Everybody Dance Now: Meet the Studio Challenging Ableism in Dance Head-On

It isn’t easy to combine two passions into one. Sometimes they don’t align, sometimes the combination might not make sense and sometimes we feel we just don’t have the time to figure out how we’d do it, even if we wanted to. But, with sheer determination, patience, and utmost devotion, 24-year-old Zoe Karatzovalis not only merged her two passions into one but also made a business out of it. It’s all about helping other people while challenging deeply-entrenched ableism in dance communities.

Karatzovalis is the founder of Infinite Abilities Performing Arts, an inclusive dance studio located in Caringbah that caters to people of all abilities. Coming from a dance background, including an Advanced Diploma in Elite Performing Arts, it’s clear that Karatzovalis loves to dance, but it was through her lived experience and support work that helped her spot a severe lack of options for those with disabilities who also share that love.

We spoke to Karatzovalis about IAPA, how she was able to get it off the ground at such a young age, and her advice for anyone who wants to follow in her footsteps.

Can you please tell us about yourself and Infinite Abilities Performing Arts?

I was born in a small town located 7 hours away from the capital of Adelaide, in a family with a sibling diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. This came with its challenges, but without it, I would have never moulded into the patient and determined person I am today. After moving to Sydney in 2018 independently, it was through studying for my Advanced Diploma in Elite Performing Arts that I saw the lack of inclusivity in the industry, which I decided I wanted to change one day. Soon after completion, I gained work in the disability industry as a support worker with an amazing company.

And fast forward to now… here we are! A girl who has successfully achieved something that was a small thought to reality! An Inclusive Dance studio for all ages and all abilities based in the Sutherland Shire.

What inspired you to start IAPA?

I was definitely inspired by my sibling, who I learned so much from at such a young age. They helped me to understand kindness and inclusivity, and that no matter who you are, everyone should have the same opportunities that everyone else has. Without these life experiences, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Seeing the lack of an inclusive community in the dance industry also inspired me to recognise that something needed to be done and changed soon, to ensure all people with any sort of disability can access a fun dance class.

What were you doing before you IAPA, and what was the process like getting IAPA off the ground?

Before making my studio a reality, I was working away as a permanent part-time disability support worker travelling interstate, overseas, and locally with groups. These few years of my life were full of pure joy and happiness. This was when I took a step back from professional dancing and focused more on gaining experience working in different settings and environments. The job was very much a life-changing time for me, it really cemented my love for working with neurodivergent people and creating memories for them that last a lifetime. As much as I loved to dance, the joy I created for my participants at the time was more fulfilling and enriching for me, which is why I decided to step down from dancing and step in support.

But when creating a dance program at this disability service, I realised I could combine both loves into one and create something so special for everyone. Dancing is not only just for fun, but it also boosts their self-confidence, improves muscle tone, gains ankle stability, the list goes on. Benefiting their lives physically and mentally is exactly what I wanted to do, so this was the perfect way to start and then eventually create something on my own.

Being in the industry already did help to get my studio off the ground, but being able to target all age ranges was a hard challenge. Knowing others in the industry who have other dance studios helped to spread the word by creating conversations with friends was an amazing support.

Creating IAPA was a very fun process, though, as I love being technical. I made the logo, website, and all advertisements, like brochures and business cards, all by myself — very cost-effective. Once all these were done it helped made advertising more easy and less stressful.

What has been the most rewarding part of starting IAPA?

Watching the kids smile as they walk into a dance class, knowing they’re so excited for the class to come has been the most rewarding feeling in the world. Arriving in a class where they can be whoever they want after a long day at school really has proven to me that I am impacting these young lives significantly. Unfortunately, school can sometimes be a place where these kids feel isolated or misunderstood, and being able to create a space for these kids to feel included in the performing arts is a very soul-fulfilling feeling.

What are some of the challenges of running a business like IAPA?

For me, it definitely has to be getting the word out into the community about an inclusive studio. There are plenty of dance studios that everyone knows about from word of mouth, but being one of the first in the area and being so niche has been difficult to get the word out within the community. With the help of social media it has made matters improve with more people finding out about IAPA, but being still small it will take time for IAPA to grow and flourish into the amazing studio it will be.

What has IAPA taught you about yourself?

Being able to open up an inclusive dance studio at such a young age has taught me that you can achieve whatever you want if you have the right mindset and drive. No matter how old you are, if you have the right drive to make a difference in this world and have the right people behind you to support you, you are capable of a lot more than you realise. It’s amazing to say that I’ve opened a business at 24 to help make a difference within the inclusive dance community, but it’s also amazing too to say at such a young age I had the drive to make a difference in these young lives.

Looking back, what is something IAPA has taught you that you wish you knew beforehand?

IAPA has taught me so much more about myself than I could have ever imagined. It’s taught me to be resilient to what others think of opening a business at such a young age. And it’s shown me that I’m capable of running a successful small business that not only creates a fun environment but offers professionally run programs for all to access and enjoy.

What’s your best advice for being ‘Set For Life’?

My biggest advice is to just go for it. The only thing that is stopping you from achieving your dreams is your mindset. Don’t worry about what other people may think, as long as you have a goal and you’re passionate about it that’s all you need to start somewhere to get going.

Starting something new and niche is so scary and comes with its ups and downs; but if you keep at it and let no external factors stop you, that’s the way to success.