Melissa Sallée, a choreographer and teacher with Naperville Park District's Dance Academy, didn't want to be a dancer when she was a girl.
She didn't like pink or being with a lot of other girls. She wanted to be an astronaut.
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But when an automobile accident left her with a spinal chord injury, ballet was recommended as part of her recovery. She took her first class when she was 11.
"I did fall in love with ballet the very first time I took class," she said.
Within a year, Sallée was taking ballet six days a week. Classically trained, she danced with Salt Creek Ballet, Ruth Page Civic Ballet, Ballet Chicago and Milwaukee Ballet. She taught, too, and a request about 15 years ago began to expand her view of what dance could be.
Sallée was asked to teach ballet to a class of autistic students. After hearing other instructors had refused, she agreed to give it a try.
"I have a soft heart," she said. "I did not like the idea that there were children who wanted to do a class, but no one was willing to take it on."
Sallée admits she didn't know what she was doing at first. But she got hooked on the process of teaching those students.
"I fell in love with it and I started doing it more and more," she said. "I figured out, for me, that dance could become larger than I let it be before, and I had to be open to redefining what a successful dance class could be."
Since then, Sallée has taught ballet to students with physical and mental disabilities, children and adults, senior citizens and disabled veterans, and now she wants to start a class for expectant mothers.
"I think, on the fundamental level, everybody wants to move," she said. "For me, it's about not underestimating and not saying because someone can't move their legs, they don't have enough going on to move."
The former director of Naperville Park District's Élan Dance Company, Sallée said she gave up that position in order to be able to mentor students as a teacher and choreographer. The pre-professional dance troupe, which includes three companies of dancers of different ages, has dancers with disabilities (though none with physical disabilities at this time).
Sallée also serves as assistant director of Dance>Detour, a professional diverse abilities dance company in Chicago, and more recently began working with ReinventAbility to teach ballet to newly disabled veterans.
Ballet for everyone
Sallée teaches other types of dance, too, but she said her heart is with ballet.
"My passion for dance has become taking ballet and having it be something everyone can step into," she said. "I want to be a pioneer and take the traditional role of ballet forward."
Students should compete against themselves to use their own abilities rather than against each other, a philosophy that goes against the grain of how ballet is often taught, Sallée said. Her own approach to teaching ballet is holistic.
"(In classical ballet), it's easy to become the body being trained," she said.
Dancers with disabilities have helped her see the importance of dancing for oneself and for the pleasure of it, she said.
"I always say, you have to give it all away," she said. "When you really, really perform unselfishly, you give it all away, which also means you give away your fear of not being good enough."
Sallée gives advice on training to students who show the potential to become professional dancers, but she said ballet is valuable to those who plan to pursue other careers.
"Performing gives them so much pride," she said. "They always say it makes them better at giving speeches in school."
Sallée pushes her students, but she does so in a supportive way, said Calla Thielson, 16, of Naperville, a student in Sallée's ballet class and a member of the Élan Dance Company.
"She's one of the most encouraging people I know. She's not afraid to correct you, but she's nice about it," Calla said.
"She made me want to come to dance class," said Hannah Micheau, 15, a ballet student for 11 years and member of the Élan Dance Company. "She shared all her experiences and she shared her talent so much."
Sallée also shares with her students her enjoyment of hiking, canoeing and rock climbing -- and her experiences in working with dancers with disabilities.
This fall, she took members of the Élan Dance Company to a workshop with members of Dance>Detour held in Michigan City, Ind. Sallée said she wanted to expand their view of dance.
Hannah said she participated in the workshop both as the able-bodied partner and as the dancer in the wheelchair.
"It's very, very different," she said. "It takes a lot of different kinds of strength."
Some members of Dance>Detour use wheelchairs; others are visually impaired or have other disabilities. Sallée said all fully participate.
"Everybody who dances in the company works out and is very, very strong," she said.
Sallée also recently danced with partners who could move only their eyes at the Illinois Center of Rehabilitation and Education.
"By the end, they were tired," she said. "They internally were moving more than their outward bodies could show."
Dancing lets people with disabilities forget their limitations, Sallée said, but it also raises awareness among audience members of the need to provide opportunities for the disabled to use their abilities.
Raising awareness that anyone can dance is the aim of Dance>Detour, founded in 1995 by Alana Wallace, a multifaceted Chicago artist and former Ms. Wheelchair America. Wallace, who had polio as a child, said when she was introduced to dance as an adult, she assumed she would only be playing at it.
"I discovered dancers with disabilities can be equal partners. That's where Melissa and I are united in our vision of dance," she said. "We (disabled dancers) put in the same kind of time, effort and professionalism."
Dance>Detour has performed at venues that include rehabilitation centers, colleges and disability rights events, including Costa Rica's Independence Day for People with Disabilities.
Member Anel Gonzales, a disabilities rights educator at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a native of Panama, is working on arrangements for Dance>Detour to participate in a disabilities rights summit there in 2014. Many countries that formerly offered few opportunities for people with disabilities have signed a United Nations resolution to provide better access, he said.
Gonzales moved to the United States after an injury left him a paraplegic in 1989. Already a wheelchair athlete, he added dance to his activities after meeting Wallace in 2008. He sometimes dances as Sallée's partner and was part of the workshop with Élan Dance Company.
"It was a very rewarding and beautiful experience for all of us," he said. "She (Sallée) is very creative and I'm very happy to be part of her team."
Wallace said Dance>Detour doesn't try to be hard-hitting in its message, but lets audiences see what people with disabilities can do. Sallée's passion for dance and understanding of people with diverse backgrounds has made her an integral part of the company, Wallace said.
"She brings so much to the table in talent and kindness. It's a rare combination," Wallace said. "She's pretty amazing."
Sallée, the married mother of two young sons and a resident of Bolingbrook, also served four years on Naperville's Advisory Commission on Disabilities. She's spent seven years with the Naperville Park District because she agrees with its philosophy of inclusion, she said.
Sallée plans another workshop with members of the Élan Dance Company and Dance>Detour this year, and sees herself bringing together dancers of diverse abilities for a long time to come.
"I'm going to dance with Dance>Detour until the day nobody says, 'Oh, that's nice you do that for them.' Until it's normal," she said.