We’re Going to Change the World

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John Mayer’s song, “Waiting on the World to Change” has some profound lyrics that, to me, are a call to action for the younger generation – a siren song for young people to be the change they want to see in the world. I had a brainstorm a few months back that I presented to Hayley, Artistic Director for our programs that she willingly embraced. My idea was to set a dance piece to this song using five of our dancers in Project UP and five of her dancers from her dance studio, Element. The first rehearsal for this piece was held this weekend, and I’m convinced that it will change the world – or at least open a lot of eyes to something in the world that needs to change.

We’re using a bench as the center piece of the dance, having it to represent the “place” where kids want to be to have fun and hang out with their friends. The Project UP dancers start off on the bench, having fun with each other, but are soon pushed off the bench by the Element dancers, who are typical teenagers and highly skilled dancers. The piece goes through several transitions with the typical teens using the bench, the teens with special needs trying to join in with them on the bench only to be rejected and ends with the typical teens joining the Project UP kids, realizing that they were wrong to exclude kids just because they are “different.” I will post a video of the piece as soon as it is more fully formed and rehearsed, but based on the first rehearsal; I’m convinced it will have a profound effect on the audiences that see it.

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We will debut the piece at our Sixth Annual Evening of Dance in January and then will take it on the road to a dance competition in Atlanta, where it will be performed in front of an audience of several hundred dancers from across the Southeast. It is my hope that this piece will, at the most, inspire dance studios and choreographers to include kids with special needs in their dance studios and companies, and at the least will move one person to think about how accepting they are to people who have differences from what society defines as “normal.”
It has already had a profound effect on Hayley and me, as the piece is being created, and on the ten kids who are dancing in it. Before we started setting choreography, we had a discussion with the kids about the story we are trying to tell with this piece – a story of feeling left out, being ignored and being made to feel unwelcome. All of the kids, typical or disabled, were able to recall times when they had felt the same emotions of being excluded from something they wanted to do. I watched five teenagers who are trained athletes open their hearts and minds to the artistic expression of five teenagers who face barriers everywhere they go. At the end of our first three hour rehearsal, friendships were established and the notion of what it means to be different was challenged.
We may not have changed the world yet, but we have begun to change ten teenagers, and that’s enough of a great start for me!

Dreaming With Your Feet

EliannaThe 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!