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.

The girls on the dance floor, laughing and giving each other gentle high fives, aren't the only ones who benefit from the classes. The families enjoy the camaraderie and support they find at the studio. Kathy Johnson often finds herself isolated. "Sometimes I don't even talk much to parents of 'normal' children. You don't have much in common. Here, we can talk about what's helped, what is going right, and gripe about the things that go wrong."

The parents talk and laugh, a lot. Laughter has been the counterpoint accompaniment through most of this morning's lesson, and continues between the dances. Nancy is unable to cue up the next song, a polka. A mom begins to clap in three-quarter time, and sings "Beer Barrel Polka." The other mothers join in. The dancers are game--they begin circling their chairs, readily forgiving their percussionists for dropping beats due to giggling.

The next song is "Tubthumper" by Chumbawumba. The energy level goes up a notch. This is an aerobic workout for the attendants and parents, who must quickly get the chairs around the floor to the song's pulsing beat. In theory, the girls' job is to use their arms to complete the moves, but often, they just squeal and laugh. They're going fast now and savoring every spin and turn. Jenna Johnson, sixteen, is propelled by her father Greg. Jenna knows the dance well and has her arm out ready to form a star in the middle with the other dancers while the parents push the chairs around in a circle. It's a square-dance move time-traveling neatly into a nineties pop song. The dancers change direction. There's a near-miss between Marcie and Jenna. "Bumpercars!" yells a mother. The girls continue to squeal delightedly. The attendants are puffing now, and are relieved when "Tubthumper" ends and the "Macarena" starts.

"Macarena" emphasizes arm movement; parents and attendants can rest while the girls continue. The dancers are now facing themselves in the mirror while Nancy leads them. She instructs, encourages, and praises each step. All choreographies for this class emphasize forward and back motions. Any side-to-side movement might throw off the dancer's precarious equilibrium. A fiercely independent student is having difficulty. Cerebral palsy makes the wrist rotation required to stretch an arm out with the palms up a demanding task requiring concentration and strength. "Here," Nancy says. "Let's show the others how it is done." The young dancer, feeling that she is now contributing to the class, allows Nancy to help her move her arms, her frustration lessening visibly.

Mothers are now busily comparing calendars, trying to set a time for the next dance class. Their schedules are already full of doctor appointments and physical therapy dates as well as events involving their other children. But all find time for dance, with some families driving in from Stillwater for the twice-monthly class. For Kathy Johnson, taking her daughter to dance class gives a sense of normalcy. "Other parents are taking their children to lessons. I want that opportunity too," she says. For Marcie, who enjoys watching and dancing along to videotapes of the class at home, it is a chance to see friends and participate in one of the few activities open to her. Marie Anderson, whose sixteen-year-old daughter Nicky often arrives with a new hair color and nails painted to match, notes that the opportunities for her energetic daughter are limited. "Nicky would have been one of those kids who was in every activity if she hadn't been affected by cerebral palsy."

Students who are disabled and those who aren't work in cooperative learning groups. Learning about each other's lives is an important part of the class. Nicky smiles broadly when she talks about last year's recital. "I took the videotape to my class. None of the other students had seen people in wheelchairs dance. I was very proud."  

"Nicky's a performer at heart," says Marie. "It's what every child should have--the opportunity to experience the sheer joy of movement."

Carstens Smith is a long-time contributor to Minnesota Parent, and a lover of dance. She recently survived a local move and found the time to share this story with us and our readers. We thank her.

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