Around 1991 (25 years ago!) while teaching a dance class, I stood in the doorway of the dance room and commented to a observing mother that I thought the kids were doing great. She leaned over and, with a tentative smile, said, “You are so good with these kids. I don’t suppose you would offer a class for my other daughter too.”
My initially reaction to such a comment was always, “Of course, I can teach anybody to dance,” except, when I looked down, I saw that the younger child sitting in the doorway, had down syndrome.
I mumbled something about my not being qualified to work with special needs kids, and she said, “Shame. Rachel would love to take a dance class with her sister’s teacher. These kids are often mainstreamed into lessons, but a class specifically geared to them would certainly be special. I network with other mothers and I could get a group together if you ever change your mind. . .”
I couldn’t sleep that night, thinking about the motto I so often boasted aloud. “Dance is for every body!” So why then did I feel so intimidated at the thought of this particular student? I believed I knew more about dance education than most teachers, thanks to years and years as a teacher in the most renowned studios in New York. I had been a master teacher on the Dance Masters of America circuit and an instructor at New York University and Vassar College. I suppose, filled with arrogance of my self-imposed importance, I considered myself an “advanced” teacher – meaning I was one of those sophisticated types of teachers who could relay advanced concepts to those with enough talent to process such information. It would be a waste of talent for someone like me to give up a precious hour to work with kids who wouldn’t really benefit from my experience considering how much the “regular students” needed me if they were ever going to improve.
But I also professed to my staff that a great teacher was someone who could to teach anyone. I made the case that only a fool thought they were good just because they could make advanced dancers look good on stage, because trained dancers were easy to teach. They already had a passion for dance and proficiency and discipline. But teach a clueless beginner to be good and heck, I’d be impressed. Knowing all this, did I really think a lessor teacher might be more suited to take on the task of working with handicapped kids? Did I believe a therapist could teach dance anywhere near as well as someone like me who devoted their life to the art? This made me ask a question that bothered me for years afterwards, “Is great dance defined as mastery of the physical, or is it more about communicating a piece of your soul through movement? If the latter is true, then dance really IS for everyone,and physical coordination or processing and applying movement theory has nothing to do with it.
Asking this question challenged my artistic integrity and my entire belief system regarding dance as an art form rather than an after school enrichment activity. I never did consider myself a cheesy local dance school owner, but someone whose life was devoted to an evolved art form yet who just happened to choose to open a studio in a local community due to the desire for a stable family life for her kids.
If dance was indeed a universal art form and a beautiful expression of the individual soul, then putting too much value on physical prowess was a disservice to the art. Kids with Down Syndrome were deeply soulful so they certainly could dance. They needed to dance. Wanting to live true to this, I felt compelled to take on the class. But I was scared to death. Might I harm one of them with inappropriate exercises or a demand for discipline when they couldn’t meet such requests. I wasn’t sure how to talk to handicapped people without seeming condescending. What if they lost control and got upset or angry? Might they hurt me or do damage to the room? Did I really want handicapped students hanging around my “professional” dance facility in the making? How would customers feel if they had to hang out in a waiting room with ….. handicapped kids.
Clearly, I had some soul searching to do and research was in order. I read everything I could get my hands on that week, learning that children with Down Syndrome often have very loose joints and a weak connective tissue. They had weight control issues, and occasional heart issues.One vertebra in their neck had to be protected. I knew dance might help them maintain health, but a teacher had to understand the risks and be careful not to push the body in a way that would cause injury. I paid particular attention to commonalities of behavior and was rather shamed to realize I had nothing to fear and was a fool for worrying. These kids were actually the most loving sort of individuals, generous of spirit and deeply compassionate. (Just goes to show, we fear what is different or what we don’t understand.) With every paragraph I read I became convinced that a dance class for Rachel and her friends wasn’t something I could offer, but something I must offer. And if customers didn’t like it, they were ignorant, and I’d set them straight.
So, I set up a class for kids with Down Syndrome and any similar handicap that would keep the group at the same learning level. Needing to call the class something, but unsure what was politically correct, I asked the parents to help me name the class and we agreed to call the group the Superstars. I began my first class with 6 students ranging from 6 – 10 years old. I’m not kidding when I say I fell in love, and I don’t mean in love with teaching handicapped students. I fell in love with the students themselves. The children’s humor and the way they supported each other and greeted me ever single day with sincere joy touched me in profound ways.
In the beginning, I charged a reduced tuition for the class. I did so because my young business was struggling to the point of breaking, and if ever I had to pay others to help teach or sub, I needed to know there would be some income to balance out the obligation. But as soon as my business had a good footing, I made the class tuition free. It remained free from that point on.
