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D Is for Dance

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And for dancers with Down syndrome, it stands for dreams come true

By Karen White

At first glance, there’s no mystery to the “d” in “Company d.” It stands for dance, or maybe for Darlene Winters, the speech therapist and lifelong dancer who founded the group nine years ago. Learn a bit more, and you might think it refers to Down syndrome. Perhaps. But anyone looking to describe these dancers with another “d” word—disabled—would be very, very wrong.

"I feel my heart as I dance inside my soul," says Kenny Thielemier (Photo courtesy Darlene Winters)

“All the things ‘d’ stands for—drive, drama, determination—there’s a multitude of possibilities,” says Nancy Thielemier, mother of veteran company member Kenny Thielemier. “If you dwell on what [these dancers] could have been, that doesn’t get you anywhere. Darlene has shown what they can do.”

And what can a company of dancers born with Down syndrome do? How about move an audience of 100 hardened New Yorkers to tears? Learn and retain a performance repertory of modern, jazz, and lyrical dances? Commit and keep to a twice-weekly class and rehearsal schedule with performances once a month? Deal like professionals with technical snafus or unfamiliar dance spaces? Take class alongside Liza Minnelli (who was so moved that she jumped up and sang “New York, New York” right on the spot)? Never mind making friends, creating art, walking tall. Dreaming. Inspiring. “I feel my heart as I dance inside my soul,” says Kenny Thielemier.

“They’ve taught me to have more patience and more understanding of how to get through to students,” master teacher Francis Roach of Luigi’s Jazz Centre in New York City says. “I just fell in love with them, and I think the feeling is mutual.”

None of this comes easily—not to the dancers, struggling with communication and social and physical challenges; not to their parents, often overwhelmed with raising a special-needs child; and not to Winters, who handles the entire load of teaching, choreographing, coordinating, and networking needed to keep the company going.

“The biggest question I get from people is, ‘How did you get started?’ ” Winters says. “Where did you come from to get to this spot in life? Well, it’s been a journey.”

The journey began when Winters, a speech language pathologist, began to notice how integrating music and the arts into her work with special-needs students at a private school got results. One day her boss, a Benedictine nun, proposed a hefty challenge: “You like dancing—why don’t you do The Nutcracker for Christmas?”

That was the beginning. Winters started teaching ballet and jazz to her charges, putting on dance productions. She began coordinating with the Memphis Arts Council, creating cross-curriculums with public school teachers, sharing dance with any and all special-needs populations. When the Memphis Early Intervention program wanted a special show to mark the 15th anniversary of its Special Kids and Families program, which assists Down syndrome children from birth to age 3, it approached Winters. Winters took five of the program’s first graduates (now all 15 years old) and taught them a dance to “Night Fever.” It was a smash, and Company d was born.

“[The dance] was so simple, yet after it was over, I said to the parents, ‘I want to keep doing this. Just tell me where and when,’ ” Winters says. “It was one of those things like breathing. I couldn’t wait to start class with those kids.”

Those original five are still with Winters and have been joined by nine other senior company members, all between the ages of 18 and 32, plus 10 apprentices in their mid-teens. All sign commitment contracts, take class, and learn choreography every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m., and they put in extra hours to prep for performances.

About once a month the company dances publicly, whether it’s a low-key show at a senior citizens center or a performance for an audience of 600 at the National Down Syndrome Conference. They’ve headlined Diversity Day at the Fed Ex national headquarters in Memphis and hoofed through their own 25-minute show at Dollywood. The summer of 2008 marked the company’s New York “tour,” with classes at Luigi’s, a performance in an off-Broadway theater, sightseeing and—of course—hobnobbing with Liza.

Roach, who travels the world teaching the Luigi method, remembers the day Winters asked if he would come to Memphis. Her dancers couldn’t seem to focus on any warm-up she had tried, from ballet to jazz to modern. After taking a class at Luigi’s, Winters had realized the holistic and therapeutic approach of his method might work with her company. Roach agreed.

“I was concerned about their range of mobility, but they were heartened by the set technique,” said Roach, who spent an entire week in Memphis. “They got the repetitions, which allowed them to learn and re-learn.”

