I recently finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants,” a fascinating book about turning disadvantages into advantages. The book made me think about my students, who are perennial underdogs in most every situation in their lives. The kids in my program are disadvantaged by cognitive, physical or communicative disabilities that slow down their progress in comparison with people who experience “normal” development. We’ve repeatedly put our students in “David and Goliath” situations and regardless of their disadvantages, they come out on top every single time.
Like two weeks ago, when we travelled to Atlanta for the NRG Dance Project’s regional dance competition…over 200 trained dancers ranging in age from 8 to 18, all typically developing and all extremely talented, converged at the Westin Hotel for a weekend of intense master classes and fierce competition. There were 15 of Project UP’s 43 members who made the trip, arriving at the hotel full of excitement and oblivious to the fact that the odds say they didn’t stand a chance of competing successfully with their contemporaries. These are kids who are left out of so many things…just being included is a victory. Don’t get me wrong…if my students know there’s a trophy or a prize involved, they certainly want to win it but winning the trophy is just icing on the cake. They are excited about the process, not the end result.
As we’ve done in the past, we enrolled our students – all at least 14-years-old – in the junior age division with kids ages 8-12, where we thought they would stand a better chance of keeping up with the choreography. Based on previous experience, we knew there would be some raised eyebrows when they walked into their first master class…typical kids in the world of elite competitive dance aren’t used to seeing kids with special needs in their classes, so we decided to meet those eyebrows head on this time. The kids all wore t-shirts to class that had different slogans on them depending on what each kid’s diagnosis is. The slogans were: You’d be happy too, if you had an extra chromosome; I have an extra chromosome and I’m not afraid to use it; The rainbow is also a spectrum; I have autism and I’m awesome; Am I rocking this extra chromosome, or what?; and my personal favorite, “Normal is a dryer setting.” We put their disadvantages out in front, in your face and acknowledged the obvious right off the bat. My staff and I wore t-shirts that said either “Typical,” “Average,” “Same,” “Ordinary,” or “Regular.” The shirts were a smashing success; people stopped all of us all weekend to tell us how much they loved them.
So, having disarmed everyone with the shirts, the kids set about participating in master classes and the competition. And boy did they ever kill it! While they may not have mastered every combination or understood every instruction, they never stopped trying. At the end of their hip-hop class, they were all flushed and sweating after an hour of hard-hitting choreography. Their typical peers high-fived them, congratulated them, encouraged them and applauded them for their efforts, with Project UP quickly becoming the center of attention everywhere they went.
Project UP blew it out of the water at the actual competition…they executed their dances with enthusiasm and won over the audience with their wide-open performances. While their typical peers may have struggled with nerves, the pressure to perform well and win, and with the backstage chaos that could unhinge even the most seasoned pro, the kids in Project UP were calm, cool and collected. They took the stage, did their job and returned to the audience to cheer on their competition. Of course, both of their performances received sustained standing ovations and most of the audience had tears in their eyes as they applauded. When people see a real “David” in action, going after dreams that appear unattainable, they never fail to be moved.
Both of Project UP’s dances received platinum awards – the highest score awarded to a dance. The final three awards were called the “High Impact Awards” and were given for outstanding overall performance. And wouldn’t you know it? Our “Davids” won a High Impact Award! Before presenting the award, NRG Dance Project Founder Nick Gonzalez told the audience, “Our next High Impact Award is going to a group that has inspired all of us this weekend.” Yes, our students are inspirational…and so are all the other “Davids” in the world. Our kids did what underdogs have done for centuries…they refused to allow their disadvantages to stop them for going for their dreams.
There was a great deal of celebration, lots of hugs, tears of pride from the parents and our staff but as soon as the excitement died down a bit, our kids were ready to pack it in for the night. Great sports that they are, our kids wanted to rest up for the next day’s classes and had no interest in gloating in over their win. I took the staff out to dinner afterwards and I have to admit…we did gloat over the kids’ victory! We toasted the kids, we toasted each other, we toasted the judges for recognizing the power of our underdogs’ performance and we toasted the audience for embracing our underdogs (yes, we had quite a few celebratory drinks with which to toast!). We all felt quite full of ourselves because we are just so dang proud of our students and so proud that our program has given them a platform from which they can show the world that they can do anything they are given the chance to try.
Like “Davids” usually do, our students were back in class the following Tuesday, hard at work preparing for their next performance. Besides making sure that we had properly – and prominently – displayed the High Impact Award banner they were given, the kids were back to business, their victory just another fun memory to them. As they continue to have successful public performances, the odds will tip in their favor – they will always be underdogs but they will narrow the gap between them and their typical peers. As they continue to succeed on an even playing field with their “normal” peers, folks will begin to realize that normal, well you know…normal is a dryer setting.