For Mariah French, to dance is to feel at home.
Since she was a child, dance has been a way to connect with the world around her. Mariah has fond memories of gathering all the neighborhood kids in their backyard to choreograph elaborate dances to perform for the neighborhood.
But it wasn’t until she was a teenager that she realized dance had the capacity to support a person’s health and wholeness. Like many teens, Mariah had challenges while she was growing up and dance was a tool for her to help process the emotion she had about those difficulties. “The physicality of dance and the expressive nature of music engages the whole person. That was my silver bullet to being healthy and expressing myself as an individual. Dance was therapeutic, it was my safe haven.”
Not only was Mariah talented, but she was also a budding leader.
Her parents encouraged her to pursue the things she enjoyed and was good at. In high school she helped choregraph the school musical and got more involved in production and leadership roles. She received her degree in dance from The Ohio State University and began to see her ability to lead others in the same process that gave her life so much meaning.
A dream was formed.
Mariah believed she could change the world through dance. She knew she needed to share her gift with others, and everyone around her believed in her.
That’s when the idea for Xclaim Dance Company, a contemporary dance ensemble and fine arts school, was born. “It took some encouraging and support from my husband. He knew it was time for me to pursue my dream before I did.” Together, they co-founded the company in 2007.
For Mariah, dance isn’t just about movement. It’s an artistic expression that allows the audience to explore topics that tap a wide range of emotion. “From the beginning, I wanted the company to feel like a meaningful expression of humanity. I believe that dancing about something bigger than yourself creates a sense of community.”
Connecting to the community on a deep level is a critical component of Xclaim. With Mariah at the helm, Xclaim has developed a community outreach program that enables individuals to experience the joy of dance. From performances at the Scioto Juvenile Correction Facility to mentorships with kids through Neighborhood Pride, dance is benefiting our community.
Dance has a life-giving capacity.
One of the initiatives she is most proud of was working with a group of youth and immigrant women. “In collaboration with the International Church on Sinclair Road, we connected to women from African countries who had no access to indigenous dance groups. We collaborated on workshops with them. We were part of their vision and were able to give back in a life-sustaining way.”
Then there were nine.
Two years before Mariah and her husband started Xclaim, they had their first child. Sixteen years later, their youngest was born making the French family a family of eleven.
For the Frenches, dance is a family affair with each child involved with dance in some capacity. Their oldest daughter is following in her mother’s footsteps as an apprentice for a professional dance company and their oldest son is an apprentice with Xclaim. The middle children will perform in shows for their upcoming season. All the kids are taking classes, even the youngest who are three and one-and-a-half years old.
But her children don’t dance to please her — they do it because they have come to love and appreciate dance on their own.
With her own dance troupe at home, Mariah is able to understand the complexities of how children connect through dance. “Different kids thrive in different styles. Dance not only moves their bodies but has the capacity to engage the analytical brain and the creative brain.”
Dance is a holistic process.
Mariah is a firm believer that dance forces you to live in the moment. “When dancing, you’re thinking about how your muscles articulate with the music while counting steps. Through the movement you are expressing yourself, which is a beautiful thing.”
Through Xclaim, Mariah teaches, choreographs, and produces, all while running the company. But during COVID, that was put on pause when she was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism that nearly took her life.
While in the hospital, Mariah had a revelation. “I was thinking that if that had been it, would I have felt satisfied with how I lived? I had no regrets because I had poured myself into my passion, but I still had work to do. I had more people I wanted to reach.”
She realized that life is short, and the time is now.
“I had always felt that if we reached two or three people deeply that I have done my job and met my calling. But I realized that we could share our work with more audiences.”
Then, an opportunity presented itself. She was nominated for the Artists Elevated award.
“We have always been a small, underfunded organization. I knew that any supplemental income would be a blessing for the company and an opportunity to ensure the work we are doing would be supported now and in the future.”
Even though she recognized the need for the award, she didn’t think the odds were in her favor. When she got the call that she was selected as a winner, her heart was filled with gratitude. Her hope is that through the award, Xclaim will have a larger stage for the life-changing work they have been doing over the last 15 years.
Mariah’s passion is palpable.
It may take her a moment to catch her breath as she continues to recover, but she is still moving and teaching with the company. “It is a joy and privilege to still be moving and to still be able to create and tell meaningful stories through dance. Dance has always been my safe space and I hope to invite others into that space.”
Dance is a tremendous gift, and she is proud to share it.