Gema Rodriguez, founder and director of Dance Ability Tijuana, a program that aims to provide individuals with disabilities emotional and physical improvement through dance, found her passion in an unexpected way.
The 29 year old has over 200 students in Tijuana enrolled in her Dance Ability dance studio, which despite its popularity in several parts of Latin America, it is the only type of its kind in Mexico.
Dance Ability Tijuana is based on a popular teaching method, known as Dance Ability International, which found in several parts of Latin America and offers individuals with or without disabilities the opportunity to express themselves through dance.
“It is a necessity that each and every one of those little ones, teens, and adults, have a respectable place in our society,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez is trying to introduce Dance Ability to San Diego and has seen an increase of participation after just two classes. She said they expect to have many students as the classes continue in San Diego.
Rodriguez discovered Dance Ability during a difficult time in her life she said.
After dedicating years of her life to dance, in 2007 Rodriguez suffered an injury to her hip that left her in bed for months. As a young dancer, this injury was devastating.
One day, while living in New York, she came across a performance by dancers with disabilities in front of Juilliard and learned about Dance Ability International.
Rodriguez said watching the individuals with disabilities dancing had a big impact in her life and prompted her to leave her apartment in New York and travel to Argentina to learn more about the program.
“Dance Ability has a very important movement in Latin America, because it revolutionizes emotional therapy through inclusive dance,” Rodriguez said. “The importance of how a child, a teenager, or an adult with a disability, should be treated makes it revolutionary and it is respected.”
In Argentina, she learned more about Dance Ability and learned about different disabilities, completed workshops and volunteered. But Rodriguez had to return to Mexico to work and save up again to return to Argentina.
She then traveled to Uruguay to begin her certification program and work hands on with individuals with disabilities. Her Dance Ability instructor believed she was too young to start her own studio and he told her he would supervise her until he believed she was ready.
Rodriguez opened Dance Ability in Tijuana in November 2013. Fifty students showed up for the first class and soon after, that number grew to 300 and they were running classes from 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.
“I wasn’t about proving myself during that time,” Rodriguez said. “It was about showing the Dance Ability International president that Mexico could give more and that Mexico would welcome this program with open arms.”
She said it has been a long and difficult road with many obstacles but today, she lives for her students and for the work that they do in Dance Ability Tijuana.
After several years, she and her studio staff noticed that dance was helping their students. She then decided she to showcase the wonderful work they had accomplished and raise awareness about global inclusion.
“We began to see a very big change in children, both emotionally and physically,” Rodriguez said.
So, almost six years after Rodriguez watched Dance Ability International dancers with several disabilities perform in New York, she traveled with her own students to give a performance of a lifetime in Times Square.
“For me it was so important to live that experience after so many years,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez smiles and remembers that the audience who gathered in Times Square to watch their performance did not clap at first because they were crying.
“That was when I saw that I had achieved something in them,” she said. “It was not only about taking them on a trip to perform for world-wide inclusion to the most famous place in all of New York, but that I had gifted them something for their whole life that was to fulfill one more dream of theirs.”