August 2011 | Smooth Sailing in the Mainstream

At Dance Innovations, special-needs children are just dancers

By Karen White

Talk to the teachers and staff at Dance Innovations, Inc. and you’ll hear the same thing over and over—“It’s our philosophy. It’s just what we do.” And while they might struggle to put that philosophy into words, the Dance Innovations program for special-needs students speaks for itself.

Dance Innovations student Lauren Muraski and classmates share their love of dance during a family fun day at a children’s hospital. (Photos courtesy Dance Innovations)

Owner Susan McCutcheon Coutts made a place for special-needs students from the day she opened her studio in Chatham, New Jersey, 23 years ago. Eighty students with challenges ranging from mild autism to dyslexia to Down syndrome are mainstreamed into regular dance classes. Some are assigned to older students who help them in class; others aren’t. They dance in the recital and a few even perform with the school’s performance teams.

“I have 29 people on staff, and everyone really believes in what we do,” says Coutts. If not, she adds, “they don’t last here very long.”

And this philosophy isn’t limited to the classroom. Dance Innovations performance groups might shine at theme parks and on cruises, or share the stage with professional dancers in performances at the Merce Cunningham Studio in New York City, but just as often they perform for severely handicapped hospital patients.

Many of their performances are fund-raisers for the school’s foundation, which over the past 11 years has granted $50,003 (as of May 26) in scholarships that allow children with special needs or who are underprivileged or struggling with abuse or neglect to pursue whatever artistic endeavor they would like. It might be photography or poetry or voice lessons—or, yes, even dance classes, sometimes at Dance Innovations, but often at another studio closer to the child’s home.

Dance Innovations doesn’t turn away any children with special needs, even if they can’t pay; Coutts will discount their tuition or provide a scholarship. Parents of other students often step forward with money for tap shoes or recital costumes. One adult special-needs student insists on paying Coutts, so she does—$1 a class.

Dance Innovations’ philosophy might be summed up this way: everyone, regardless of needs and challenges, deserves a chance to dance. For teachers like Jennifer Tondo, that’s a draw.

Tondo began teaching at Dance Innovations 16 years ago, when she was also employed at four other studios. She chooses to work exclusively at Dance Innovations. “It’s just a better philosophy here,” she says. “A lot of other teachers here have done the same thing. I felt at home here. We give to these students, and there’s such love here that it makes you want to teach here.”

Another teacher, Linda Frasciello, drives an hour to teach at Dance Innovations. “I’ve taught at other places and this is a wonderful place,” she says. “Sue will never toot her own horn because she’s very humble and a great leader, but I feel there is no other place like this.”

Owning a thriving studio with a philanthropic bent wasn’t on Coutts’ radar years ago as a student at the University of Maryland. A double major in dance and dance movement therapy, she did her postgraduate work with special-needs children and interned at a school for autistic children. “It was then that I realized I wanted to work not just in a therapy setting, but to bring it back to dance,” she says. “Still, never in a million years did I think I’d end up owning a studio.”

She started teaching dance at a Y, where she quickly became the dance director. But as her hours increased and the Y couldn’t afford to fully compensate her for her time, she left and started her studio.

From the beginning Coutts attracted special-needs students—“In my brochures my bio stated I was a movement therapist,” she says—but gave them dance therapy in individual lessons. Quickly she realized that the students “would have more fun in a supervised classroom setting,” and began mainstreaming them into regular dance classes.

Coutts says a few years passed before she was fully comfortable with the situation. “I was scared that I had to treat [the special-needs students] differently, that I couldn’t be myself with them. And I was nervous that the other students wouldn’t accept them,” she says. “It’s funny. The minute I treated them equally with the other kids, it became easy and everybody accepted it.”

Today, out of a population of 1,200 registered students, one or more special-needs students are enrolled in about 35 of the studio’s 125 classes. They can take any style they like—younger students are placed in the ballet/tap/acrobatics or ballet/tap/jazz combos, while older kids take hip-hop, lyrical, or musical theater song and dance.

Most find a style they like and stick with it, Coutts says, offering the example of one student with autism and four with Down syndrome who have been in the same lyrical jazz class for years. “One [student] has a hard time walking, but she still does the arm movements,” Coutts says. “When we do stretches on the floor, the eighth- and ninth-graders help her sit down.”

While most of the students in the lyrical jazz class are about 13, the special-needs students run a little older—one is 24, another 38. In many studios, other students and parents might shy away from this sort of class. At Dance Innovations, it’s one of the most popular, Coutts says.

 All Dance Innovations students buy into “the philosophy,” and the most advanced high school dancers act as “shadows” for the more disabled children, helping them in class or in the recital. Everyone claps when those students master a tricky move or step forward to help another across the room.

“As a mom, I think this is wonderful. In today’s society, it’s me, me, me. But these girls see kids out there with a real need and know they can help. They’re making a contribution; they’re making a difference.” —Tracy Dante

It’s an atmosphere that benefits all, Coutts says. The special-needs students enjoy the socialization of a group of peers singing “Happy Birthday” or applauding their efforts, and the rest of the students learn about helping others.

