Maddi Pond remembers the moment she knew her message had taken root in her young students. Pond, who runs Amp It Up dance studio in Salisbury, had brought her charges to the ballet, a magical experience she hoped would leave them enchanted and inspired. When the performance was over, quite a few of the students said the same thing: "I didn't see anyone up there who looks like me." They were so accustomed to Pond's unique school of thought that the fact that all of the dancers were "very tall and very, very thin" struck them as unusual. And as something that they'd like to be a part of changing someday. "A lot of the students don't realize how inclusive we are, because we're one of the first studios they've been to," Pond said. "So they just think it's normal. And I think that's awesome." Pond's school, which opened just over a year and a half ago, is a trailblazer in a world of rigid traditions. There are no height restrictions. There are no weight restrictions. There are no gender specifications. The focus is solidly on inclusivity and acceptance, an "everyone is welcome" philosophy that has set it markedly apart in the world of dance schools. Banishing the stigma of negative body images Pond grew up in the world of competitive dancing. It's a world she has loved, and says her own experience at Dieppe's Academy of Classical Ballet was extremely positive. But she says it's no secret there's a "huge stigma" around the expectations of what dancers should look like, and she has seen what that pressure can do to children and young adults. The world of competitive dance can be a high-pressure one, where eating disorders and anxieties are not uncommon. "When I travelled for competitions, I'd see it," Pond said. "Even though it might be an underlying requirement, you'd see all the girls and boys are very, very small in preparation before competitions, where you definitely don't eat what you should be eating." Pond said she was troubled by the fact that the sport she loved seemed to have a more negative impact on body image than a positive one. "So it was just really important to me that when people walk into this studio, they see all shapes and sizes," and they feel acceptance, at every turn. Kids encouraged to 'put their own twist' on things When a student signs up at Amp It Up, she said, "We don't need to know if you're male, female, or other. We don't use pronouns until the person states what he, she or they want to be used for a pronoun." Students are also encouraged to put their own stamp on the choreography, particularly in recreational classes. "When I was growing up, they would give you the choreography and you would follow it exactly," Pond said. "Here, we really try to push the fact that everybody is unique … so they're encouraged to put their own little twist on things." The cumulative effect of these consistent, ingrained daily messages of support and affirmation has been a joy to witness, Pond said. "We've had amazing feedback from the community and from parents," who sometimes message Pond privately to say they're astonished by how inclusive the school is, and how much they appreciate it. The school's numbers also speak volumes. Just one and a half years in, and in the midst of a cresting pandemic and orange phase restrictions, the fledgling school has about 110 students — and a waiting list. "We thought we would take a hit [because of COVID-19]," Pond said. "But we're in the middle of winter registration and it's our biggest season yet." The internship program that made it possible Pond didn't set out to own a pioneering dance school. She's in her fourth year of an English literature major at Mount Allison University and figured full-time studies would be more than enough to keep her busy. But in her second year, she heard about the university's Reisman internship program. The program provides coaching support and up to $15,000 funding for students' entrepreneurial ideas. Pond applied for the program, pitching her idea for a dance school focusing on inclusivity and was accepted. Mount Allison's Krista Steeves, the university's director of experiential learning and career development, said Pond's application stood out as a clear front-runner. "We loved her idea," Steeves said. "What mother wouldn't want to send her child to a dance camp that focuses on positivity instead of body image, a camp where no one's going to measure their waist?" Pond also had years of teaching experience — she's taught dance camps since she was 14 — and a solid business model, Steeves said. "When she brought her project to us, we thought, OK, she's ready to go." Plans to graduate, teach – and open more studios Amp It Up opened in May 2019, and pretty much hit the ground running. The Reisman program provided $15,000 in funding, as well as training, economic guidance and a dedicated coach. Pond was able to hire staff who could help teach and run the school when she was busy with studies. The town's Lions Club has also been supportive, Pond said, welcoming the studio into their building and giving her dancers "a safe place to be during COVID." As for what's ahead, Pond said she has a one-year plan, a "three-year plan" and a longer-term plan. And Amp It Up has a place in all of them. Pond will graduate from Mount Allison this term, then plans to get her education degree. There's also a production of Alice in Wonderland to get onto the stage, "and I just hired three new staff members, so now we're a staff team of six." Her next big goal, she said, is to open another studio. Eventually, she'd like to have three or four studios, all of them spreading the same message of inclusivity. "I feel very lucky to be able to do what I love, and to see others enjoying it too," Pond said. "This will definitely be my second job for years to come."