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Kids with Disabilities Still Love to Dance

Published in ChicagoNow, January 22, 2019

My granddaughter with special needs has sat through countless dance performances for her neurotypical little sister. Don’t get me wrong. She loves them. But when her sister’s dance studio, Dance Center Evanston, offered an adaptive dance class for movers ages 11-20 who have special needs, she enthusiastically wanted to be a dancer rather than a watcher.

I had the opportunity to observe the class recently, and was delighted by the joy and enthusiasm of the participants. Like my granddaughter, the dancers were given the opportunity so many adolescents take for granted — a chance to be regular kids taking the kind of class not usually offered to them. They were learning to dance and loving an hour of fun, movement, music, and self-expression. Through this class, they had the opportunity to explore creative movement and musicality in a relaxed, supportive studio environment. It wasn’t therapy. It was pure fun.

The teacher, Jenny Higgins, is a dancer instructor who studied at the School of American Ballet in New York City, the University of Michigan, and various dance studios in Chicago, Boston, and northern California. In addition to her dance background, Ms. Higgins has a Master’s degree and teaching experience in Special Education. She also has volunteer Dance Center Evanston students assisting her who model the dance steps for the participants.

In addition to the Everybody Dance class, Ms. Higgins coordinates and supervises Jump for Joy, also at Dance Center Evanston. Jump for Joy is a recreational opportunity sponsored by the dance center’s high school aged dance company, Evanston Dance Ensemble (EDE). It is an opportunity for children ages 5-12 and 13-20 with disabilities to experience the benefits of movement, music, self-expression and performance. The children receive individual attention, customized to their particular needs, in an upbeat, inclusive atmosphere. Children with disabilities work with volunteer senior EDE members, who have been given training in teaching children with special needs. Each participating Ensemble dancer is paired with one or two dancers for the course of six weekly, 45-minute sessions. Jump for Joy participants gain confidence by exploring and using their bodies to move and express themselves, and they have an opportunity to enjoy a physical activity in a relaxed, recreational setting. This is Jump for Joy’s twelfth season.

As with all inclusion opportunities, there is a benefit for the neurotypical participants as well as the children with special needs. The volunteer teen EDE dancers/mentors have an opportunity to expand their knowledge, interest and mindset about dance beyond their usual routine of classes and performances. They gain firsthand experience both in teaching dance and in interacting with students with disabilities, while also providing a meaningful service to their community.

Dance Center Evanston has brought so much joy to my younger granddaughter’s life. Now her older sister is also reaping the benefits of this wonderful dance studio. Bringing dance into the lives of children and teens with disabilities is truly a gift from Dance Center Evanston to the special needs community, and the studio hopes to grow these adaptive dance classes. Kudos to the program’s director, Bea Rashid, for opening the studio doors to kids with special needs so they can experience the joy of dance.


by Laurie Levy
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