A Conversation with Dr. Diane Duggan

A Conversation with Dr. Diane Duggan

Erin Lally, Director of DEL sat down with Dr. Diane Duggan to talk about her history and DEL’s upcoming Dance for Students with Disabilities course.


Erin Lally, Director of DEL: I’m so honored and humbled to be spending this time with you, Dr. Diane Duggan.

I want to start off by saying to our audience here that DEL is so pleased and thrilled to have you as an esteemed DEL facilitator. And we are so honored to have you, a licensed psychologist, board-certified dance movement therapist and dance educator to be leading DEL’s Dance for Students with Disabilities course in February, in collaboration with the dance movement therapy here at 92Y.

Dr. Diane Duggan, DEL Facilitator, Dance For Students With Disabilities: From the first time I was invited to a DEL faculty meeting, I just felt like this is a place of kindred spirits, and I’m so happy to be a part of DEL. It’s my dance home and I’m delighted to be teaching this course. 

This course has a very stable foundation, and it’s also always evolving, because I’m still out there mentoring people. Now I visit schools virtually, but I’m still involved and still learning — I love to learn new things.

As you said, I am a board-certified dance movement therapist, a dance educator and a licensed psychologist. I’ve been working with youngsters, meaning children and teenagers, with disabilities since 1973. 

There’s a magical story behind my training… 

In college, I started as a psych major, but they were running rats, and it just wasn’t for me. So I studied French literature. When I graduated, people were saying to be a French teacher, but I thought no, my conversational French is not that good and it’s not what I want to do. I went to the New York State Unemployment office thinking, “Isn’t that where you get employment?” The woman there told me I needed to go to an employment agency. When I turned to leave, she said: “Wait, before you leave, what do you love to do?” 

She didn’t say, what do you want to be? She didn’t say, what kind of job do you want? She said, what do you love to do?  

I said, “I love to dance, and I love to help people.” Serendipitously, she told me there’s a dance therapist at Bellevue Hospital. I looked in the phone book, called Bellevue, and I was connected with Lee Strauss. And Lee told me there was a master’s program in dance therapy at Hunter College. That was how I started my training!

My first students were youngsters with very severe and multiple disabilities, and youngsters with autism. At that time, these youngsters did not have the right to go to school. It wasn’t until 1975, Public Law 994.142 was passed that gave all children the right to a free and appropriate public education. 

I learned about strength-based, team-oriented behavior support right there in the beginning for some very, very distressing problems. I also got in-house training and mentoring in neurodevelopmental therapy and learned a lot about the nervous system. 

I started teaching in a very disorganized and disorderly school, and it was there I started using choreography and performance as a way to organize the youngsters. The answers [to classroom and student needs] came from the youngsters themselves and from my ability to pick up what they were doing. 

I’m so proud to say my students have performed at Lincoln Center, on the stages in Central Park, South Street Seaport, St. Luke’s Church, Frederick Loewe Theatre at NYU, the Apollo, and more. 

Good teaching is therapeutic and good therapy is also educational. However, I structure my classes, not around the curriculum… but around the youngsters. 

Erin: Yes, I heard you say that in the very beginning. How do you work in a way that is strengths-based? And really listening to the needs of your students? 

Diane: You have to meet them where they are, because we’re not going to stay there. We’re going to bring the juicy elements along with us. We’re going to build on their foundation. That’s something I learned from dance therapy. 

[In my psychology training] I learned a lot about development, mental health, mental illness, and cognitive behavioral therapy. In psychology, we’re very good at diagnosing and calling things names, but we’re less skillful, I think, in working every day with people. 

The training and experience I had in dance therapy and dance education taught me much more about how to work with people, how to start where people are at, and how to use their strengths. 

I’m so excited to share this work with the DEL community because it’s applicable to general education, as well as special education. Even though you’re in general education, you may have youngsters with special needs in your class, and you need to know how to differentiate. 

My dance approach is strength-based, and whoever you’re working with, you can work with in that way. Positive behavior support was made for all kinds of students. 

Some of the key concepts are: 

  1. How do we use elements of movement? 
  2. How do we use space? 
  3. How do we use formation? 
  4. How do we use dynamics? 

[I want course participates to learn] to really mindfully engage the strengths and meet the needs of students with disabilities. Needs are not problems. If you focus on problems, you’re going to be very frustrated. You have to focus on students’ strengths and what they need to be successful. 

