Jonah, a boy in my 5th grade class, was different from the other kids. He had an unusual walk and wore hearing aids and thick glasses.
One day during recess, when most kids were playing basketball, climbing on the monkey bars, or running around, a boy walked over to Jonah and shouted, “You’re such a cripple!” Jonah didn’t say anything in response, but I could sense he was upset as he walked away with his head down. The other kids laughed and buddied up with the aggressor.
Although I didn’t join in on the giggles, I stayed silent. I was unsure of what “cripple” meant, but seeing Jonah so defeated should have been enough to encourage me to stand up for him. Yet, I did not.
I went home that day and googled what that word meant on my mom’s computer. “Severely damaged,” I read. I began to piece together why Jonah was so hurt, and I planned to bring this to a teacher’s attention.
But something stopped me the next day. Was I nervous about what others would think of me? Would Jonah be mad that I got involved? Would I get bullied myself? I guess it was a mix of these things that told me to keep my mouth shut. And life went on.
Discovering Dancing Dreams
We graduated elementary school and went our separate ways to middle school. Periodically, I thought about this encounter, though, and wondered what would have happened had my behavior been different.
In 7th grade, I came across a flyer for a program called Dancing Dreams. I had been studying dance for seven years; it became a way for me to express myself. My hip-hop class enabled me to get out my aggressions and feel creative.
The flyer said, “Dancing Dreams is a nonprofit organization that provides dance classes for children with medical or physical challenges.” The organization was looking for teen helpers to be paired with dancers in the class. I was intrigued. This meant I could use my passion for dance to help other children!
Because I wasn’t yet the minimum age of 13, I wrote an email to the program coordinator explaining to her that I was “very mature for my age.” They suggested I be a “floater” for my first year, assigned to hand out props, move ballet barres, fill in for absent helpers, and other tasks. I wasn’t going to be working directly with a dancer, but in my eyes, any opportunity I had to be a part of the program was worth it.
On my first day, I walked into the brightly lit classroom and immediately heard upbeat music and the cheers of the helpers. I was assigned to the youngest age group, kids ranging from 4 to 10 years old. It was fascinating to observe how the helpers were able to assess exactly what adaptations they needed to implement to support their dancers.
Later on, I discovered that the program was created by a pediatric physical therapist after a girl with cerebral palsy said to her, “I wish I could be a dancer but nobody wants me.” I loved every minute of class, and it was so inspiring to me that one little girl’s dream was the driving force behind the creation of this organization in 2002. A class that began with just five girls has now evolved to a program with 130 dancers and 180 teen helpers across Manhattan, Queens, and Long Island.
Paired With Mia
When I reached 8th grade, I finally had the opportunity to be paired with a dancer. Mia was a 9-year-old girl born with cerebral palsy. At first, when I tried talking to Mia, she was shy and either replied in one-word answers or not at all. She got frustrated frequently and started to cry when she lost her balance. But over time, I learned how to cheer her up after a rough class.
I learned that she always wears purple; her favorite song is “Happy Birthday”; she loves getting her nails done; and she is strong-willed. Although I was her helper, it felt as though she was leading the way.
Over time, she gained trust in me and felt more confident in her own abilities. In the beginning, she would not lift a finger off the ballet barre. But as time went on, she felt comfortable enough to let me hold her up while she lifted her arms above her head. I could tell she enjoyed the freedom of being able to stand.
In 9th grade, I was paired with a boy named Isaiah, a 6-year-old. He had great style and always came to class wearing the coolest outfits. I was never given any information on Isaiah’s medical condition, though, due to privacy reasons, which frustrated me at first.
How was I supposed to help him if I couldn’t research more about his condition? Isaiah was also nonverbal, so communication was going to be difficult.
The first class I spent with him did not go as I expected. I couldn’t tell what he wanted, and I had no idea if he liked me. I remember asking Isaiah if he wanted to sit down, and he did not respond. I had to use my judgment and hope that sitting down was what Isaiah wanted to do. Although there had been formal training for helpers at the beginning of the year, I was unsure of what to do in this exact situation. I looked around the room and saw that the teacher was attending to another dancer, so I had to work this out on my own.
But once seated, Isaiah began to fuss, and I was embarrassed that I had made him uncomfortable. My experience with Mia had been so different, and I wondered if this was going to work out.
I began to doubt my abilities, and I wondered if I would be able to support him. I considered asking one of the administrators for advice, but I decided that I needed to figure this out on my own if I wanted to connect with Isaiah.
Making Progress Together
I learned through training that as Isaiah’s helper, I was supposed to lift him up and direct his arms as he danced. This was challenging at first, but during one class something changed. As I began to lift him up, he placed his pinky finger on my right hand. I thought this might be his way of saying, “You are doing this right.” It was so reassuring and comforting, and my nerves began to dissolve.
I wondered briefly if his hand placement was accidental, but something inside me made me believe that it was not. After this encounter, I became confident in my abilities to communicate with Isaiah, and he began to open up to me through his movement. He loosened his grasp on the bar and allowed me to hold his body weight as a way to show me that he trusted me.
A few months later, I had a particularly hard day at school. I forgot my math homework at home and I hadn’t done as well as I’d hoped on a history test. Later, while I was at Dancing Dreams, I spun Isaiah around in his wheelchair and he let out a little giggle.
He was a serious kid, and didn’t smile often. Seeing him so happy completely changed my mood, and I like to think this was his way of showing me that he appreciated me. I think Isaiah could sense I was having a bad day, so he adjusted his mood to make me feel better.
At first, I thought that Isaiah would never be able to communicate with me, but I have learned that this is not the case. Although Isaiah may never be able to verbally speak to me, I know he loves the feeling of a breeze on his face, hates the sound of sirens, and gets excited when people clap for him.
In one of the classes at the end of the year, one of the administrators said to me, “He looks so happy! You are a great partnership.” Hearing these words meant so much to me considering the laborious progress we had made together.
My Dancing Dreams experience has allowed me to share my love for dance with others and spread awareness in a positive way. It has also taught me to advocate for people who may not have the opportunity to advocate for themselves. I will forever cherish the experiences and friendships I’ve made at Dancing Dreams, and know I will continue to use my voice and abilities to help others.
- At first, although Maddy knows she should stand up for Jonah, she lets fear hold her back. What obstacles hold us back when we try to stand up for others? How important is it for you to push back against fear, and stand up for what you believe is right?
- Isaiah taught Maddy that there are different ways to communicate outside of speaking. As a result, their relationship grew, and Maddy was able to implement the support he needed to dance. What are things we can implement in our daily lives to make our surroundings and spaces more inclusive and accessible?
- Maddy’s experience at Dancing Dreams taught her the importance of being an ally. Maddy learned from the experiences of the kids she worked with, as well as decided to stand up and advocate for those who may need support. How can you be an ally in your community?