Many challenges remained. Most dancers had limited stamina, muscle weaknesses, and trouble jumping and transferring weight. Long before tendus or pliés, Winters concentrated on moving through space and creative movement, locomotion, and rhythm. Today, a lesson might draw from numerous traditional dance techniques as well as yoga, improvisation, or percussion study. In addition, some dancers could not take their eyes off the floor or were shy and withdrawn, unable to focus, or moody. Winters had to find a way to communicate with and encourage each dancer. Moving together, remembering choreography, spatial awareness—each hurdle was set particularly high.

She has responded by setting her own developmental goals for each piece, whether technical or artistic. She completes the choreography first, then backtracks, determining which skills her dancers will need to make that choreography happen.

“They’ve taught me to have more patience and more understanding of how to get through to students. I just fell in love with them, and I think the feeling is mutual.” —Francis Roach, Luigi’s Jazz Centre

And it does happen. From that first “Night Fever,” when parents thrilled to see all six dancers point their index fingers to the sky at the same time, Winters has filled the company’s repertory with technically challenging, mature choreography. “The Prayer” is a lyrical ballet incorporating sign language; Elvis’ “A Little Less Conversation” is a spicy jazz piece; “Canon in D” is based on classical ballet.

Peter Barton, a New York City–based documentary filmmaker, features the company’s dance to West Side Story’s haunting “Somewhere” in his film Determined to Dance. As he cuts from interviews in which the dancers talk about their sometimes painful life experiences to their heartfelt dance, he almost defies viewers to make it through the video without sobbing.

 “There is a preconception [about people] with Down syndrome that they are not really sharp, but these dancers are able to put on their stage face and project confidence,” says Barton, who spent two summers filming and interviewing dancers and family members. “I wanted to focus on the trajectory of the struggle of mastery for them, to see how they work together and see what their secret is.”

The secret is that Winters doesn’t believe in the limitations society has set for her dancers. “I wish I had a dime for everyone who’s said, ‘I didn’t know people with Down syndrome could do this,’ ” Nancy Thielemier says. “Darlene puts no limit on their abilities. If they’re whining or they don’t feel good, she says, ‘Too bad! Get out there!’ She inspires them to do their best.”

Thielemier recalls the difficult days of Kenny’s birth, of the family members who questioned her decision to have the child, of the medical professionals who said, “Don’t expect much.” Today her son dances downstage center and confidently connects with the audience. He is a vital member of a loving, supportive dance team, follows a full weekly schedule of work and activities, and wants to be a weatherman. He can also look a waitress in the eye and order his own meal—something his mother did for him for years.

While some Down syndrome individuals tend to duck their heads when they speak, Thielemier says, Winters makes the dancers look up when they speak to her. “It really defies description, all the good this has done,” she says.

Winters has set a goal for audiences, as well: to open their eyes. “Seeing ‘disabled’ individuals doing something they never expected them to do—it’s like pulling down a wall,” she says.

Each summer, Company d attends a two-week summer intensive at the Hutchison School in Memphis, a four-year college prep program for girls, assisted by students from the school’s Center for Excellence Leadership Institute. “I’m learning so much from them and their outlook on life,” Mary Aubrey Landrum, a Company d volunteer intern for four years, says. “If they mess up or forget a step, it doesn’t matter. They have such a positive attitude and are so willing to learn.”

Company d has so touched her life that Landrum, an accomplished harpist, invited the dancers to perform during her solo in a senior concert recital in April. “They are working on a dance right now,” said Landrum last winter, admitting she anticipated that the dancers just might steal the show. “I am so excited—I will remember this forever.”

Every time Company d performs at Hutchison, whether it’s a number from their repertoire, a work in progress, or even a section of their Luigi warm-up, it ends with a standing ovation. “Company d is very inspirational to watch as an audience member,” says Tracey Ford, director of Hutchison Center for Excellence. “They have a very high quality of work and you become very emotionally attached to the dancers.”

Ford, who has worked in the Memphis arts community with Winters for years, has high praise for the artistic director. Winters not only works tirelessly with the Company d dancers and their families, Ford says, but is a wonderful liaison between master teachers in the arts community and the local special-needs population. The fact that Winters could convince someone of the caliber of Francis Roach to work with the company “speaks volumes about the quality of the program and the importance of what she’s doing.”

