Challenged dancers with beautiful dreams

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Sometimes dreams can be simple: To stand in ballet slippers, arch an arm gracefully, or wear a pink tutu on stage. Another fantasy might be as simple as being able to stand—for just a moment—and realize a dream of another kind: to be like everyone else.

A new program on the East End aims to make these dreams come true by bringing a ballet program to the physically challenged this summer. Dancing Dreams lets girls and boys have the experience of being effortlessly suspended and feeling graceful while learning the basic elements of dance. The program, which has been running in Bayside, Queens, since 2002, will be offered at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor on Saturdays from June 28 to August 23. Registration is open through May 21.

“These girls had a dream to become a ballerina and my dream was to help them live their dream,” said program founder and leader Joann Ferrara. “The program is about dreams and making them come true.”

Dancing Dreams has been featured on “The Today Show,” the CBS “Early Show,” and Fox News. Features on the program have been published by Ladies Home Journal, People magazine, The New York Times, and Women’s World.

Dancing Dreams has drawn accolades from students, parents, and those who witness the triumphs on stage when the disabled girls slip on pink tutus and apply glittery make-up to show off their moves. Those moves might be as simple as a wave of pointed toes, a twirl with the help of an assistant or showing off new physical dexterity. Even legs locked in braces worn over tights, or breathing tubes protruding above pink bodysuits don’t warrant a second glance when the group performs in time to dance music.

Helping the girls live their dreams is Ms. Ferrara, a pediatric physical therapist who witnessed firsthand how her female patients longed to do the same things their classmates or sisters were doing: go to dance classes and be in a dance recital. As a former gymnast who took up ballet as an adult, she understood the girls’ desire. And she decided to do something about it.

Starting with four of her young patients, Ms. Ferrara matched them with four teenage volunteers. She trained the teenagers to work with “their” ballerinas so the children could do their best in executing basic ballet movements. The teenagers are taught how to lift the young girls, many of whom are wheelchair bound, and hold them while they do twirls or pliés or other dance moves.

The helpers hold the girls for 10 to 15 minutes, or until their arms are too tired, and then they sit on the floor with the students on their laps and help them learn other moves there. Afterward, the students and helpers face the barre and practice some more.

The program has grown by leaps and bounds, expanding from four students to 28 kids. Their ages range from 3 to 16, and this year’s sign-ups in Bayside have added a few boys to the roster. While students don’t have to be able to walk or move their arms, they have to be able to follow directions, Ms. Ferrara said.

The program made its way to Sag Harbor through a newly-published book and BookHampton. The book, “Ballerina Dreams,” featured five students from Ms. Ferrara’s program as they learned how to dance and perform on stage. Written by Lauren Thompson and Ms. Ferrara with photography by James Estrin, it was named a 2007 Notable Book for Young People by the Association for Library Service for Children and won the Bank Street Nonfiction Book Award.

Staffers at BookHampton in Sag Harbor suggested to Ms. Ferrara—who has a home in Sag Harbor—that she participate in The Ross School Book Sale. The book, published by Feiwel & Friends and released in 2007, is geared for readers 4 to 8 years old. While there, Ms. Ferrara sat beside Julie Andrews Edwards and her daughter, Emma Walton, who were presenting children’s books they co-authored.

Ms. Walton, a Bay Street co-founder and director of education and programming for young audiences at the theater, suggested that the Dancing Dreams program might be a fit for Bay Street, Ms. Ferrara said.

Several meetings later, the inaugural Dancing Dreams East End program, co-sponsored by The Ross School, was set to be held at Bay Street on Saturdays from 9 to 10 a.m. from June 28 through August 23. A performance is planned to celebrate the students’ hard work and achievements. The program fee is $250.

Several teenage students from The Ross School have already expressed interest in volunteering as student helpers, Ms. Ferrara said. Any East End students 14 or older who are interested in helping the children learn how to dance are encouraged to contact Bay Street.

Besides providing the chance for 
physically and otherwise medically 
challenged children to learn to dance, the program gives the students a reason to smile and celebrate the fact 
they can be no different from other children without disabilities, Ms. Ferrara said.

“Dancing Dreams is based on abilities—not disabilities—and allows each dancer to progress within her own limits and maximize her own potential,” Ms. Ferrara said. “It’s an incredible experience to watch these girls become ballerinas and get to do something that all the other kids get to do—go to dance class. There’s nothing better than to watch the smiles on their faces and the joy they all have.”

To register for Dancing Dreams, call the Bay Street Theatre education office at 725-0818, ext. 12. Information on Dancing Dreams can be found at www.dancingdreams.org.

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