For over 17 years I taught those 6 students and others that came and went over the years. As the students grew up, so too did the coursework. When the kids became teenagers we began doing more hip hop than jazz. They were a cool group, deserving of “cool” danced steps. They became very good at certain steps. Never learned to count music. But oh, they had style and personality that made them engaging to watch.
As each season brought more success, I grew extremely confident with my ability to work with this special population. I wrote and sold an article for Dance Teacher Magazine, a national publication, detailing the challenges and considerations of working with kids with Down Syndrome, encouraging other teachers nationwide to start similar classes for the joy such work would bring them as well as goodwill for their contribution to the community. I was still traveling as a featured master teacher for Dance Masters of America, and in those days people flew me out to conventions where I would work with with up to 300 studio owners in a class at a time, all seeking new routines and techniques for jazz and children’s creative dance. I started offering to teach an extra session for free to show others how to work with kids with disabilities and the convention committees couldn’t resist, so I taught this work at about a dozen conventions and connected with many other dance teachers who had similar classes or wanted to begin one. People would call or write to me with questions, and I enjoyed sharing what I knew.
During these years, the Sarasota Herald Tribune featured my Superstars in an article complete with pictures and information. We were stars for a day. The group was asked to dance at several special educator seminars as an example of the benefit of arts involvement. We even danced once for a Special Olympics event. I took the kids to participate in dance competitions and local performances and they were always the biggest hit in my recitals.
The most difficult part of selling my business after 20 years of owning FLEX was leaving these students behind. I made the new owners promise the Superstar class would continue, and for a while they had lessons without me. Sadly, the business failed after only two years, and the teachers who had worked with the Superstars in the past dispersed to form new schools of their own. Unfortunately, they didn’t think about inviting my Superstars to their facilities to keep the group together.
Meanwhile, my life moved from dance to my new artistic fascination- writing. And don’t ya know, children with Down Syndrome crept into my writing as characters, as if a shadow of my former life just couldn’t be dismissed. Back then, I was a historical romance writer. I had written a book about 4 women who travel from England to San Francisco in 1847 and the entire plot ended up centered around the challenges of one woman raising a younger sister with Down Syndrome in a time when handicapped people were not afforded rights or respect (they didn’t have a term for Downs then…. Making the research to create an authentic rendition of circumstances difficult). This book won the Royal Palm Literary Award, so while it was basically a silly romance, the story still had some merit – I believe because of the powerful characters. Empowered by the positive feedback I received from winning contests for my romance writing, I applied to and was accepted into a Masters program for fiction at Lesley University, thinking that retirement from dance was the perfect time to get serious about writing. But breaking up with your art is hard to do, and my thesis turned out to be a book about a professional dancer getting older and retiring who was deeply bitter about her profession and aging… but she finds redemption by rediscovering the beauty of dance when she gets involved with teaching a group of kids with Down Syndrome. I didn’t notice how revealing the theme was at the time, but obviously, my years working with the superstars had profound and lasting impact, and my struggle to leave dance was a bigger heartbreak than I admitted as well.
Jump forward in time. My life crashed in a sad and deeply difficult way. I ended up coming back to Sarasota to open a yoga studio, but since I was destitute and deeply depressed, I decided I had to include some dance classes too– for survival more than because I wanted to reengage with the dance business. (I left dance studio ownership for a reason that I had not forgotten).
A few months after opening, my receptionist told me a former male student who had danced with me for years had stopped by to say hi.
I tried to figure out who it might be, thinking of all the male dancers I had trained who went on to work on Broadway or in Ballet companies etc.. wondering who was in town and might have heard I was teaching again. I asked questions about the visitor’s age and what he looked like, and her answers were vague and sort of embarrassed. All of a sudden, I said, “I don’t suppose he had Down Syndrome?”
“Well as a matter of fact, I believe he did,” she said.
Down Syndrome is a pretty defining characteristic in a person, so I laughed, finding it funny she didn’t mention this first. “Why didn’t you tell me that right off the bat? Then I’d know which student had dropped by.“
“I didn’t want to seem judgmental or anything,” she said, trying to be politically correct by avoiding making any kind of comment that would prove she noticed the visitor was different from others.
I laughed, remembering how, long ago, I too didn’t know how to act or what to call these students in my worry about potentially offending someone. Over time, I actually forgot the Superstars were in any way different from other students. They were no longer “students with Down Syndrome”, but just Tim, Rachel, Jacklyn, and others I adored teaching.
