Dance lessons a new twist for Special Olympians
Special Olympics athletes and dancers from 24-VII Danceforce blended together like old friends. "Heartbeat" -- a special pilot program -- was established to get the athletes ready for a dance performance during the opening ceremonies of the 2007 Special Olympics State Summer Games.
The participating athletes have different levels of intellectual disabilities, including autism spectrum disorders and Down syndrome.
"As a result of participation in the program, (the dancers) are more patient, understanding and accepting of others, both in class and out of the studio. They are really enjoying themselves and are developing special friendships with the athletes," said Marcelo Pacleb, founder and creative director of 24-VII Danceforce.
The dancers agreed.
The Special Olympic athletes "have very strong personalities hidden behind their disabilities," said 24-VII troupe member Will Thomson. "When they are having fun and loosen up, their personality shines through. It definitely opened my eyes."
Crystal Lee, another dancer, thought it might be intimidating to work with the special-needs athletes. "It ended up being really fun," she said. "Once you get to know them, they are people, just like us."
Lena Soliven's son Dezmond, age 10, has been dancing with 24-VII for four years. He is not in Special Olympics, but he does have a form of autism and dancing has improved his motor skills, Lena said.
"When he started, he didn't know left from right," she said. "We want the best for our kids. We don't want to see them struggling. He is teaching his brain to function."
His experiences have, in turn, created empathy for the Special Olympics athletes as they try to learn the dance steps. "He doesn't see the disabilities as a negative," Lena said. "He is able to give back."
Each class begins with a few icebreaker sessions -- a game of copycat in which participants gather in a circle and everyone in the circle performs the same actions. This is followed by a game of safari in which the dancers and athletes pull out their imaginary binoculars on a hunt for wild animals.
"The class is priceless. I just love it," said instructor Ashley Layfield. "Most of them are really coming out of their shell. It's not just a dance class. It's about social interaction and life skills that they gain."
PARENTS OF THE participants agree that the lessons provide a win-win situation.
"This is a wonderful experience for our athletes," said Greg Weathers, whose son has been a Special Olympics Hawaii athlete for eight years and whose daughter has danced with a 24-VII Danceforce for four years. "As a parent there simply is no greater joy than seeing the excitement on our kids' faces."
"This is the first time we are doing something like this as a family," added Sharon Weathers. Normally, Greg takes their son, Todd, to his Special Olympics training, and Sharon takes their daughter, Meghan, to dance class.
"Although the program is not sponsored by Special Olympics Hawaii, they have nevertheless been extremely supportive and instrumental in getting the word out to athletes and their families about the program," added Sharon.
Barbara Nakanishi appreciates the movement aspect and benefit it provides for her son, Bryant. "He is physically handicapped, so it is harder for him to move around. He really enjoys the class."
Jean Hively's son, Sean, is excited to start dancing every Sunday morning. "He chooses his clothes carefully, wanting to be color-coordinated," she said.
Sean participates in softball, swimming and golf with the Special Olympics, but the dance class has given him something else to look forward to.
"They are learning skills from watching the other dancers. Some of them learn so fast. ... Their faces light up when they are doing the steps," Hively said. "I can't help but cry a little bit."