Sunday, October 3, 2010

Florida teen with Down syndrome makes a name as dancer, model

From The Tampa Tribune:

TAMPA, Fla. - When Thalia Yvanna Arbelaez Garcia (pictured) was born, doctors told her parents that she likely would live just six months. And if she lived longer, she certainly would never walk. Now, 18 years later, few live a fuller life than Thalia.

Thalia is a dance student at the Patel Conservatory and is being recognized internationally for her dancing and modeling accomplishments. Next month, Thalia will dance in Argentina and model in Denver. She has big dreams of performing and her parents have worked hard not to let her Down syndrome get in the way.

"I dance," Thalia said, "I feel so happy when I dance."

When Thalia was born, her mother was told she may never walk, but at the age of 2, she started dancing. Now, dancing has become a major part of her life. For her, dancing makes her feel alive and every time she puts effort into doing it, said her mom, Alicia, it's like a shining example for those around her.

For other children with Down syndrome, her mom said, Thalia "projects a beautiful example." It's all about being happy in life, she said. "Dancing makes Thalia very happy," Alicia said, "It makes her very excited."

Thalia's proud father, Arby, gushes when he talks about his daughter.

"She makes our life happy," he said in a thick Spanish accent. "We're very grateful."

At the Patel Conservatory at the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, Thalia takes tap dance with Susan Downey and Flamenco dance with Curra Alba. She also takes private belly-dancing lessons and ballet.

"She's a joyous student to teach," Downey said. "She never has a bad dance day. She comes in, she's always on time – never late, always prepared; she's the best student you could ask for."

Since she started taking dance lessons at the Patel Conservatory six years ago, Thalia has been an inspiration to other students, her teachers and audience members, Downey said.

If dance classmates initially judge Thalia when they see her, their opinions disappear when the class begins.

"When we start the music, when we start the class," Downey said, "all that just melts away."

She said Thalia's dancing is infectious and inspires other students to do better themselves.

"She's in tune with the music," Downey said. "The first thing she's got is a heartbeat for the beat of the music. You can't teach that."

Before dancing at the conservatory, Thalia spent 10 years with the Temple Terrace Ballet. She enrolled at Patel in 2006 and she's taken a variety of dance lessons, including tap and even Salsa.

In her first year with the youth ballet, she participated in a partnership "Nutcracker" performance with the highly regarded Orlando Ballet.

This weekend, Thalia will model in Denver at the Global Foundation for Down Syndrome's "Be Beautiful Be Yourself" fashion show. A few weeks later, she will dance at the Down Syndrome Association of the Republic of Argentina's Family Day Event in Buenos Aires.

Last year, Thalia danced in Colombia, the country of her parents' birth, after being invited by the Casa Taller Artezas organization. A few other accomplishments include winning the talent show at her school, Pepin Academy in Tampa, and dancing at the National Down Syndrome Congress Convention in Orlando.

Her mom called Thalia a miracle and her dad agreed.

"Thalia is the best gift," he said, "that God has given us."