“I think Darlene is a saint,” says Roach. “In the two and a half years I have known her, she is tireless, constantly thinking of what will be good for this company. She has an obsession to help, and I mean that in the very best way.”

But Winters wants to talk only about her dancers. She tells of one man who danced for three years with his eyes shut, but now lifts his head and shines his beautiful blue eyes over the audience. Or how the dancers stood patiently and calmly at the beginning of one show when a technician messed up the music. How dancers who never said a peep now start conversations. How they walk with confidence into a new venue. How they have dreams of being cosmetologists, or chefs, or photographers.

As a child Winters spent endless hours with one best friend. She had known the girl for eight years before she found out she had a sister with Down syndrome. But in Company d, no one is hiding.

“Life is rough for these folks,” Barton says. “With Company d they are saying, ‘See me.’ They communicate through their dance. Lots of dancers strive to be abstract and show their bodies. Darlene lets Company d show their feelings, lets them be dramatic, lets their facial expressions speak.”

“I want them to understand that they’re artists. They don’t just get audience response because they’re special-needs [dancers],” Winters says. “I’ve done my best to develop them to be appreciated for their abilities. When you see them dance, what you see are dancers.”

To watch Peter Barton’s documentary Determined to Dance, visit blip.tv/file/2498724. Have tissues handy.

Tips for Teaching Dance to Special-Needs Children
By Colleen Snyder, MA, LCAT, BC-DMT, NCC

Few things in life are as rewarding as seeing the joy of movement on a student’s face. Even more exciting is when that student has a limitation and you helped her use her body in a creative and functional way. With the rise in the number of children diagnosed with developmental disorders, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and chromosomal disorders, dance teachers are being asked to welcome these children into their classrooms. Here are tips to consider if you take on the challenge.

  1. Be flexible. Special-needs classes may not look like other classes. You may play catch more frequently than practice pliés, and improvisation may be more interesting than any movement vocabulary you introduce.
  2. Consider hiring a pro. While you might want to teach the class, offering dance to special-needs children is not as simple as the altruistic desire to do so. A special-education teacher with a dance background or a dance/movement therapist may have a better understanding of their needs.
  3. Consider the diagnosis. Not all special-needs children fall under the same umbrella when you’re putting together a class. A high-functioning child with Asperger’s syndrome or Down syndrome may be able to keep up in a typical class for the first few years. A low-functioning child with autism may get more out of a class with a small group of 3 to 6 children with similar diagnoses.
  4. The more severe the social impairment, the smaller the class size should be. Keep classes short. Start off with 30 minutes and increase class length as the children gain experience and feel comfortable in the setting.
  5. Use props. Safe, colorful props can stimulate creativity and offer a means of connecting. Sharing a prop with a peer or a teacher is a social experience that could be a new achievement for some students.
  6. Get help. Whether you invite volunteers from the community or offer the position to older students as a community-service opportunity, have an extra set of eyes and hands available during your lesson.
  7. Rely on repetition. A predictable class will create a sense of comfort. Begin and end the class in the same way every week.
  8. Do not rule out the wheelchair. Children in wheelchairs want to move too. Even if they cannot physically participate, they will internalize the rhythms and breath of the movement. Classes with all wheelchair-bound participants can choreograph and perform their own recital pieces using the wheelchair as part of their bodies.
  9. Mainstreaming may work. If you place students by development rather than age, even low-functioning children may find success in a typical class. Assign an assistant to attend to their needs and escort them out for a break when necessary.
  10. Forget the aesthetics. When a child with special needs comes into class, it is about how the movement feels, not how it looks. The goal is not to make a perfect shuffle. It is about how that shuffle feels and the sound it makes. It is not the technique of jumping but learning to get off the floor and the feeling of rising into the air and then landing.
  11. Have clear limits. Know what you are capable of handling. Some children with special needs are not capable of being in a social environment. Some disorders can result in aggressive behaviors. These children are best served in a school or recreational facility that specializes in meeting their needs.
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