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Helping through dance

Tori Pierce

Students in the West Virginia University dance program are taught that “everyone is a dancer.” A three-week study abroad trip to France showed dance and psychology dual major Tori Pierce just how true that is.

After class each day, Pierce and other students on the trip were placed in community service activities. She spent some afternoons painting and acting with children, and others at a nursing home for people with physical disabilities.

“I was sitting in the common area of the nursing home and mentioned that I loved dance and am pursuing a degree in the subject when one of the residents just lit up,” said Pierce, a Lewisburg native. “She told me she spends most of her day in her room watching dance videos, particularly of dancers in wheelchairs.”

That conversation inspired Pierce to start a dance class for the residents, a majority of whom were in manual and electric wheelchairs. She enlisted the help of fellow study aboard student Christin Wright, a theatre major at WVU, who is fluent in French.  

“I have the dance background, but I’m still mastering my French,” Pierce said. “Having Christin on-board was vital to communicating with our students. It was definitely a team effort.”

Before they could start teaching, Pierce needed to create a lesson plan. She credits the faculty in the WVU School of Theatre & Dance and her high school dance instructor Cate Bennett, a WVU alumna, for giving her the knowledge to create the right plan.

Tori with one of her students

“We learn about technique and movement in dance classes, but I have also learned how to teach,” Pierce said. “There’s such diverse faculty in the dance program and they each have their own style. I’d like to think I’ve taken a bit of each of their teaching styles and created something totally mine.”

Pierce decided to base her class on ballet, but toned it down to use free movement techniques, which focus on natural movement. This style is less rigid than other techniques and easier for beginner dancers.

Pierce taught 10 students on her trip, all of whom varied in physical capabilities. Many of the participant’s family members, other residents and visitors came to watch the class.

“It was so amazing to see these people, most of whom have never danced in their life, get really into the class and learn about movement,” Pierce said. “I’m glad I could show them that they can do anything they put their mind to, even dance, no matter their physical disability.”

Now, Pierce wants to channel her experience in France into helping people as a career.

“I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to teach while on my trip because it truly changed my life,” Pierce said. “I’m not sure how I want to pursue this just yet, whether it be as an instructor in a dance program, a counselor in a physical therapy program or something else, but I know I want to help people.

"The motto of the WVU Dance program - ‘Everyone is a Dancer’ – was brought full circle on this trip.”