I once took the group to a dance competition and, giddy with delight over how they did, I nervously leaned over to my husband during the judging and said, “Do you think the judges will know these kids have special needs and judge accordingly? I don’t want them unfairly assessed because the audience doesn’t realize they have special challenges.”
He looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Of course they know. It is obvious when you look at them.”
“Oh, yeah”. I said, realizing that their faces were so familiar to me now, I’d forgotten that, to others, their handicap would be obvious.
Anyway, days later I called Tim back to catch up and reestablish our friendship. Within a week, my Superstars had sent messages through the grapevine and our old class resumed. Five of the original students were back, and a few new faces joined us as well. The only difference is that now these dancers were in their mid to late 30’s and so I added yoga to the hip hop in respect to their evolving adult needs and interests. They were moving slower. Getting winded. Yoga was a perfect addition to our class. Students came back from ten years ago, fifteen or five. They knew they’d be welcome, and of course, they were.
The Sarasota Herald Tribune did another article about how the superstars were still dancing together 20 years later. They performed in the year end show like the old days, and the warmth and camaraderie continued as before. Only now, the class took on a new, deeper poignancy for me.
Another 5 years has passed. I no longer worry about the kids. Now, I find myself worrying about the parents whom I respect so much. I see them aging and wonder about the stresses and burdens they carry as they enter new stages of life. They are retiring, yet still parenting, a responsibility most others of us became free of when our children grew up and left home. I worry about them having to plan for long term arrangements for their children as age takes it’s toll and makes it harder for them to be caregivers, and I am humbled to witness them still giving their children rides to dance, still offering enthusiastic encouragement and patience and support after all these years. They are the most loving and devoted parents I’ve ever known, unfailing in their good intentions and positive attitudes.
We’ve been holding the Superstar class every Tuesday from 5:15-6:15 for the last 6 years. The class is still free and still a source of great inspiration to me. It isn’t always easy to fit this hour into my overworked schedule. I’ve taught the Superstars through issues that most people would have used as an excuse to politely say “it’s not working for me anymore.”. I’ve faced a great deal of business strain the last few years, got married, and sometimes I had to admit that pulling my attention away from other work for this free class was an indulgence I could ill afford. I’ve suffered through Lyme disease and two painful foot surgeries, but kept teaching nevertheless. This season I was offered a writing gig that is more in line with my current life ambitions than dance will ever be again – but the class was offered on the same night as the superstar class, so I canceled it. Whatever comes along, I’ve long since decided, can’t and shouldn’t interfere with something so purely “right and good.”
Eighteen months ago, I sold the dance studio portion of my business to my studio manager and great friend, Jackie. It would have been the perfect time to retire my Superstar volunteer work, considering I’ve put in my 20 years – enough to feel proud of. But after thinking a long time about what I wanted to do, my only provision to the sale was that Jackie had to promise to always offer me the space to continue this class as long as the students want to participate – and that the class had to remain free and the students must be welcome to perform in her recital every year.
Having been with me a long, long time, Jackie smiled and said, “The school would lose something very special without them….Shame on you for feeling you had to ask. I’d keep it going without you if necessary.”
I was moved to know the studio had been transferred to someone with equal appreciation for dance at its authentic best – as an art form meant for every body.
I’ve now been teaching dance to Rachel and her friends for 21 years with only a small break in the middle of the 26 year stretch since that first conversation in the doorway of my fledgling school . My superstars have turned out to be one of the most consistent things in my life, despite many twists and turns and changes in career, life and friendships. My work with these kids isn’t about dance or art or even friendship anymore. It’s about commitment and karma and finding purpose in the nooks and crannies of life – something people miss when they are quick to make sensible choices due to situations that at first seem a bother.
I know nothing lasts forever, and one of these days the class will end due to my getting too old or broken to offer much of a good time, or the parents will become unable to continue their role as chauffeur, or maturity will create health or circumstance issues for the students themselves that tell us it is time to stop. Every time I teach the superstars I pause just a moment to recognize and appreciate the profound gift I gave myself when I made that decision many years ago to do something that seemed like a stretch for someone like me to do well. We are all simply a collection of our experiences and the superstars made me “more” than I would have been had I thought teaching handicapped students was a waste of time or talent for an “advanced” teacher like me.
In retrospect I can say without pause that the limitation’s that had to be faced that day regarding dance had nothing to do with the student’s capabilities and everything to do with the limitations of my own mindset.
We all have the power of saying “yes” despite reluctance and should wield that choice more. You never know what gifts you are missing by avoiding what seems,only at first, awkward or hard .