They sprint and swirl, spin and slither, leap and creep. They rock and occasionally roll. They move to music everyone hears and, in some cases, music playing only in their own heads. They dance as if nobody’s watching – which, except for an anxious parent peering through a reinforced glass window, is often true.
They dance as if no one ever asked them to dance before.
Executive director Tess Walters has a background in classical ballet. Yet there she is at DanceAbilities Academy, shuffling along like an awakened bear or climbing an invisible tree. Around her neck hangs John, an autistic 5-year-old who has spent most of the session moaning or striking rhythmically at his own forehead. Suddenly, for 30 seconds, he beams.
That half-minute explains why Walters started DanceAbilities this year. She offers free dance classes – and exercise, karate and cheerleading classes – to anyone who has been diagnosed with a developmental disability.
“I don’t know of any program that offers everything they do,” says Terri Dobbins Springer, senior adviser at Webb Street School in Gastonia (which works with special-needs students). “Everybody has a passion in life, no matter what our ability level is. This gives our students an opportunity to experience and love dance.
“It gives pleasure, and the physicality has motor benefits. It’s kinesthetic learning: As you move, you learn directional words and spatial awareness (which people with disabilities may not have) and learn about the body. You even follow multiple-step commands. These are all things that will help you as you move on in life or look for a job.”
Walters began in January with the pioneer spirit of her New England forebears and virtually no cash. Now she has a devoted studio manager in Brenda Miller, a rotating group of young volunteers and a space of nearly 4,000 square feet in Garrison Professional Park at 1385 E. Garrison Blvd.
“I started looking at buildings we could renovate, and our current landlord made an offer we couldn’t afford. Then she made a better offer. Then, before I could commit one way or the other, she decided to give it to us rent-free and put a wooden floor down over the cement,” says Walters.
Everyone who works there has a story to tell, usually with a personal connection to disabled people. Walters and her husband, Jimmy, had two boys before a special-needs daughter came along: Mia, a high-functioning autistic girl who’ll be mainstreamed into kindergarten this year. Sam arrived two years later; a tumor on his brain stem took three surgeries to remove, and he remains mostly nonverbal. (He’s been tumor-free for a year.)
“I had always dreamed of having my own dance studio, but it wasn’t about special needs until I had my kids,” says Walters. “I was volunteering at Webb Street School (for special-needs children), teaching movement classes. We even put on a talent show. And I thought, ‘How hard would it be to do this?’ ”
From fitness to dance
Amber Gibson knew. She started Capabilities, a fitness company for people with special needs, in 2011, hauling mats and weights around in her car and borrowing exercise space from churches. (Gibson grew up around a mentally disabled great-aunt.) Soon Capabilities was in a facility in Lowell, which it outgrew in two years.
“Parents often focus on fun with disabled children, not health,” says Gibson. “When I started working with a friend’s son who had autism, he ran for the first time; eventually, he could run a mile. We’d see children who couldn’t lift a 1-pound weight over their heads. After a while, they were doing reps with 5 pounds.
“Parents with disabled children aren’t money trees: They’re already paying for therapy and don’t have money for expensive exercise equipment. That’s why I started Capabilities. When Tess approached me last January about movement classes, we were instant buds.”
They saw eye-to-eye on the mission. Gibson puts it this way: “Beyond physical health, we want (clients) to take away a sense of self-worth. Many have been told right away what they can’t do. We will assume you can do it, or we’ll modify it so you can.”
She’d figured out how to get Capabilities to meet its budget and obtain 501(c)3 charitable status. So after Gibson was diagnosed with lupus this spring, they merged under Capabilities’ banner, and DanceAbilities opened in July.
It has raised money so far through small donations and events such as Home Run Derby, a softball contest at Gastonia’s Sims Park Aug. 28. The group is too new to have a firm annual budget, partly because it’s combining with Capabilities. Walters estimates DanceAbilities will need $46,000 a year to pay small salaries to the three staffers (herself, Gibson and Miller), hire instructors and cover utilities, taxes, music rights and insurance.
More advanced classes teach tap, hip-hop, jazz, even step-dancing. The simplest sessions encourage self-expression and coordinated movement. One of those on a recent Monday night had students ages 5-22. The youngest was John Whisnant II, the nonverbal autistic boy; the oldest, Bi Horan, had recently graduated from Webb Street School.
Their mothers sat in the waiting room, one a smiling veteran and one an anxious newcomer. Both have enrolled in the Wednesday yoga class Walters organized for caretakers.
A haven without tension
“There’s no pressure here,” said Marie Horan, who met Walters through Webb Street. “Bi has really bad scoliosis and other neuromuscular issues, and here she can go at her own pace. She did physical therapy at home and hated it. But she’s getting the same kind of experience here in a group and loving it.”
Temetrice Whisnant was bringing John to his first session. She came with comforting, familiar items – his sippy cup and a bag of dry cereal – and an optimistic attitude.
“He’s gonna give them a hard time,” she predicted. (Indeed, she had to intervene when the music overstimulated him.) “But they’ll be sensitive with him. He’ll find his own spot, and it’s important for him to experience other people.”
Hard times don’t trouble the DanceAbilities staff. Children can be taken to private areas if they need quiet; a shower awaits those who must clean up after an accident. Miller, a former nurse and friend of Walters, saw a dancer having a seizure at a session and stepped in.
“I have three children with special needs, and finding a program that’s affordable is very hard,” says Miller, whose husband, Bryan, will teach the NinjAbilities karate class. “Finding a dance program for them was zero to none.
“We spent countless hours cleaning, painting, decorating this dream. It has been an amazing ride watching these children, young adults and adults learn dance in a no-judgment zone.”
A place to step out
Walters says DanceAbilities doesn’t accept clients with mental-health issues, partly because of damage they might to do themselves or others. It does take kids with visual, hearing and physical limitations.
“We have students with braces, a walker, a wheelchair,” she says. “Maybe you can’t dance, but you can move your upper body while you’re sitting. We have one girl who rolls happily all over the place. After summer camp, we had bruises on the backs of our heels, because one of her favorite things was to run up on us with her chair.”
Walters likes to end sessions with “Let It Go,” the Oscar-winning assertion of individuality sung by Princess Elsa – another young woman society has misjudged – in “Frozen.”
A few dancers sang along as it played in the Monday night class. They swooped as if an icy wind were tossing them about. They waved their arms like falling snow or twirled in place like Elsa enjoying her private, self-created kingdom.
For a moment, John smiled again.