“Some schools I know do special-needs classes [instead of mainstreaming them] because they feel other students will leave,” Coutts says. “I don’t believe that. If you can focus on yourself and your technique, who cares if the person next to you can’t balance or can’t skip, but is trying as hard as they can? They’re not jeopardizing what you’re learning in the classroom.”

The teachers agree. Tondo says she teaches the same curriculum to all students, sometimes slowing it down for the special-needs students. Frasciello believes these students learn as much as the others.

Sometimes Frasciello feels the need to discuss a student’s disability with the others—like one little girl who was prone to outbursts when she became frustrated—but most of the time she doesn’t. “Kids are very accepting and in tune—often it’s the parents you have to say something to,” she says. “But anyone at the studio now knows that this is what we do.”

Stacey Merkel found her way to Dance Innovations three years ago after she tried to enroll her daughter, who has Asperger’s syndrome, in a preschool class at another school. “After one class they said she didn’t pay attention, didn’t follow directions,” Merkel says. “They said, ‘We’ll give you your money back, but this isn’t the right place for her.’ ”

After that negative experience Merkel hesitated to try dance for her daughter again, but she investigated Dance Innovations on the advice of a neighbor. “I looked up Susan’s background, called the studio, talked to teachers—I must have called them 10 times. But they answered all my questions and put my mind at ease.”

Now her daughter Eliza, 6, has advanced from being “terrified” and unable to participate in her first recital to joining the school’s Showstoppers performance group.

“Attention is an issue for her, and the teachers are really good about redirecting her. They just kind of bring her back into the lesson,” Merkel says. “This has been a positive self-esteem builder for her. She’s proud that her performing group was in The Nutcracker this year. She’s proud she’s a dancer.”

Tondo, who has no background in special-needs education, admits that teaching special children is “an adjustment.” But the teachers are able to handle the wide range of disabilities in their classes with Coutts’ help, she says. The director gives them guidelines and strategies and advises them on what to watch for in the classroom.

Tondo is so comfortable now that she’s taken on a new assignment—teaching a Thursday night dance class at the Calais School in Whippany, New Jersey, for a dozen students who are dealing with depression and anxiety. “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done,” she says. “At [Dance Innovations], I teach the performing groups, where you look at toes and fix arms. Then you have these classes [at Calais] where dance is such an outlet, and you see the smiles and they’re having such a great time. As a teacher, you take every student for what they are.”

Over the years Dance Innovations has built up relationships with schools, medical centers, nursing homes, veterans hospitals, and senior centers throughout New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The 119 dancers in Coutts’ three-tier performing program (beginner, intermediate, and advanced) give up to 50 shows a year at many of these locations, along with recitals, competitions, and a non-traditional Nutcracker. The Dance Innovations Performance Company (made up of dancers in the advanced program level) also dances at Disney (17 years running), Sea World (15 years), and Universal Studios (12 years).

Many of the shows are fund-raisers for the Dance Innovations Performance Foundation. This past May, Coutts says, 61 children received scholarships, and during the school year, 234 were given free tickets to see the school’s Nutcracker and other shows. Coutts is very proud that last spring the foundation was awarded the 2010–11 Eastern Union County YWCA Heroine Award in recognition of its dedication to helping victims of domestic violence.

Tracy Dante, who works in the studio’s office and is sponsorship liaison for the foundation, says the studio sends scholarship applications to all sorts of organizations—YMCAs and YWCAs, churches, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, schools for the deaf, foster family programs, city and county rec departments, and local public schools.

Dante’s own daughters have told her how much they enjoy dancing at nursing homes or senior centers and participating in events like a walk for breast cancer or Dance Innovations’ annual toy drive. “As a mom, I think this is wonderful,” Dante says. “In today’s society, it’s me, me, me. But these girls see kids out there with a real need and know they can help. They’re making a contribution; they’re making a difference.”

As a studio owner, Coutts had to recognize that her philosophy might not be the smartest business decision. She recalls one woman who approached her at a recital, spitting that her daughter’s dance recital “would not be jeopardized because of these students.” Although that was 15 years ago, Coutts says, she can recall the moment exactly. “And I said, ‘You need to leave this studio. This is not the right place for you.’ ”

 But Coutts has many success stories. There’s that boy who couldn’t jump at all and who used to practice before every class by holding Coutts’ hands and jumping off the stairs. Or Emma, with a myriad of physical disabilities, who made the hip-hop performing team, or the Down syndrome student who insists on tidying up the studio’s dancewear boutique.

Then there was Jessica, a student until she suffered a severe stroke at age 12. She couldn’t walk or talk, but Coutts worked with her every day and Jessica eventually returned to dance class. “I firmly believe it was the music and the dance that got her back moving, dancing, and functioning as a normal human being,” Coutts says.

Merkel would agree. She’s noticed that Eliza’s focus in the classroom setting is better when dance or music is somehow involved; her daughter’s schoolteacher even incorporates body movement when the two work together on subjects such as spelling.

“Everybody says ‘Hi’ to her,” she says of Dance Innovations. “Eliza will tell me, ‘Oh, my partner was missing today,’ which means she notices, and that’s good for her, too. She can dance here for as long as she wants to—we would never take this away.”