Chance to Dance

Instructor, studio offer class designed for disabled students

From News Gazette
October 31, 2006
By Erika Nelson

Cindy Hand of Urbana always wanted her 6-year-old daughter, Tiffany, to learn dance.

She checked into different class options and gave Tiffany an early introduction to the arts by enrolling her in “Teeny Ballereenies” classes through the Urbana Park District.

But even with the many dance classes offered throughout the Champaign-Urbana area, Cindy and her husband, Bill, never found a class they considered to be a perfect fit for Tiffany, who has Down syndrome.

That is, until this fall.

Through the Down Syndrome Network newsletter, Cindy learned about a dance class at the Christine Rich Dance Academy and Performing Arts Center in Savoy designed specifically for children with disabilities. And she signed Tiffany up.

“Even though she has Down syndrome, she can do things like other kids. It just takes her longer to get it,” Cindy said. “I always wanted to get her into dancing, so we took advantage [of the class].”

The idea of offering a dance class for children with disabilities came directly from the course’s instructor, Daniela Smith. Smith pitched the concept to Rich, the studio’s founder and director; and Rich loved it.

“Daniela said she was going to go to school for a few years and then [would] do this, but I thought she should do this now,” said Rich. “A sincere respect and passion for these children is nine-tenths of what’s needed to make these classes work.”

And Smith has both the dance experience and the passion for children to make the new classes fly. While she is currently working toward a degree in social work, Smith, who grew up in Brazil, has spent most of her life studying dance. Her passion for working with children with disabilities stems from an experience with one of her own family members.

“I think that sometimes ballet is too closed to certain people,” she said. “These classes are open to any child; everyone deserves the chance to dance and know about the arts.”

This fall, Smith is teaching two sections of her class for children with disabilities. She started out with lesson plans, but quickly switched to a more spontaneous type of teaching.

“I have to do whatever they can do,” Smith said. “I wait for clues and adapt to what they feel like doing.”

Smith’s classes are small in size, which allows her to give her students more individualized attention.

The small crowd also helps Tiffany, who was shy at first, to feel more comfortable with each class, and for Mom an Dad to participate in the lessons with her.

“Tiffany is a visual learner, so if she sees Mom or Dad doing it, she wants to do it, too,” Cindy said. “She’s starting to do better each time she comes … and Daniela is starting to know Tiffany and is working well with her.”

Cindy said that while it is fun to watch Tiffany practice the stands and curtseys she is learning in class at home, the benefits of the course go well beyond learning how to pirouette.

The classes help Tiffany to build muscle and give her the opportunity to interact with other children her age.

“We don’t keep her sheltered,” Cindy said. “We get her out like every other kid and want her to participate in activities with other children.”

But beyond the social interaction that takes place, Smith and Rich believe that dance classes can also help to make a difference in Tiffany’s development.

“Dance is teaching even more than just coordination,” Rich said. “It’s the physical health benefits, the coordination to music … [dance] accelerates the brain’s capacity to learn even more through this art form.”

While the first session of Smith’s class is ending, Tiffany will stick with her through December for session two. And Cindy said Tiffany has so enjoyed the first two months of class, she wishes more families would get involved.

“The teacher is excellent; we appreciate [Rich] offering the class,” she said. “I wish other people with special-needs children would join.”

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