black and white photo of a woman with arms crossed in dance studio

Beyoncé for all—the rise of inclusive dance classes in the GTA

Why you should shake your “Bunz” at an inclusive, affordable, body-positive dance class in the city

Last summer I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when a post jumped out at me: Shannon Nigalis, a fellow member of the Curvy Bunz Clothing Swapz group, was organizing a body-positive dance class open to all abilities—and she was looking for participants. As a size-20 woman with an often-invisible disability (I’ve had both of my hips replaced), casually dropping into an evening hip-hop class was never really an option. But this class? This was something I could get into.

black and white photo of women of all shapes and sizes in dance class

I PM’ed Nigalis, a 34-year-old law clerk in Mississauga, and she responded immediately. “We’d be happy to have you!” she wrote. “It’s silly fun in a very accepting environment. We giggle our way through and learn some cool moves to show our friends (and cats).” I was already sold, but she also explained that the instructor is good about showing modifications and encourages participants to dance within their comfort zone.

black and white photo of women of all shapes and sizes in dance class

I wasn’t able to make it in the end, but I lucked out last month when I found out Nigalis was about to host her fourth class: A workshop on part of Beyoncé’s epic girl-power anthem “Run the World (Girls).” I’ve already reserved my spot.

black and white photo of woman whipping her hair in dance class

Bunz Dance Crew started when Nigalis, who doesn’t have any official dance training, found herself with an extra ticket to Nick Nasrallah’s Beyography class and posted on her Curvy Bunz Clothing page in search of a partner. “I’ve always loved dancing, but at that time I didn’t feel comfortable in my body,” she says. “I took dance classes when I was 10 and loved it, but I hated how it made me feel—I was half a foot taller and 50 pounds heavier than everyone in the class.”

black and white photo of women of all shapes and sizes in dance class

Nigalis says her “not good enough” mentality lasted through her struggles with anorexia and the weight she later put back on. “I didn’t look like a dancer; therefore, I thought I had no business dancing.” But then a shift occurred during Beyography: “It was just this awakening of, ‘Oh my God, I can dance!’”

black and white photo of participants in size inclusive dance class

Nigalis formed the Facebook group Bunz Dance Crew for people who wanted to attend private group Beyography lessons and other local inclusive dance classes. “Beyography is super inclusive, but I understand people’s hesitations, as you never know who else will be in the class,” she says. “I started organizing the private lessons so that we could surround ourselves with like-minded individuals and feel safe enough to try it.” The problem? Each two-hour Beyography class cost $25 at the time, a price that presented a barrier. “People would say over and over again, ‘I don’t have anything to trade, I can’t afford it, hopefully next time.’” Nigalis sometimes covered the cost so others could join in, but that wasn’t a feasible long-term solution.

black and white photo of women of all shapes and sizes in dance class

To solve the problem, she decided to teach a class on her own at the Dance Annex studio, where she’s able to charge on a sliding scale, making the event pay-what-you-can. “If all you can do is get yourself there, then just get yourself there,” she says. “If you can pay the full $20, or $5, or offer a couple of rolls of toilet paper for the studio, that’s great. Bunz it up.” The first event was a huge success—between the attendees who were able to pay, Nigalis raised enough money to cover the cost of the studio. So she did it again, and again.

All kinds of people show: Mothers and their children, couples, people with friends from out of town. Between 15 and 25 folks turn out for each class, which usually lasts about two hours. Nigalis leads a warm-up, then breaks down the choreography step by step from the beginning, running through the routine again and again. “Once we make it to the end, we do the whole thing a couple of times and film it.” So far, they’ve danced to songs like Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” (twice) and “24K Magic” by Bruno Mars.

black and white photo of women of all shapes and sizes in dance class

“You don’t need to know how to dance or to have a dancer’s body,” Nigalis notes, adding that her own dance abilities are relatable. “When I see somebody doing it better than me, I’m like ‘OK, watch that person this time,’” she says, laughing. “If you get lost, just gyrate your hips and you’ll blend right in.”

Black and white photo of women hugging at size inclusive dance class

After Maria Maltese, a 29-year-old registered nurse from Toronto, attended her first class, she was ready to book a second. “I have a background in dance, but the environment isn’t always welcoming for a lot of people,” she says. “Here, I felt no judgement. It’s such a positive environment and everyone just has a good time.”

black and white photo of seated woman stretching

Aside from being an awesome hobby, the Bunz Dance Crew has introduced Nigalis to new friends who inspire her. “I’m like, holy crap, this is the community I’ve looked for my entire life.” Today, her goal is for her newfound sense of confidence to rub off on others. “You’re here for the joy. This class is not about weight loss. Sure, you’re going to sweat, but I’m not telling people to ‘do this every single day to burn calories!’ No. I want you to dance and then go eat a burrito.”

Three all-inclusive dance classes to try in the GTA

June Lawrence School of Dance, Mississauga

Choose from classes for all ages or look into the Dance Ability Movement classes, where occupational therapists and dance instructors provide students with a volunteer dance partner who can adapt the class for the right level of challenge.

Chance Dance Centre, Newmarket

This studio offers wheelchair dance classes for beginners and pros, covering both Latin and ballroom styles for partners.

Beyography, Toronto

Get your pals together for a class and learn the routine to Bey’s hits, from “Say My Name” to “Flawless.” All skill levels are welcome, total newbies included.