Ellice: Advancing Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts



Ellice Patterson is the executive director and founder of Abilities Dance Boston, a professional dance company in Boston. Originally from Mississippi, Ellice has been dancing since the age of 4. She has a deep understanding of the power of this art form to create beauty, tell stories, spark conversations about social justice, and promote social change. Ellice founded Abilities Dance after she had been turned down by several professional dance companies who could not provide the accommodations or modifications she needed as a professional dancer with a disability. Therefore, she created that space for herself and others. As Ellice shared, Abilities Dance Boston was founded from a “process of figuring out spaces that would welcome, accept, and eventually hire me, and there came a point when I had to create that space for myself.” In founding Abilities Dance Boston, Ellice said she has been able “to work, refine, experiment, and push notions of what dance is and could be, and continually expand that definition of what dance is, what constitutes a professional dancer, and who is involved in it or not.” Her drive to create a space where she and others can pursue their skills and interests and “do their best work” has inspired the rapid growth of Abilities Dance Boston from an idea into a professional dance company.

What’s Important

At first, Ellice launched Abilities Dance Boston informally by bringing together professional dancers with and without disabilities. Using her personal network, Ellice recruited dancers, a costume designer, and a music composer. “It was just heading out there and being in dance spaces and sharing with other disabled dance entities to share in their networks as well, in addition to posting in our own website and social media channels,” Ellice said. Through these efforts, she recruited a core group of dancers that has been part of the company for several years now. Ellice and her team at Abilities Dance Boston develop live and virtual productions.

A key objective of the organization is to use dance and culture to promote equity and inclusion. As Ellice put it, The primary goal of our organization is not just to create a nice dance, but to really use dance as a tool to have conversations on equity.” She sees the company’s work as a process that creates space for both the dancers and the audience to learn from each other and to grow toward a more equitable and inclusive society. “It is a reciprocal process, learning from the audience, and in other places, they are learning from us, and that’s the only way to grow, and not to be stuck in a certain understanding but to continue to grow” Ellice said.

The production team is composed of dancers, a costume designer, a music composer, mobility aids, and access professionals who are based across the country and work together virtually on all aspects of dance development and production. The team of close to 40 people have adapted to choreographing, rehearsing, and performing together virtually on a regular basis. As Ellice described, “They have to be pretty committed because it is objectively rigorous, but not in a form that tears you down, more in a form that is just disciplined and continual learning and evolving and experimenting and trying different things out.” Each dancer takes time at the beginning of their work together to let one another and Ellice know about any accommodations or modifications they may need to do their best work in a space that is safe and effective for all. From there, they can engage in the creative process of dance and choreography. As Ellice described it, “I just kind of create and then I just think of movements in the moment and then allow dancers to do those, have moments where they work together to create parts of choreography that have a specific goal in mind and then just go back and forth that way until it's done."

Another important part of creating an inclusive workplace in the arts has been ensuring that each dancer is treated as a professional. “I wanted to be able to provide the workplace that I never had, and so that inspired not just the recruitment but also supporting the dancer in every way I could, both in equitable pay and accommodations and anything that they might need,” she shared. Ellice shared that most of the dancers are now part-time employees, with paid time off and other benefits.

What Happened

Ellice used her network to create a professional dance company that embraces diversity and inclusion. Abilities Dance Boston is a space for innovative professional dancers and the development of innovative dance forms that incorporate differences in movement and in each dancers lived experiences. In developing a choreography process that elevates the capacities and challenges of each dancer and welcomes the accommodations and/or modifications the dancers need to do their best work, the dance company promotes equity and inclusion within the professional dance and arts community. The company promotes inclusion by: (1) creating a space where professional dancers with and without disabilities can dance; (2) providing accommodations and modifications; (3) ensuring equitable pay; and (4) using dance as a platform to advance social change.

Lessons Learned

Value inclusion: Ellice chose to create an inclusive workplace for herself and others, where dancers with or without disabilities can pursue dance as a profession. This was the direct result of traditional professional dance companies not understanding how to be inclusive of groups that do not reflect their traditional notion of a professional dancer.

Networking is key: Ellice used her broader networks to recruit dancers and other staff members. Networking allowed the company to hire individuals with a wealth of different experiences from a wide variety of locations.

Embrace equity: Equity is visible in the choreography, production process, and the company’s commitment to equitable wages and benefits. As the broader dance and disability communities become aware of Abilities Dance Boston, it provides an example of how equity in the arts profession can impact the larger community.