A knowledge of positive behavior support helps to organize your environment and the flow of your lessons so children can really be their best selves. 

Erin: I know that Dionisia Rigby is going to be assisting you in this upcoming workshop. Can you tell us a little bit more about one how you started working with Dionisia? What inspires you about her work and mindfulness and positive behavioral support?

Diane: Dionisia was in my NYU class a bunch of years ago. She was just extremely collaborative, very supportive of other dancers, never seeking to put herself in the limelight, but always prepared when it came to the limelight.

[I’ve seen] her work with her youngsters. She started off with mindfulness, and then, in her teaching, I found her to be authoritative, without being inflexible and mean, and kind, without being ineffectual or indecisive. She is very connected to the children, and she is very natural and thoughtful. 

[In our DEL course] she’s going to lead a lesson about mindfulness. Another will be about her approach, in using LMA in teaching language through dance, and another about how she works when a child has difficult behaviors and what that journey is like. 

Erin: I heard you talk about how you really focus on that choreography process and performance process and about meeting students and children where they are really addressing their needs. How do you empower students with disabilities to be self advocates for themselves in their learning? And how are some of those strategies and applications going to be expressed and taught in this DEL course?

Diane: I think that we need to provide many opportunities for leadership and for self agency. Sometimes when working with youngsters with disabilities, there’s a tendency to patronize and to do things for children that they could really do for themselves. It’s empowering to do them for themselves. It’s just more expedient if you do it for them. I encourage that long-term approach and to set things up so the children, the young people, are actually in charge of things…  

When we talk about being leaders, it’s not just getting out in front of people and doing it. It’s having an awareness of the people that you’re leading and how can I best serve them. I think noticing good behavior is a skill you really need. Once you notice good behavior — it’s like when you light a fire in the woods, and you get the embers burning, and you make it grow. 

Erin: You have been a DEL facilitator for years, if not decades, and I want to know from your personal experience, why is the DEL approach to teaching and learning important to you?

Diane: When I first came to DEL, it was love. They were just wonderful people! But the DEL Model is what I really have such respect for. 

My whole understanding of what I do and my understanding of working with people is that structure is very important. What I see in DEL is that there’s a very definite structure, but it’s a very flexible structure. It’s a very benevolent structure. 

One of the paradoxes of life is that structure creates freedom. So within the structure of the movement sentence, there’s room for everybody to do it their way. That is so fundamentally inclusive and respectful. That’s why I love DEL. That’s a very important way of working with people. 

Every child’s way of doing things can be acknowledged and can be honored, and respecting individuality is embedded in the foundation of the DEL Model. That’s why I believe in it. That’s why I’m so proud to be a part of DEL.

Erin: We are honored to have you as part of our team. Thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else that you would like to share before we close?

Diane: I’d like to tell one little story. I love to tell stories. 

I once worked with a young man (I’ll call him Joe) who was so disagreeable. He was disrespectful and so angry, so most of the teachers didn’t want to work with him. He had been trained as a gymnast when he was a little boy, and after I started working with him, he confided in me that he wanted a career in dance. I said, “Joe, if you want a career in dance, you’re going to have to learn how to teach.” 

A 14 year old boy named Jimmy, who was in awe of Joe’s skills, really wanted to learn from him. I started working with the two of them together and helping Joe to teach Jimmy some of his skills. By the end of the year, we had a whole act. We auditioned at the Apollo. It was the day of the performance, and when Joe performed, he made one mistake. I knew it. The other dancers knew it. He knew it. Nobody else knew it. Because he was so spectacular. He ran up the wall and did a flip to cover it up. Whoa! 

But that’s not the best part. The best part is over the years, I run into Joe… I saw him once performing on a train. I saw him another time on his way to audition for Cirque du Soleil. The last time I saw him, he was with his crew at a park in New York City. He brought the crew over and introduced me as his teacher. I felt so proud to be his teacher and I felt so proud that he was a teacher and he was teaching and taking care of other people, and that he had progressed that far in his life. 

Dance heals. It takes a while, but it heals.

Dr. Diane Duggan and guests will lead students to explore group and individual strategies to promote positive behavior.

Join us for Dance for Students with Disabilities February 19-22