Dance school gives hope

Dance school gives hope
Helper Ilena Lech (l. to r.) with dancers Veronica Siaba, Kathleen Downes and Shekinah Tiabo. Lech is one of 53 volunteers who assist physically challenged dancers at the Dancing Dreams ballet school. Photo courtesy Hiroko Shono-Cheng
By Rich Bockmann

The pieces of a ballet uniform are meant to instantly signify and enhance the dancer’s grace and mobility: ballet slippers, a unitard and — of course — a tutu.

But what if the slippers won’t fit over the leg braces a little girl wears as a result of her cerebral palsy?

Chances are children living with disabilities such as cerebral palsy or spina bifida would not be able to safely participate in a regular ballet class. That’s why Bayside pediatric physical therapist Joann Ferrara created the Dancing Dreams school in 2002.

Ferrara, who has a background in gymnastics and dance, said she started a dance school for physically disabled girls because many of her patients wanted to be in a ballet class, but no one would take them.

“The great majority of them can’t walk independently. Some can’t speak. They could not participate safely in a normal program,” she said.

So Ferrara began conducting classes in which she could individually adapt a program to each girl based on her abilities. For assistance, Ferrara recruited volunteer high school students as helpers to hold the girls up and guide them during classes and recitals. In 2008, the school became a nonprofit and now it has 53 helpers and 40 dancers ages 3-17. Ferrara said the school is funded by the various grants she applies for as well as by donations, and that no child is turned away for lack of ability to pay.

Though any kind of movement is therapeutic for these children, the main purpose of the school is not therapy.

“For them just to be able to be in a dance program like their friends or sisters means so much,” Ferrara said.

The classes are held once a week at the Selfhelp Clearview Senior Center in Bay Terrace, and Ferrara’s students have been practicing since January for their recital May 1 at the Mary Louis Academy at 176-21 Wexford Terrace in Jamaica Estates.

“Because of the physical challenges, we never have dress rehearsals. It’s straight from the class to show time.”

This year’s recital will have a Hollywood theme, and the “Grease” performance will feature a few souped-up wheelchairs. Ferrara said most store-bought costumes don’t account for a wearer’s tracheotomy, so she had to create specialized costumes. Some girls will be held up by their helpers, others will perform in their wheelchairs or with braces. Ferrara said every year they pack the place with friends, family and teachers and she expects around 500 audience members.

“It’s not typical of what you think of ballet. They’re creating a beautiful work of art in their own way.”

Kathleen Downes has been a student at Dancing Dreams for four years. The 18-year-old from Floral Park, L.I., is one of two physically challenged students in her school. On Sunday, she’ll perform in her motorized wheelchair.

“I find it easier to stay in my chair. I find it easier to do things with my hands when I don’t have to worry about falling,” she said with the appropriate touch of humor.

Downs said that she discovered a camaraderie in her dance classes that she couldn’t find anywhere else.

“It was something totally new for me. I never expected to be in dance. It turned out to be really, really fun,” she said.

She won a national silver medal from the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers for a portfolio of pieces she wrote on some aspect of disability. Next year she’ll be going to the University of Illinois, which has a nationally recognized program for people with disabilities.

“It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to have friends with disabilities to discuss issues that affect us,” Downes said as she looked forward to leading a relatively independent life when she goes away.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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