Thursday, October 25, 2018

Dancing on wheels and every which way

Five years ago, the D.R.E.A.M. Project (Dancers Realize Excellence Through Arts and Movement) began holding workshops at The National Dance Institute in Harlem, New York. Today, the program is held twice a year, in February and in August, for children ages 8 to 14 with and without disabilities, culminating in a performance.

Alexa, a 13-year-old with spinal muscular atrophy, travels close to four hours round-trip to participate in D.R.E.A.M. She does so with her two siblings, her mother, an adapted van, a power wheelchair, a suctioning apparatus and a nurse. "She may have limitations motorically but not in personality!" says physical therapist Agnes McConlogue Ferro, D.R.E.A.M.'s co-founder. "She has cajoled this seasoned, un-cojolable pediatric physical therapist to do things that are not on the agenda and not the easiest logistically, and yet I find myself happily obliging."

"In the rehearsal room, we teach children that embracing difference and including everyone's unique way of expressing themselves through dance is both valued and beautiful," says Kay Gayner, NDI Associate Artistic Director and cofounder of D.R.E.A.M. "In partnerships, they co-create choreography more inventive than anything I could ever come up with, and send a new message to audiences, challenging them to reconsider what dance 'should' look like."

The program also helps kids grow comfortable interacting with those who have disabilities. "At the very start of the most recent DREAM project, a boy turned to me and asked, 'Is it OK if I help Shira take her sweater off?'" Agnes recalls. He was talking about a 12-year-old girl who has cerebral palsy. "I asked Shira if that was OK and after getting a smile that lit up the room, I showed him how to help her. For the rest of the week the partnership that developed between these two was nothing short of unforgettable. It has happened time and time again: the gift of witnessing children accepting one another for who they are, not for what they can or can’t do. Awareness leads to acceptance. Acceptance leads to participation. Participation leads to community. This is our hope. This is our dream."

The program's reach continues long after dancers are off-stage. "Alexa has gone back to her sister’s local community dance school, shown the teacher videos of her dancing at D.R.E.A.M. and has subsequently joined and been in their wonderful recitals," says Agnes. "She is not done, none of these participants are!" Adds Kay, "We want children—all children—to see extraordinary things in each other, and also to see extraordinary things in themselves."

If you have a child who'd like to participate in D.R.E.A.M., contact NDI's Senior Director of Education and Outreach Aileen Barry at

Photo source: NDI

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