Leading the Dance for Inclusion

The Covington Regional Ballet strives to become a force for change using the language of dance to fully embrace inclusion and diversity in its dancers and dance forms.

by KARI APTED

Covington Regional Ballet Director Josh Schadl has held on to a dream since he joined the staff several years ago. “Inclusion,” he said. “That’s been a big mission of mine.” Schadl’s mission is well understood by those in the arts community. Although dance is a vital artistic expression in nearly every culture across the globe, the professional dance world has been slow to fully embrace diversity. Newton County Arts Association Executive Director Buncie Hay Lanners shares Schadl’s commitment to equal representation in the arts. 

“I don’t want to follow in this endeavor for inclusion,” Lanners said. “I want to lead the way in making all dancers—that means all races, all types of hair, all body types—feel comfortable being who they are. I want everyone to feel comfortable celebrating using their bodies in dance.”

Established in 2001, the Covington Regional Ballet has expanded its offerings over the years to include jazz, Broadway, creative movement, hip hop and acting classes. Artistic Director Liz Stillerman grew up dancing with the CRB and went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in dance performance and choreography from Elon University in North Carolina. After working with ballet ensembles from Jerusalem to Chicago, she returned to her hometown. 

“I couldn’t be more excited to have a graduate of our programs teaching our students now,” said Lanners, who also offers high praise for Schadl. He performed with the Atlanta Ballet and studied at the National Taiwan University of the Arts. “Josh has been teaching for us for several years now, and he is beloved. The kids just love him, and he’s very focused on the whole dancer. He believes in creating great kids, not just great dancers. He and Liz are quite a team.”

“I want to lead the way in making all dancers—that means all races, all types of hair, all body types—feel comfortable being who they are. I want everyone to feel comfortable celebrating using their bodies in dance.”

Newton County Arts Association 
Executive Director Buncie Hay Lanners

The entire Covington Regional Ballet team is united in its mission to promote inclusion in dance, and it has preceded many professional dance companies in this regard. 

“It matters a lot to me that we’re on the cutting edge of this and that we began before the 2020 awareness from Black Lives Matter,” Lanners said. “In last year’s Nutcracker ballet, our Clara was black. She wore skin-colored tights instead of the standard ballet tights, which is a big deal in the dance world.”

Traditionally, dance companies have required students of all ethnicities to wear generic flesh-colored tights and shoes, regardless of their individual skin tone. It is also a common requirement for girls to wear their hair in a smooth bun—a style that does not work well with all hair textures.

“I want our dancers to be able to wear hairstyles that complement their natural hair, to wear protective hairstyles while they dance,” Schadl said. 

The Covington Regional Ballet this fall will debut Motion Dance Ensemble, a new jazz and contemporary dance company for middle and high school students. Stillerman wants to get the word out on the program, which is open to dancers with any level of experience. 

“The mission of our arts association is to share a love of the arts, but certain types of dance can feel exclusive to some,” Stillerman said. “We do love ballet, but it requires starting at a young age. We wanted to create a new opportunity for more people to feel welcome to express themselves through dance.”

Money should not be as much of an obstacle, either. 

“Sometimes people are reluctant to commit to a dance company because of the financial obligation,” Stillerman said, “but thanks to a generous gift, participation in Motion Dance Ensemble is free for current CRB students.” 

New students pay only a $25 registration fee to dance with MDE for the year, and the school offers a scholarship program for qualifying students interested in other classes. Award-winning Atlanta dancer Xavier Lewis serves as the resident choreographer for Motion Dance Ensemble. He brings over 10 years of experience in jazz, hip hop and contemporary dance instruction and has taught summer programs at CRB before. Lewis and Schadl encourage more males to give dancing a try, particularly in hip hop and jazz. 

“We’re always looking for more guys,” Schadl said. “We are all about removing dance stereotypes related to gender.” 

The school held a master class meeting on Sept. 12, but interested middle and high schoolers can still sign up for the weekly session. The Covington Regional Ballet plans to feature the new company at a number of community events, including the Lighting of The Square, the Fuzz Run and Relay for Life. Lanners, Stillerman and Schadl find joy in leading the way on East Metro Atlanta’s path to dance inclusion. 

“Representation in this day and age is so important,” Schadl said. “When kids see people that look like them doing this, they know, ‘Hey, this is accessible to me, as well.’” 

For more information about Motion Dance Ensemble or other dance opportunities at the Covington Regional Ballet, call 770-786-8188. You can also visit them online at CovingtonRegionalBallet.com or find them on Facebook and Instagram.

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