One of those challenges was watching Jason struggle for acceptance in their small British Columbian town. He was a natural performer who loved to dance, but who was turned away by the local dance community. Hannah, herself a dancer from an early age, was frustrated. “I found it sad, not just for Jason, but for audiences as well. They didn’t know what they were missing.”

Hannah went on to attend ballet school at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, but was put off by the high-pressure environment. She finished high school in British Columbia and then moved to Ottawa to work for L’Arche, an organization dedicated to building inclusive communities. She lived with five people with intellectual disabilities, creating a shared home where “everyone did everything.”

A few years later, as a single mother, Hannah was struck by the inequality of opportunity available to children in Ottawa. She decided to combine her passions for dance and social justice into a single project. Starting small, at the local community centre, she offered dance classes to girls. Not jazz or ballet, not requiring perfect bodies or fancy costumes, Hannah’s classes provided “a space to be authentic” in which the girls could “create their own work.” Within two years, she had 120 students and waiting lists.

“…a space to be authentic.”

Over the past seventeen years, Dandelion Dance has become a one-of-a-kind institution. Seventy five girls, or people identifying as girls, between the ages of 6 and 18 are now enrolled in its classes, and 12 of them form a performance company. The criteria for enrollment have nothing to do with dance experience, nor does Hannah set any kind of quotas.

“I’m looking for girls who are interested and open, who want to make a difference,” she says. Through grants and charitable donations, Hannah can offer subsidies to roughly a third of the program’s participants but the demand remains huge; she dreams of the day that she can take every girl who wants to join.

The classes are structured as families and each teacher remains with one cohort through the program. The approach, which harkens back to Hannah’s experience with L’Arche, fosters trust and respect: an environment in which all kinds of issues emerge — body image, poverty, racism, even abuse. Hannah never ceases to be amazed by how creatively the girls convert these often painful experiences into movement and moments of beauty. The performance company, which appears monthly at universities, schools, Parliament and international conferences, regularly receives standing ovations.

Hannah recalls a student who was deeply ashamed of her life in poverty and joined the company on condition that she work backstage. Gradually she ventured out from behind the wings, and ultimately choreographed a piece that featured her in a paint-splattered white costume, struggling to reach some grocery and shopping bags on the opposite side of the stage. An audience member was so moved by the performance that he offered to finance her university studies. She’s now in the fourth year of a social work program at the University of Calgary.

Such gestures may be exceptional, but there is no question that Dandelion Dance has a profound impact on all its graduates. Hannah sees friendships develop between the girls whose paths would otherwise never have crossed. She sees girls, trained by social media to always present their most photogenic sides, celebrating their imperfections. And she sees a community that doesn’t just talk about inclusion but practices it in everything that it does.

Hannah Beach, Founder and Co-Executive Director, Dandelion Dance
A few years later, as a single mother, Hannah was struck by the inequality of opportunity available to children in Ottawa.

In 2017, the Commission published the report Left Out: Challenges faced by persons with disabilities in Canada’s schools. The report shows that for many people with mental or physical disabilities, Canada’s education system can seem like a closed door. Among other findings, the report documents that 37% of persons with disabilities in Canada are taking fewer courses because of their disability, and 11% are choosing to end their education early because of their disability. The report is part of a Commission research series aimed at monitoring Canada’s implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.