This Colorado Dance Troupe Has Been Making Performing Arts Accessible For 30 Years

Feb 22, 2019

In 1989, Mary Elizabeth Lenahan helped found Dance Express. The Fort Collins troupe was unique particularly in its focus on being accessible to everyone. Now, as the company celebrates its 30th anniversary, the program is looking at its next steps.

Dance Express was created to give people with disabilities such as Down syndrome or cerebral palsy a way to access to the arts and performance opportunities, Lenahan said.

For her, it was about filling a real need in the community.

"It is difficult to access the arts since they have become such a professional area," Lenahan said, referencing the large amount of arts organizations in Northern Colorado. "And it takes a little longer sometimes for a person with a disability to learn the routines or to create as much as someone else."

There was another motivation that drew her to the job.

Lenahan's sister, Theresa — who passed away in October — had Down syndrome.

"She loved to dance," Lenahan said.

So does 44-year-old Tamara Mahler. Dancing, she said, is the thing that gives her joy and focus, which is why she's been with Dance Express since she was 14.

"I feel good," Mahler said when asked why she dances. "I love it."

Mahler has Down syndrome. When she was growing up, there weren't a lot of similar programs, said her mom, Jane Slezak. But it was important to find a way for her daughter to participate.

"From the time she was born she was a music lover," Slezak said. "She had a lot of medical problems the first couple of years and she didn't have a lot of mobility, but music always — she would just shine and radiate and move the best she could."

Tamara Mahler (center) performs at Coors Field in 2011. Mahler received the Hal O’Leary Inspiration Award.
Credit Dance Express

During the day, Mahler works at the senior center, but she also helps teach other dancers and even choreographs some of the performances.

She said she finds joy in teaching and inspiring others. In 2011, Mahler received the Hal O'Leary Inspiration Award and performed at Coors Field. She said that dancing also allows her to find her focus.

Slezak said she can attest to that.

"It was one of the things I appreciated most because when she puts her mind to something, Tamara does it, and I think that's because of dance," she said.

Dancer Alva McCloud said there's another thing that makes performing worthwhile.

"The applause, the flowers, autographs," said McCloud of the tradition of dancers meeting audience members in the lobby following each show.

But running Dance Express has been a labor of love for Lenahan. Some years the non-profit may have as many as 17 dancers, others times only six. Right now the program is without a permanent home and rehearsals are held in various locations.

"I think it takes more than a village in some respects, you know there's so many parts to it," Lenahan said. "It's a living puzzle, and which part do you balance at what time?"

One day, Lenahan hopes to to expand the program to become an expressive and healing arts center, somewhere that anyone can access art opportunities, she said.

Tamara Mahler, Dance Express director Mary Elizabeth Lenahan and Alva McCloud pose for a photo after talking about their experiences with the dance troupe.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

"The long-term vision would be adjacent nurturing care environments that people who, while they were healthy, they could live there, be they persons with disabilities or the aging community," she said.

"And they could access the offerings of the community center, and then as they could no longer come, then the center would come to them and they wouldn't have to go down that slippery slope of independent living, assisted living, nursing home."

In the last few years, Lenahan says she's seeing more opportunities for people with disabilities, which is heartening. But it does have her thinking about something the director of DanceAbility International once told her.

"It will be nice when we don't need to work at inclusion, when it just is."

Dance Express will celebrate its 30th anniversary with two performances and a community reception on Feb. 25, 2019 at Lincoln Center.