A Continuing Journey to Autism Awareness: My Day with “A Chance to Dance” Troupe at World Dance Championships. But There is so Much More Here. By Calvin Schwartz August 10th 2017
Awareness began 17 months ago when I interviewed an executive at The Graduate School of Applied Psychology at Rutgers University. Rutgers was undertaking a program involving adult autism services. The first part would be employing special needs candidates at the university with a graduate student mentoring each person. Secondly, enrolling students that qualify and housing them in a special residential hall also with a mentoring roommate. My article from April 2016: http://bit.ly/2vtvaIr
My awareness process began. I was dispatched on a learning curve and spent time at Hope Autism Solutions in Basking Ridge. Journalism pulled me in different directions until a few months ago, when a special synchronicity put me together with Bob Salomon from ‘Beyond the Laces.’
Bob introduced me (social media) to Kimberly Pace Smith, the teacher and coach of a dance troupe in Charlotte, North Carolina called ‘A Chance to Dance;’ the group composed of ten children (six on the autism spectrum but with other special needs). What was so outstanding; ‘A Chance to Dance’ was featured on a Today Show video, which has garnered some 34 million views as I write this. Video: http://bit.ly/2hiafSj
Meanwhile, Kimberly’s dance class troupe was invited to compete in the World Dance Championships being held at the Meadowlands Expo Center here in New Jersey. Perhaps this article is an excavation into intestinal linings to find the right words to express. I was entering a special needs world; a world of love, caring, patience, relevance and determination. A journey began. People to meet and miles to drive.
A few weeks ago, we connected. I knew background info as I googled my way around ‘A Chance to Dance.’ Kimberly has a “differently-abled daughter” so with her love of dance, fierce determination to give children ways (arts) to express themselves and through ‘Reagan’s Wish,’ a charity inspired by her daughter, ‘A Chance to Dance’ became reality. Kim believes in never giving up.
I asked how the notion of competing at the World Dance Championship arrived. It was something originally out of the realm of financial practicality until “a woman handed us $10,000 and funded the whole trip.” She explained, “We’re going for two reasons. Being in Jersey at the Worlds is a bigger platform to raise awareness for special needs. And other countries will be there and children with special needs are considered less than and all kids are just as capable.”
The date for their competition was Tuesday August 1. Kim and I met in the hotel lobby at 9 AM. I was easy to spot in the lobby; my red Rutgers hat. We hugged with the emotion of first-time meeting and why we were there. Kim explained, “for the kids this is all about self-confidence and realizing social skills and that they have friends. There are ten kids-all with different special needs. Six out of ten on autism spectrum and with additional needs.” Kim also thanked the volunteers who are always there, Miss Donna’s School of Dance and the kids and parents for making this all work.
Next, Kim introduced me to Sarah Nelson Conklin, an incredibly talented freelance photographer, travelling with the dance team who were assembling in the hotel garden for a photo-op. What I noticed as the kids got ready for a group picture, was a radiant smile on all their faces.
Kim asked me to say a few words to the parents; my special journey. What I learned is that government services work for the kids until they finish 12th grade and enter adulthood. When they age out, there is little support structure. It’s like the government walks away. And parents worry about their kids. I was moved as parents came over to me, intrigued and hopeful that the initiatives I spoke about would be in place when it was time for their kids. This was their shared concern.
To the Expo center. This was the World Dance Championships. Teams began congregating in an organized assembly line starting in the lobby filled with red-carpet backdrops for photos. A Chance to Dance team posed with parents, individually and as a team, all the kids still smiling. The wait was long and tenuous until the team finally moved inside and sat near the stage. The show hall was cavernous, intimidating and frighteningly loud with a few thousand spectators. But the kids maintained composure, still smiling and some, practicing their dancing moves.
The kids were spirited as they moved into the staging areas, slowly, inexorably moving closer to their walk on stage to perform. I was part of this moment, hugely excited. And then I went introspective and realized how privileged it was to be part of this.
Backstage, I watched A Chance To Dance poised and confident. The music, ‘Singing in the Rain’ echoed and Ava strolled with her pink umbrella. They were costumed impeccably right down to the pink bows in the girl’s hair and pink ties for the boys. They were perfect. I watched Kimberly watch them on the other side of the stage. I took pictures; Kimberly’s pride and love evident.
Post-performance, the kids posed on the media platform. And then the laborious waiting for the results, first inside the hall where the kids just started to dance again, improvisational, still filled with so much energy. Kim told me that in 2015, they started A Chance To Dance, “with the seat of our pants. It took months for the kids to just trust each other and us. Then like a light switch, everything took.”
Yes, everything did take. The kids took Best Performance Award at World Dance Championships and I took home memories of one of the best days in a life. And those kids, indelible, precious and inspiring. I needed this.
FACEBOOK A CHANCE TO DANCE: https://www.facebook.com/AchancetodanceNC/