Thursday, January 27, 2011

California studios adapt dance program for kids with disabilities

From The Daily Breeze in Calif. In the picture, 13-year-old Celeste Guerra comes through the tunnel while working on a dance number during ballet class.

So you think they can't dance?

Don't tell that to Zina Bethune and her hand-picked teachers at perhaps the most unique chain of dance studios in the Los Angeles area.

Bethune created the program, called Infinite Dreams, for children with disabilities.

Both "children" and "disabilities" are used loosely, because once a child starts the program, he or she can continue indefinitely. And disabled means anything from a child in a wheelchair to someone with Asperger's syndrome who's barely able to control a shaking body.

Bethune doesn't yet have the funds for a building, so her classes take place where she can find space to fit her budget, such as one of the bleak empty storefronts on downtown Long Beach's economically devastated Pine Avenue.

At the moment, the location is dubbed Infinite Yoga Studio (no connection to Infinite Dreams), and Bethune rents it for an hour on Tuesday evenings.

For a recent Tuesday session, the space was cold and empty. There were a few seats for mothers watching their children, and a boom box on the floor emitting music that distorted as it echoed around the bare walls.

None of this seemed to faze the children, their teachers or their mothers, at least judging by the smiles on all of their faces.

In addition to happiness, the second strongest presence in the room was patience, mostly displayed by the teaching team of Bethune and Robin Olive, but also by some of the mothers, who, as they saw the need, would get up and join the dancers to help their children concentrate or follow instructions.

The other difference from a normal dance class was geometric. Instead of straight lines, there was more use of circles.

"In normal classes, we would all be facing the same way," said Olive, in a phone interview days after the class. "But a lot of times, we have to stand in a circle so everybody can see each other. So there are little differences."

She and Bethune guided the students through some warm-up exercises, including one in which each class member had to walk across the floor doing a high kick. The teachers demonstrated their professional high kicks, and then the students did their own versions. Whatever the result, there was applause and cheers from the teachers and mothers.

Then came work on a dance the students are preparing for this weekend's Festival of Human Abilities at Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. Once again, the rehearsal was a combination of effort, appreciation and huge doses of patience.

Olive tells of one student with Down syndrome who wouldn't speak or respond.

"She would hold on to my hand so tight, it felt like it was going to break,"

"And just this last season, she started to do things like kick her leg on her own, and she just blossomed," Olive said. "She went a good 20 classes with no improvement, and then just one day, she lit up. It took her that long to get comfortable with everybody. Those kinds of things just fill me up.

"And you saw last week the girl who has Asperger's, who you've got to kind of really hold down. She would never do anything on her own, ever. And now she decided that she's going to kick her feet on her own. Little things like that are so amazing."

Olive teaches dance to students with normal abilities, but she says the challenges of teaching children with disabilities is closer to what she experiences in her classes at the Hollywood Entertainment Museum, where she works with children at risk for joining gangs.

"Those kids are right out of juvie (juvenile hall), and the school they go to at the museum is like their last chance for graduating from a regular high school," she said. "I treat them the same. Like if we do stuff across the floor, I don't let them get away with not trying. A lot of times, with kids like that, they just don't want to get embarrassed. And I'll stand there for 15 minutes until they do something across the floor. And eventually, because I'm patient, they end up doing it. And it's the same kind of feeling, like, wow, they're doing it. And they end up impressing themselves."

Before she could begin teaching for Infinite Dreams, Olive had some rigorous training.

"We had like a mock class with teachers, and that actually kind of scared me a little bit," she said. "Because the way they set it up was, you might have a kid that's deaf, a kid that's in a wheelchair and a kid that's severely autistic, and you've got to be able to handle all of them at once," she said. "I remember thinking, `Omigod, how do you do this?' But then the second step was I went with Zina and helped her with one of her classes, and I realized, you know, they're just kids, they're so genuine and I work really well with kids."

Most of Olive's training for the job came before she ever answered the Craigslist ad, when she was dancing hip-hop, tap, jazz and ballet (she also does martial arts and stunt work) in films, on television and in music videos.

"The requirement is at least three to five years of professional work as a dancer," said Bethune in a phone interview. "You can't just come out of college and join on."

