Alito Alessi is breaking the walls of isolation and creating opportunities for positive and visible interactions between people with and without disabilities through his dance program, DanceAbility.

This profile below was prepared when Alito Alessi was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.

Alito Alessi está rompiendo los muros del aislamiento y la creación de oportunidades para las interacciones positivas y visibles entre las personas con y sin discapacidad a través de su programa de baile, DanceAbility.


Alito Alessi is breaking the walls of isolation and creating opportunities for positive and visible interactions between people with and without disabilities through his dance program, DanceAbility.


Alito is establishing new ways for disabled and non-disabled people to become more cohesively integrated in society. Through DanceAbility, he facilitates positive, visible and inclusive interactions between people with and without disabilities. After attending workshops, follow-up meetings, and career counseling sessions, participants come to realize that their body and disabilities are not limitations, and they gain a new sense of awareness and self-confidence.

Dance workshops and public performances cultivate public awareness that meaningful interaction and integration are possible and can happen in daily life. These interactions shatter stereotypes associated with people with disabilities, change worldviews, and break the barriers that keep people with physical and mental disabilities isolated from the rest of society.

Through a collaborative training environment, mixed-ability groups develop and learn a language which is universal and used as an effective tool for integration. DanceAbility allows individuals to transform their perceptions of themselves, thus creating an opening to foster mixed-ability relationships and build inclusive communities. The transformative experience allows participants and audience members to overcome their prejudices and assumptions about each other, thus giving them an opportunity to become agents of change within their broader communities.


Modern society often maintains and perpetuates patterns of isolation for people with disabilities. Many of these individuals live in institutions or homes where they receive little or no education and do not develop plans for re-integration into society. Lack of access to public transportation and lack of opportunities for employment and recreation further limit their ability to participate in society and interact with others. Furthermore, recreational activities that do exist for this population, such as the Special Olympics, are designed exclusively for people with disabilities and therefore perpetuate segregation of those with disabilities from the rest of the world. Finally, bias and discrimination have lead to a severe underrepresentation of people with disabilities in performance arts and other media. As a result, they are further isolated from the rest of the world.

Isolation of the disabled population from the non-disabled has negative impacts for the individuals as well as society. For example, when people with disabilities find that jobs and recreational opportunities are not available to them, this sends them a continuous message that they are not part of society. Lacking ways to interact positively, they suffer from loneliness and low self-esteem and are left feeling that they have nothing to offer the world. Being isolated from others, their psychological and physical needs for communication and interaction are not met, and they are left feeling trapped and ashamed of their bodies.

Society also suffers consequences from perpetuating the isolation of the disabled. Since little or no opportunities for positive interaction exist, many people do not know how to interact with individuals who have mental or physical disabilities. Being separated from the disabled, non-disabled people lose an ability to empathize with the disabled and tend to base their conceptions on preconceived notions rather than direct experience. As a result, non-disabled people often underestimate or discriminate against people with mental and physical disabilities, leading to a reinforcement of the patterns that caused the isolation in the first place.

Society lacks mechanisms and spaces for people to see that it is possible for the disabled and non-disabled to have positive interactions, to develop empathy for one another, to trust each other and to work together. These are the misconceptions that Alito is breaking down through a dance group that is not only for people with disabilities. Instead, Alito has made dance available to everyone without isolating anyone.


The strategy to reach a broad audience began in the late 1980s in the context of an annual mixed-ability dance festival Alito organized in Eugene, Oregon. Through these early interactions, Alito was invited to share his knowledge and methodology in Austria, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. Every time Alito was invited to perform in a different city, he leveraged his stature as an innovative dance choreographer to also offer DanceAbility workshops and teacher trainings. During the first two years of DanceAbility’s operations, Alito was able to reach about 2,000 workshop participants.

Whenever Alito is invited to a new city to put on his performances and workshops, he partners with a few key organizations. On a global basis, Mobility International, the renowned disabilities organization, has partnered with him to open doors for DanceAbility, to take his program to new places, and to ensure that disabled groups in local countries are included from his first visit not just as observers but as participants and even co-leaders of the program. Alito also works with local dance groups and universities.

