Nfld. & Labrador

These dance classes for everyone are 'the best place to be'

Breaking down barriers one count of eight at a time, a dance studio in Mount Pearl is giving students of differing abilities the opportunity to shine in new adaptive classes.

The beaming smiles are contagious at new adaptive dance classes in Mount Pearl

Dancers kick up a storm in the adaptive dance class for students with Down syndrome at Steffen Dance Studio in Mount Pearl. (Meghan McCabe/CBC)

A young girl wearing a bright purple bodysuit and black tutu with rainbow sparkles grins as she comes through the door of Steffen Dance Studio one Friday night. 

Excited for her weekly dance class, Claire McDonald is like any other child who loves to dance. She just does it from a wheelchair. 

"Claire is 9½, she has cerebral palsy, she has a severe seizure disorder, so she has epilepsy, she has autism — and that's just a few of her conditions!" her mom Jeanine McDonald says with a laugh. 

Claire and her classmates are more interested in dancing than talking, so they set to work in class while their proud parents watch through a window into the Mount Pearl dance studio. 

Students warm up in a circle with their teacher and two volunteers at the class for kids with physical disabilities. (Mike Simms/CBC)

"We get to sit outside and watch her, rather than — as a special-needs parent, we always have a tendency to take part in everything, birthday parties. Now we get to sit behind and watch her be independent, which is fantastic," says McDonald. 

McDonald and her husband Barry say these new adaptive dance classes are the first activity Claire has done outside Easter Seals, and there's something special about that.

"She's a little girl who wants to be dancing, but we've never found the opportunity to be able to put her in something that she can do things at her own pace and her own ability," says McDonald.

Barry and Jeanine McDonald say they appreciate getting to sit outside and watch their daughter Claire be independent in her dance class. (Meghan McCabe/CBC)

Plus "it pulls on the heartstrings, big time," to see more places willing to open up for kids like Claire, and for an activity that doesn't require expensive equipment. 

"It's hard to see her not being able to do what other kids can do. And now she can just come in her regular wheelchair, and take part in something that is typical of every other kid who wants to take part in dance," says McDonald. 

"Or have fun and dress in a little tutu, and just be a regular little girl."

'It means the world to me'

After the class for dancers with physical limitations, there's one for those with Down syndrome. 

Michael Robson says his adaptive dance class for people like him with Down syndrome is 'so much fun!' (Meghan McCabe/CBC)

"The best place to be is here, dancing, and it's so much fun, dancing with all my friends and having a really good time. And of course Miss Hilary is the most awesomest teacher ever, and we love her to the moon and back," says Michael Robson, 31. 

Dancing is his life, with music by Abba, Selena Gomez and — his favourite — Lady Gaga inspiring him every day. 

"It means the world to me, I love dancing here!" Robson says with a smile so radiant it could bowl you over. 

"Miss Hilary" is teacher Hilary Walsh, a longtime dancer, teacher, and newly graduated occupational therapist. 

Hilary Walsh is an occupational therapist and longtime dance teacher who is spearheading a new adaptive dance program at Steffen Dance Studio in Mount Pearl. (Meghan McCabe/CBC)

"No matter what, if you can move to music, that is dance. And for me, to bring it to different populations who might not get the dance studio experience, it just makes my heart really warm and it's something I've wanted to do for a really long time," Walsh says of the new adaptive dance program. 

"Mainly the difference is that I structure it so that dancers can feel success with kind of everything that they do. So it might mean, for some groups, making things very step by step. For some it might be using a visual schedule, for others it might be doing the dance seated," she explained.

Get an inside look at the adaptive dance classes here: 

The beaming smiles are contagious at these new adaptive dance classes. 2:05

"So it looks a little bit different than a regular dance class, but we adapt to the needs of the people in our class."

That's the fundamental goal of the program, says studio owner Marie Steffen.

"It's wonderful. What I most wanted was to have the children come in and just be part of our dance studio, just the same as everyone else. I wanted the parents to be able to sit outside and look through the windows and see their children dance and enjoy the class," says Steffen. 

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About the Author

Meghan McCabe is a journalist who works with CBC News in St. John's.