Sunday, October 14, 2012

State Dance Champions

Last March, we chartered a bus and traveled to Bessemer, where Project UP's junior and senior companies participated in a dance competition. They were the only competitors who had special needs - or should I say they were the only competitors who had obvious special needs, since we've already established, thanks to Abbey, that everyone has special needs.

Abbey playing drums during summer camp
At any rate, there were a couple hundred dance studios from across the state who entered in this competition, where they were being judged on everything from the originality of their choreography to their costumes and of course, on their execution, training and precision as they performed their numbers. There was an astounding amount of young talent in the large auditorium where the competition was held, and hundreds of people there to support the competitors.

Project UP's junior company entered a jazz dance number. There were 8 girls in the piece, aged 13-15, several of them new to our programs and not experienced in performing in front of a large audience. The veterans of the group kept the newcomers calm as they prepared to perform. But there was one glitch that had us all worried. Because of the set up of the auditorium, there was no place for Hayley to stand so that she could cue and direct the kids. Normally, Hayley finds a place in front of the kids so that she can offer them direction, remind them of upcoming changes in formation and, in general, give them the support they need to remember their dances. But at this huge competition, there was no way for her to be positioned anywhere that would allow the kids to see her. They were on their own - completely - for the first time ever.

Hayley helping the kids on stage during rehearsals
They took the stage with tentative grins on their faces. By the second 8-count, we could tell they had found their rhythm and were "killing it." As they progressed through the choreography, we could see their confidence take over and saw them do the routine to perfection, never missing a cue or a step. All of us were blown away by their performance. A spontaneous standing ovation broke out in the audience, with the loudest cheering I've ever heard at one of these competitions - and believe me, people cheer loudly for their kids at these events. But the applause for our kids was the loudest, most genuine and most inspired cheering I've ever experienced.

As the kids exited the stage, Anna G. collapsed in her mothers arms, sobbing inconsolably. We all feared something had happened, like an injury, because of the way Anna G. was crying. We all kept asking her what was wrong and when she finally could breathe enough to tell us what was the matter, here's what she said: "I'm just so happy. We did it."

Anna C. Katie and Anna G. clowning around
Of course, every one of us broke down at that moment too. Anna G. stated something profound in those two little sentences. She was just so happy that she had conquered a challenge, risen to the occasion and for the first time ever, performed a dance number with no assistance from her teacher. She was proud of herself, proud of her team and relieved that they had accomplished something so huge. That was a moment that I will never forget.

Together, the Junior and Senior Companies performed another number and received the same support and enthusiasm from the audience. And then it was time for the awards.

At a dance competition, all the participants are called on stage and the MC announces the winners in each of the categories. I was proud enough just to see our kids sitting on stage, surrounded by typical dancers - "normal" kids who are able to dance without the barriers our kids have to overcome. And then the unthinkable happened. Both of our dance numbers received platinum awards - the highest award given based on the judges exacting scores. But even better than that, the Junior Company's dance won first place overall in its division, beating out several other "typical" dance studios to claim the top prize.

Usually, when a winner's name is called at a dance competition, there is polite applause from the other competitors on stage. These are, after all, competitions, and dancers are highly competitive folks! But when Project UP's Junior Company was named the overall winner, the other dancers on stage applauded with an enthusiasm they would normally reserve for their own dance studios. They extended high-fives and fist-pumps to our kids and some of them even stood up, to join the audience in the standing ovation that the audience was giving. Alan and I were so emotional, we couldn't even look at each other or we would have gone into what Oprah calls "The Ugly Cry!"

After the competition, we went as a group to a restaurant in Bessemer, the oldest restaurant in Jefferson County with an extensive menu, white tablecloths and in general, is a lovely dining experience. They have private banquet rooms and we had reserved one for our group of about 60 kids, parents and volunteers. I saw a look of trepidation on the head waitress' face when she saw us - all these people, with 20+ kids with special needs can appear to be a tall order to fill! The kids all wanted to sit at their own table, without their parents, and even I was a bit nervous at how that would go. Many of our kids are either non-verbal or have speech impediments that make it difficult to understand what they are saying. The kids refused to let their parents help them order and only reluctantly agreed to allow me to help when the waitress came to their table. Each child politely said what they wanted to eat, thanked the waitress for taking their orders and patiently waited their turn. When all the orders were placed, I left them alone at their table, watching to see if any antics or problems might develop.

Now, I've taken a lot of teenagers out to a lot of restaurants in my day - I have two kids of my own and was always the mom who would end up taking everyone's kids out to eat after events. I have never seen a more well-behaved group of young people in my life. Sure, there was some loud laughter, some bathroom humor, some friendly teasing of each other. But not one kid got up from their seat, not one kid failed to put their napkins in their laps or use their utensils (most of my kid's friends would tear into their food like neanderthals when eating out, would cause problems for the wait staff, make impossible and rude demands and, in general, act like teenagers when I took them out to eat).

When we left, Alan approached the head waitress and thanked her for her patience with our large group. She looked at him, with tears streaming down her cheeks, and said, "No, we thank you. We have been blessed more than you will ever know by meeting these kids and waiting on them today."

Our kids beat the odds every day. They overcome challenges, step over hurdles, charge through barriers everywhere they go. What it takes for them to navigate the world, what resources they have to draw from just to do things the rest of us take for granted, is inspiring and amazing to me. And every time someone else meets them, sees them perform, or has an interaction with them, hearts and minds are changed and stereotypes are erased. To play a role in facilitating that is the greatest blessing I have ever received.

So, here's to champions everywhere! True champions are people who work hard to accomplish a goal, dedicate themselves to perfecting their skills, accept victory with humility and defeat without bitterness. And I've never met any greater champions than the kids in Project UP!

First Place Overall Winners at Alabama State Dance Championships, March 2012

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