Everybody dance now

Tara
Tara Bradbury
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Easter Seals camp dance program a hit

By Tara Bradbury

The Telegram

The smile on the little girl’s face is infectious. Sitting in her wheelchair, five tiny painted toenails peeking out from a cast, she claps her hands to the beat of the music and turns her doll-like face to the sky, grinning in delight.

She’s dancing — maybe not the way a person without any physical limitations might, but she’s got all the grace of a little ballerina.

“So much of creating involves, whether you’re able-bodied or not, adapting to your strengths and your particular way that your body moves, and that’s across the board, whether you have physical limitations or not,” explains her dance teacher, Corie Harnett. “Knowing the way your body wants to express is a good thing.”

Harnett is a native of Toronto and a multi-disciplinary artist, with a background in improv, physical theatre and dance, and a speciality in Afro/Latin choreography. For the past eight weeks, she’s been teaching dance to the 30 or so participants of Easter Seals day camp.

The participants range in age from six to 23 years, and also vary when it comes to their physical ability: while many are in wheelchairs, some use crutches or walkers, or nothing at all. All are there to have fun in a supportive environment where their disabilities disappear.

“Different campers have come to me and said, ‘I don’t have a lot of friends in school, I don’t have a lot of friends in the neighbourhood. When I come to Easter Seals, I’m one of everybody,’” said Eileen Bartlett, Easter Seals’ director of programs. “While we have a wheelchair basketball program and a rock climbing wall, we need to get the balance of interests for everybody. Somebody may be more artistically inclined but (still) getting physical activity from dance.”

This is the first year Easter Seals has offered dance as part of its summer camp program, and it’s not just the artistically inclined participants who enjoyed it.

Harnett, who has extensive experience working as a dance teacher with those with special needs, has formed an obvious bond with the campers, and has come up with a program to suit everybody.

She starts by asking them to come up with a simple beat, tapping it out with their hands or feet or by nodding their head or wiggling their eyebrows, then sets it to music.

Together, she and her students have come up with a hip-hop choreography they are quick to demonstrate. They move to a salsa beat and even form a conga line to a Gloria Estefan song, going up the hallway at Husky Energy Easter Seals House and back again.

“With people with disabilities, I think it’s often a perception — and it’s not always held among people with disabilities as much as in the general community — that dancing is just not an option if you’re a wheelchair user,” Harnett said. “I feel like getting away from that mentality. Bodies want to move, they just do, so whatever parts are accessible to you to move, the benefits of that are tremendous. So many things are dancing and choreography that seem very pedestrian to the masses but it’s actually food for creative movement.”

Harnett keeps the structure of her classes very open-ended, ensuring to always give her students choices when it comes to movement. They can choose to all-out dance, or just move their eyeballs, if they want. It’s good from a creative standpoint to let people come up with their own ways of expression, she said, and people tend to invest more in the action when they can customize it. Besides that, there are great self-esteem benefits to allowing creative freedom in a semi-structured environment, and both Harnett and Bartlett say they have witnessed that first-hand over the last two months. Some students began the class with trepidation, tentative to get silly. Over time, they became brave, Harnett said, making suggestions and claiming movements for their own.

“I saw different levels of energy and they crossed a threshold,” Bartlett explained. “You could see from the first week to the eighth week how they became more involved and how they increased their comfort level.”

Harnett also insists on taking a process-based approach to teaching, as opposed to being result-driven.

“I enjoy meeting participants where they are and embracing their individual differences as gifts to the process of creation,” she said. “When students have the sense that their own unique talents are of value, they then become personally invested in the creative journey being embarked upon by the group.”

The benefits of dance are plentiful, Harnett said. Along with exercise and self-esteem components, participants develop greater kinesthetic awareness as well as a sense of rhythm and musicality. According to the Dana Foundation, a New York-based philanthropic organization dedicated to supporting brain research, dance can benefit children’s abilities to learn new information by stimulating visual, auditory and memory centres of the brain.

Fourteen-year-old Abby Quigley of St. John’s, whose mom, Lori Savory, is also a dance teacher, said just being around Harnett made her smile.

Her favourite part of the classes were the different kinds of movements learned.

“Kids with disabilities have exactly the same dreams as everyone else,” said Abby, who is this year’s Easter Seals ambassador. “We can basically do anything we put our mind to.”

Easter Seals day camp is now over for the season and Harnett’s class is over for now. She’s in talks with Easter Seals about returning next summer.

tbradbury@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Husky Energy Easter Seals House, Dana Foundation

Geographic location: Toronto

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