Friday, April 12, 2013

Waiting on the World to Change, Part 2

During the planning for our trip to the NRG Dance Competition in Atlanta, Hayley, Melissa and I were concerned about the reception our kids might receive in the classes that are part of the huge dance event. We debated whether we should enroll the kids in the intermediate classes, designed for kids ages 8-12, or if we should put them in the advanced classes for kids their actual ages. We worried that younger kids might be less accepting than older teens, might be more prone to stare, snicker or mock the five Project UP kids.

It was a tough call. In this dance's group of five, there are four teens with Down syndrome and one with autism. We knew that our kids were going to have a physically difficult time in either age group. They are all prone to tire easily – because of poor muscle tone, some people with Down syndrome find physical exertions to be exhausting, requiring so much more of their focus and determination than those of us who don’t have Down syndrome. I am continuously amazed by these kids’ capacity to accomplish anything and everything they are given the chance to, given how much harder they have to work to achieve the same results as us “normal” folks. With autism, there may not be as many physical difficulties to get past, but the intense mental exertion can be draining for some of our students. Both age groups would have the same level of physical demands, so what was better for our kids -  putting them with kids their own age but where we were positive they couldn’t keep up or putting them with younger kids where they would have a better chance of performing well but where they might be made to feel less welcome? We also considered how our kids would feel being with younger kids – they are teenagers and obviously would prefer to be with kids their own age. After much discussion, we decided the intermediate level was best for the kids.

Anna C, Hayley, Anna G and Katie ready to take class at NRG!
At the first class of the convention, we were hyper-vigilant, looking for any sign that any kid might do anything ungracious to one of ours. There were a few stares, a few whispers behind hands as our kids tried to master the dance combinations. Layne Giardini, big sister to Anna G. and a volunteer we could not begin to do without, started to get a bit defensive when one little girl sneered ever so slightly at one of the kids. She whispered to me, “If that little girl looks at our kids one more time, I’m going over and snatching her hair out.” I urged Layne to try not to over-react, to wait and see what would develop.

The typical kids seemed curious as they watched our kids, surprised to see kids with special needs in their class. But by the time the second class of the day began, that curiosity slowly turned into cautious sociability. I overheard typical kids say things like, “I like your dance pants,” or “Good job…you almost got that combination!” By the end of the first day of classes, there was outright enthusiasm from the majority of the 100 or so kids in the class, excitement that our kids had kept up and done their best. The next day in class, our kids were greeted with warm words of welcome and by the time the convention was over, there were hugs, Facebook friending, pictures taken and posted.

The kids performed their dance on Saturday night. When the classes resumed at 8:30 on Sunday morning, I went around the convention with a video camera. I stopped people, asked if they had seen the performance of “Waiting on the World to Change” and if they would be willing to let me videotape their reaction to the dance. The link at the bottom of this post will connect you with their comments. A few of the people who commented were affiliated with us as volunteers or their parents but the majority of people I talked to were strangers to me. Their honest reactions to seeing "Waiting on the World to Change" are proof to me that our students are changing the world, one performance at a time!

Zach, Katie, Anna C, Carolyn and Anna G with Robert Hoffman, after taking his master class at NRG Dance Project

Audience Reaction Video

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