Redefining movement at Full Radius Dance, Georgia’s only pro dance company for people with and without disabilities

When Douglas Scott decided to attend a workshop on dance for people with disabilities, the choice changed the entire trajectory of his career

Full Radius Dance
Full Radius Dance performs this month at the Inman Park Dance Festival.

Photograph by Eley Photo

In 1993, Douglas Scott, director of an Atlanta troupe called Dance Force, went to a series of workshops about bringing the arts to different populations. He decided to attend a session on dance for people with disabilities—a choice that would change the entire trajectory of his career. After that fateful hour, he thought to himself, Okay. This is it. “I found my passion as soon as I walked in through that room and experienced it,” Scott says.

By 1998, Dance Force had taken on a new name and a new face: Full Radius Dance, the only physically integrated professional dance company in Georgia, bringing together dancers with and without disabilities.

Growing up, Scott never considered dance as a career option. He was pursuing a degree in theater when he decided on an impulse to audition for Western Kentucky University’s dance company. “For some reason, I was chosen, with no experience,” Scott laughs. “It was fate.” After he moved to Atlanta, he dreamed of becoming the next Baryshnikov while teaching on weekdays and performing on weekends. When the annual ritual of The Nutcracker grew tiring, he turned to modern dance. With what he calls “young arrogance,” Scott “problem-solved” his situation by creating his own dance company: Dance Force.

Everything changed when he walked into the workshop for dancers with disabilities and found people whom society perceived as less than. Scott was intrigued by this judgment of physicality. “Because you can kick your leg over your head, you’re better than somebody else? No,” he shakes his head. “No.”

Full Radius Dance
Scott’s choreography explores the rich artistic potential of mobility devices like wheelchairs.

Photograph by Eley Photo

The following weekend, he was asked to teach two weekly dance classes for people with disabilities. With zero hesitation, he said yes. He started with two other teachers. By the end of the year, Scott was the only one left. “He was the one who had the staying power,” says Ardath Prendergast, who was working with Very Special Arts of Georgia. “You could really see that this had created a spark within him.” These classes were nothing like the ones Scott had taught before, where everyone in the room could plié and sauté. He remembers his first few students vividly: a dancer with a manual wheelchair, a dancer with anorexia nervosa who used a cane for balance, dancers with brain injuries. His challenge, he realized, was not just to teach them how to dance but to teach himself how to teach them to dance.

The classes raised questions about choreography Scott had never considered before: How does this work on your body? What support do you need? How might this movement be modified for the wheelchair? “It’s all about the process,” Scott says. And he’s never one to give up on it. When it clicks, it clicks. If it doesn’t—then so what?

As a dancer without disabilities, he will sometimes put himself in a wheelchair at rehearsals to replicate the motion across the floor. For Peter L. Trojic, a dancer from New York, Scott’s efforts to understand the movements of his wheelchair were what drew him to Full Radius Dance.

Prior to joining Full Radius Dance, Matthew Smith battled severe depression. The company changed his life by giving him something to work toward: an anchoring point, Smith calls it. After last year’s spring performance, Scott gave him a card that read, “For me, dance is how I love myself.”

Smith says the card brought him to tears. “That is me to a T. My journey with dance is how I’ve learned to love myself.”

Full Radius Dance
Full Radius Dance

Photograph by Eley Photo

For Scott, the happiest parts of dance-making are every rehearsal where something goes right. It’s the creative process he loves—and has always loved.

There’s one student Scott remembers in particular: Justin (not his real name), who was blind and had autism. Scott was teaching him the chassé, a ballet step. It’s a simple move: three gliding steps, with the same foot leading each time. When he was teaching four-year-olds, Scott just told them to gallop like a pony, and the chassé was there. But Justin had never seen a pony gallop.

So Scott held Justin’s hands and touched the leg that was supposed to move first, and they began the step together. He raised their arms to indicate a lift. Step, slide, touch. Step, slide, touch. Again and again. Then one day, after two years of practicing together, Scott took Justin’s hands, and there it was: the chassé. Justin was springing up into the air and coming down, like a pony.

Full Radius Dance will perform April 27 and 28 at the Inman Park Dance Festival.

This article appears in our April 2024 issue.