user, and his sister, who suffered from polio, Alessi developed an improvisational dance methodology to promote artistic expression between people with and without disabilities. Over the past 30 years, through DanceAbility International, Alessi has trained teachers and students across the world in his inclusive approach to mixed-abilities dance.
“My generation of contemporary dance embraced the premise that dance was for everybody,” explains Alessi. “However, it seemed like nobody was really fulfilling the idea of accessibility and equality for all. During my successful career as a dancer, I decided to teach a dance class for all abilities. When I reached out for support, funding sources and organizations laughed at me. They said, ‘come back when you have proved that it’s possible.’”
A former athlete, Alessi’s journey towards inclusive dance began at the University of Oregon. Tutoring young children while studying modern dance, he discovered that movement improved their self-esteem and communication, which inspired him to start a modern dance company. In 1987, he hosted his first mixed-abilities dance workshop and, to his surprise, more than 100 people attended. Encouraged, Alessi created an inclusive dance form that challenges disability stereotypes: DanceAbility.
As a 2009 Fulbright Specialist, Alessi worked with university students and the local disability community in Mexico City, Mexico to build dance skills and techniques. This experience helped transform his fledgling organization into a worldwide network, which now boasts affiliations in 40 different countries and recognition from Mobility International USA (MIUSA) and the Ashoka Foundation. Alessi’s experience as a Fulbright Specialist gave him the confidence and resources to realize his dream. “To be seen, recognized, and valued by such a prestigious program gave me the inspiration to move forward. In Mexico, I was able to teach, train, and create dance with people with and without disabilities. I am grateful for the Fulbright Program’s support, which helped launch DanceAbility on a global scale.”
In 2013, the U.S. Department of State selected Alessi to travel to Indonesia, Mongolia, and the Philippines through the Arts Envoy Program to build mutual understanding through art. Through the program, Alessi worked with local communities to nurture self-expression through DanceAbility programming.
Despite challenges to inclusion in the arts, Alito Alessi understands its power: “At first, there was a lot of resistance to me as an American in Mongolia [as an Arts Envoy]. In the end, the national dance of Mongolia was performed for me, and many students wore clothing with the American flag. Their hearts and minds had changed. The mother of a 14-year-old girl with disabilities confided, ‘Thanks to you and the United States, my daughter has had her first social experience.’”