Infinite Dreams exists where art and therapy intersect, but Bethune's emphasis is on the side of art.

"We always hire professional dancers because it's a very different base from which you are drawing, as opposed to therapy - because therapy is, how many degrees does Johnny move his arm," she said. "The basis of Infinite Dreams is about the creation of an art form. It has a therapeutic benefit inherent in it, in that Johnny, once he dreams of being a cloud and we help him float like a cloud in the air, his arm is gong to move those six degrees."

Bethune can draw on a lifetime of work as a professional dancer and actress, much of it while dealing with severe disabilities of her own.

Despite these challenges, she continues to do public performances in addition to overseeing Infinite Dreams, a professional multimedia dance theater company called Bethune TheatreDanse and a second dance company called Bethune II composed of Infinite Dreams alumni. There is frequent collaboration between these programs, with disabled dancers often appearing in TheatreDanse productions.

"A lot of people ask me, `What's the connection between dance and disability,"' said Bethune. "Interestingly, even if you're not disabled, you still have a stronger and a weaker side, a side that you turn to, just like people are right-handed and left-handed. So when you are asked by a choreographer to go to the left when you're a right turner, you have to figure out how to do that so that it's still going to look OK. So you're constantly in a state of adjustment, of figuring out how do I adjust that to what my body does.

"It's no different with a disability," she said. "So that truly is why this works and why it works best with a professional dancer."

For the dancers who become teachers for Infinite Dreams, much of the training is just adapting their skills.

"You really need a much wider breadth and scope of how you adjust this art form to access kids who have disabilities, so that they can actually accomplish it," Bethune said. "Sometimes it's as simple as you can't just say to a kid with physical disabilities, `OK, we're going to do first position, so put your heels together and turn your legs.' That won't mean anything. But if you say, `Once you're standing still, make your heels say hello and your toes say goodbye,' you're creating an image they can grab on to. So it's a different way about getting the same results."

The medical versus recreational question is one Bethune addresses frequently.

Most of her students are undergoing traditional therapy, and the Infinite Dreams website takes pains to emphasize that the program is not physical therapy.

But Bethune said her approach often produces the measurable results that therapy seeks as a byproduct of the emphasis on art. She gives as an example a student who had cerebral palsy and needed a walker.

"When he walked into the class, we would put the walker aside, and we'd give him partners like a chair, a table, another student or the floor," she said.

When he became a proficient dancer after several years of classes, he approached Bethune and asked her why he could dance but couldn't walk.

"I said, `Great question, why don't you answer it yourself,"' she said.

The student worked on his own and four months later he showed Bethune that he could now walk 10 steps on his own.

"He figured it out for himself, and that's what we want," . "It isn't that we come in and tell somebody, `OK, you can do this, we're going to work those six degrees or whatever every day.' It was about approaching it through the art, and he figured it out, and that's the glory of it and truly exemplifies what Infinite Dreams is about."

Bethune says the program has three goals.

"We want these kids to have the opportunity that every child can have, which is to dance, to fly, to feel the sense of accomplishment and to share that with others," she said. "The second goal obviously is a therapeutic one, in that we want them to have more movement, and more ability, and with that a better sense of what they can do in the world.

"And the third part is that this creates independence, self-sufficiency, a better sense of who you are and the empowerment of who you are. And all of that plays into being part of society."

Sharon Johnson of Woodland Hills has firsthand experience of the program's power to empower. Her daughter, Krissie, now 42, has Down syndrome and as a child wanted to join a jazz dance class that followed her exercise class for children with disabilities.

"They wouldn't let her be in the class," Johnson said, and her strong-willed daughter instead focused her efforts on gymnastics and eventually competed in the International Special Olympics and got into acting.

She came back to dance in 1997 by becoming one of Bethune's earliest students, and she'll be in the Bethune II troupe performing this weekend at the aquarium.

"I think her dance has made her more confident in her acting and her ability to connect with people," said Johnson. "She is also a global messenger for Special Olympics, and it's given her the ability to feel confident among a strange group of people when she goes to speak. I don't think she would ever have come to that point without all of the dance and the encouragement of being able to perform and have people come and see her and tell her what a wonderful performance she did."