To Dance is to Live!

Nancy Schmotter watches with pride as her eleven-year-old daughter, Laura, uses her head to maneuver her wheelchair to the center of the dance studio and faces the mirror in preparation for her solo. "I have many dreams for Laura," Nancy says. "I want her to do and see everything she possibly can. The dream of Laura dancing is now a reality."

Laura begins to unfurl her arm for an Arabesque, her movement matching the arching phrases of the Phantom of the Opera's "Music of the Night." Suffering from severe spastic quadriparetic cerebral palsy, Laura must concentrate to control her arms. Dance teacher Nancy Raddatz gently takes Laura's arm and stretches it into position. Laura continues to extend her hand in line with her arm, giving her Arabesque a polished look. She then looks at herself in the mirror and smiles. Laura see herself as she really is--a dance embodying the music. Lightly touching Laura's elbow and wrist, and smiling encouragement, Nancy helps her maintain her pose. Then, to the final bars of "Music of the Night," Laura lowers her arm, presses her head against the back of her wheelchair, and directs her chair back to her original position in line.

It's a Saturday morning dance class at the Uniquely Abled Dance Center in West St. Paul. The mission of the Center is "to teach to the ability, not to the disability." Founder and artistic director Nancy Raddatz is working with her dancers, their parents, and their personal care attendants to express the music through the full range of movements and skills each dancer brings to the class. For most of the girls and young women of this class, "disability" means coping with cerebral palsy. For all, it means a wheelchair is necessary. The traditional elements of dance class are there: the cute choreographies, the proud parents, and the high expectations of the teacher. A poster in the studio shows Marie Verde-Fletcher, ballerina of the Cleveland Dancing Wheels Dance Company, balanced in her wheelchair and holding an Arabesque, while held high over the head of her partner. Though Nancy does not expect her students to become airborne, she continually challenges them to learn new movements and accept new challenges.

The next dance is choreographed to "The Circle of Life," and is particularly difficult; the girls have eight counts to exchange places with the dancer diagonal to them, but each girl moves at a different speed. This morning, they are up to the challenge. Marcie Johnson, twenty-one, wheels herself competently into position by the eighth count. Others have more difficulty, but all are ready by the end of the musical phrase. "Wonderful! I get goose bumps when I see how well the girls do," exclaims Nancy. Marcie overshoots her mark during the next move. Laughing at her own mistake, she comes back to the tissue on the floor--the "X" that marks the spot--and completes the move. Marcie's mother, Kathy Johnson, knows better than to offer help. "Marcie's a true teenager that way. If I try to assist, she'll say, 'I'll do it!'"

It's time to return to the starting position, again in eight counts. This time Marcie and another dancer, Katrina Mickelson, thirteen, who controls her own chair, have difficulty circling each other. They grin as they work their own way through the gridlock they've created. They don't get into place on the eighth count, but they are pleased with themselves anyway. Kathy Johnson has watched her daughter's independent attitude in dance class carry over into other areas of life. Marcie and her parents are preparing for her transition through graduation from school to life in a group home. The "I can do it" attitude is a welcome development.

Katrina, like Marcie, strives to be independent of her mother. When the Mickelsons started attending classes at the Center, Katrina insisted that her mother stay in the bathroom adjacent to the studio. As she gained confidence, she allowed her mother to return from exile. Still, if Katrina needs assistance, it's her sister Megan who must step in. Today, Megan is helping Katrina with her leg movements; she acts as her dance partner in "The Circle of Life." During the break between songs, Megan kneels in front of Katrina and they talk in soft voices, exchanging smiles. Meg adjusts her sister's hair for her, then together they are poised for the next dance.

This morning's session, along with the Center's classes for students with a wide range of disabilities (including deafness, blindness, and Down's Syndrome), are Nancy's gift to the dancers and their families; all of the classes at the Uniquely Abled Dance Center are free. One mother explains, "There are so many expenses when you have a child with a disability, especially medical. To have someone offer something for free is unheard of, and we appreciate it. Nancy is wonderful."

Nancy has been teaching dance for fifty years, and working with dancers with disabilities for forty. Committed to making dance accessible to all, she began by accepting a deaf student into her regular classes. Immediately recognizing an enormous need for what she calls "adaptive" dance instruction, Nancy purchased her uncle's sheet-metal shop and remodeled it into a wheelchair-accessible dance studio at her own expense. She has taken classes at the Fairibault School for the Blind, and attended numerous conferences and classes. A popular guest teacher throughout the United States, Nancy has traveled extensively to provide teacher training and choreography assistance for New York's Theater of the Deaf, the Guthrie, and other theatres. Though there are now a handful of classes in the United States accommodating disabled students, she maintains the only dance studio dedicated to student with disabilities, and is the only teacher who doesn't charge. Her students range in age from eight to ninety, and they study all forms of dance including jazz, tap, ballroom, and classical ballet.

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