The title of this blog came from a five-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. Elianna was one of the first studentsin my program of visual and performing arts education for people with special needs. After only a few lessons, Elianna told me that she wants to be a ballerina when she grows up. Elianna cannot walk, but with the assistance of her volunteer, she can dance. When I asked her why she likes dance so much, she said, “Because dancing is beautiful…its like dreaming with your feet.”
In October 2008, we launched our first class of Dance Your Dreams!, our initial Johnny Stallings Arts Program class that was made up of 9 little girls and 1 boy who ranged in age from 4 to 12 and who had either Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism or a couple of other developmental disabilities. We had not met all of the children before the first class met and didn’t quite know what to expect our students to be like, as Hayley Henderson, Artistic Director for the programs, and I had no experience with children who lived with such difficult challenges. We were nervous and unsure of ourselves, feeling an intense fear that we might unwittingly do something wrong that might physically hurt the children. This was, after all, a dance class we were offering, and some of the children were immobile, several were visually or hearing impaired and most of them had language delays that made communication with them difficult. So with a great deal of trepidation mixed with hearts full of excitement, we waited at the front door of Merrimack Hall for the students to arrive for their first class.
We had set up a registration table right inside the front door, and the first child through the door was Elianna, a darling pixie of a girl with a precious bob haircut and adorable wire-rimmed glasses. She barreled through the door in her walker, necessary because her legs are basically immobile due to cerebral palsy, charging full speed ahead to our table. Before we could say, “Hello” to her, she announced, “Hi! My name is Elianna. E-L-I-A-N-N-A. I’m five and a half years old and I’m here to dance.”
Hayley and I locked eyes and shared a look that said, “This little girl is something else, and this isn’t scary – it’s going to be blast!” As we took down her registration information from her dad, Elianna zoomed passed the table, asking which way to go for her dance class. A volunteer pointed her to the elevator, where she pushed the button and started to enter, but her walker got hung up on the threshold. Before anyone could get to her to offer their assistance, I watched her lift up her walker, place it over the threshold and literally lift her little body up and over that barrier. Absolutely nothing was going to stop her from getting on that elevator and heading up to her dance class. And at that moment, watching that sort of bravery and determination from a child so young, my heart was stolen, and I was completely in love.
At the end of the first class, Elianna asked her volunteer to lean down so she could whisper in her ear, “I’ve had a really good time. But next time I come here, I could really use some glitter and a crown.” Of course, I went straight to Party City and bought glittery princess crowns for all the little girls and a towering king’s crown for our little boy.
After a few weeks of class, Elianna’s father asked her why she liked to dance so much. Remember, this is a child who cannot walk but loves to dance. Her answer was, “I like dance because it’s beautiful. It’s like dreaming with your feet.” My heart has belonged to Elianna and all of our other students every day for the past four years. And she’s right – that’s just what dancing is, whether you can walk or not, whether you have rhythm or not, whether you ballroom dance, tap dance or just groove out to your favorite tunes. The next time you are having a bad day, feeling down or simply need a good pick-me-up, turn on some music and dream with your feet!