After some initial performances and workshops, the group begins performing in public places, from streets to airports, train stations, schools and prestigious venues from the Kennedy Center to the inauguration of the Special Olympics. The aim of these performances is to create visibility of the interaction between the disabled and the non-disabled to a large public audience. This part of his strategy allows him to reach broad groups of people, and even though they may only have a brief and superficial exposure to DanceAbility, the performances challenge and often shatter the stereotypes that audiences have about people with disabilities.

Alito has placed strong emphasis on outreach to children. He has designed special performances and teaching guides for school groups. The performance is followed by question-and-answer sessions about disabilities in which the performers encourage disabled children in the audience to participate in answering their peers’ questions about disabilities.

The second part of Alito’s strategy has been to achieve a deeper impact on a smaller number of people via in-depth dance workshops. Alito and a disabled person co-lead mixed-ability workshops that last 40 to 80 hours, with one-third of the participants being disabled. These workshops have helped form a core group of people with in-depth exposure to his methodology, which includes dance improvisation, collaboration, and discussions about physicality and touch and how to deal with potential challenges. Finally, to learn how to “take it to the public,” teachers are instructed in public speaking, business and administration skills, and performance organization.

The final element of Alito’s strategy has been to form a series of permanent chapters that can carry out and replicate DanceAbility’s methodology. During the initial visits, Alito creates a Satellite Support Network of people to help him run his workshop. These members of the satellite team work closely with Alito during and after his stay in the country and are usually those who carry on working with the DanceAbility method after Alito leaves. After conducting the DanceAbility workshop and a performance, Alito continues to provide ongoing organizational and financial support for the budding dance troupes. Alito constantly mentors and provides networking assistance to the new teachers. He also guarantees part of the teachers’ salary as they are beginning their start-up and returns to provide continued support. Through this method, he has established DanceAbility troupes that are teaching and performing in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Finland, Austria, Italy, Germany, Hong Kong, Switzerland and Holland, among other countries.

In order to expand more rapidly and nurture the development of semi-independent chapters, Alito will soon begin to certify some of his teachers to conduct the teacher-training workshops themselves. This will allow them to establish new groups in more cities and rural areas in their own countries. Alito also plans to foster greater networking between DanceAbility chapters.


Alito grew up in a poor immigrant family in Buffalo, New York. From a young age, he had close relationships with people with disabilities: His mother suffered an accident and had to use a wheelchair for the remainder of her life, his sister suffered from polio, and his uncle, who lived with his family, was mentally disabled. His family life was also marked by violence and instability, as they had to move often to avoid his father being put in jail.

Alito’s first positive life experience came through athletics. In middle school, he broke the state record for the one-mile run which opened up many high school scholarship opportunities to him. Just as he was about to pursue one of these opportunities, his family decided to move again. Instead of giving up his running, Alito stayed in his town without his family, living at a boarding house and working his way through high school. Upon graduating from high school he was awarded a partial athletic scholarship to the University of Oregon.

During college, Alito found a new passion in modern dance, which he pursued enthusiastically throughout his college career. At this time, he also worked for an after-school program for young children in which a mother asked Alito to be a private movement tutor for her son, Eli. Eli was wise beyond his years and told Alito that other people teased him only because “they don’t understand.” Soon, another mother asked Alito to choreograph a dance for her young daughter who had a physical disability. After performing the dance for her school, her classmates’ perceptions of her radically changed, and her self-esteem and social network improved. It was in working with these two children that Alito planted the first seeds of what would later become DanceAbility.

Shortly after graduating from college, Alito started a modern dance company, the Joint Forces Dance Company, which won domestic and international recognition. He was determined to find a way to incorporate these values and his family’s personal experiences of isolation into his dance practice. In 1987, he hosted his first inclusive dance workshop and, to his surprise, over 100 people showed up. From there, Alito set out to create a dance form that would be inclusive of all people—DanceAbility.