Disabled dancers prepare for first showcase

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COLUMBIA - Pink and black ballet shoes scurry across the black floor at the start of a new class. Some children are ready to practice pointing their toes and stretching their bodies, while others haven’t warmed up to the idea yet and wait for assistance from a volunteer.

From the window in the office where parents watch their children, it may appear like most dance classes for children: tutus, ballet shoes, and music. However, the DanceAbility classes target a specific group of dancers, those with special needs.

“It’s really rewarding to see,” dance instructor Caitlin Younker said. “Some things that seem so simple, like pointing your foot, they’re really not that simple.”

Jennifer Highbarger, the dance instructor that started the program, realized a dancer in a previous class that needed special attention was probably not the only one that needed more focus on techniques to help her learn better.

DanceAbility offered one class when it started a little over two years ago. Today, three different classes are offered for different age groups: four to eight, eight to twelve and adults. Each session is twelve weeks long and is taught by Younker, along with volunteers with backgrounds in special needs education. The classes are taught through the school of Missouri Contemporary Ballet.

“It’s still like teaching a dance class,” Younker said, “but different keywords and phrases; or different ways to show things that will help the kids with special needs to learn them better.”

Gayla Palmero has two daughters in the DanceAbility adult class and says the program allowed them to continue to dance after most classes got too difficult.

“As they got older, things got harder and they couldn’t catch up,” Palmero said. “They didn’t have any place else to go.”

DanceAbility classes use props and distinctive technique exercises to help tune fine motor skills in dancers to aid in everyday activities. It allows the students to strengthen their core, balance and other skills.

Younker and the volunteers use teddy bears for the younger dancers. The children work on pointing and walking on their toes and leaping over the bears and use ribbons to help with arm movements. They also stretch to strengthen the body, by mimicking animal movements and noises. The older dancers use bars to strengthen their core.

Younker said she has seen progress in the dancers.

“They are having better listening skills, because they are in a classroom setting where they have to focus and listen,” Younker said. “It helps that aspect of their lives, their coordination, and it helps their confidence I think the most. We have a few students,  when they came into class, they had some tears and then they started dancing and the light just turned on. It just makes them feel good about themselves.”

Palmero said the fine motor skills worked on in class have helped her daughters through a fun activity they love.

“I can really see balance developing,” Palmero said. “One of my daughters used to have pretty good balance, but because she hasn’t had this type of [exercise] for a long time, you could tell there were issues with it. I see her building up more balance. This is helpful and she looks forward to it.”

DanceAbility will host its first showcase at the end of the winter session, and Palmero said her daughters are excited to get back on stage for the first time since they were little girls.

“They’ve been talking about it constantly,” Palmero said. “They used to do this when they were little and they remember that. They have videos of when they were little they watch all the time.”

The growth of the program led to the showcase being open to the public. In the past, smaller performances were limited to the classroom with just parents as the audience.

The showcase is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 20 in the Windsor Auditorium at Stephens College at 6:30 p.m. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted to help provide scholarships for students in upcoming sessions. People wanting more information on enrollment can email The Missouri Contemporary Ballet.