Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Canadian dancer with Down syndrome shares his passion through teaching

From The Times-Colonist in Canada:

Brad Magnus (pictured) has danced with prima donnas and performed for royalty, but today he faces a new challenge.

The 38-year-old dancer, born with Down syndrome, is teaching his first class.

He begins simply and without words. He closes his eyes in meditation for a moment, then raises his chin and marches forward with confidence. He points his toes, landing each step softly. He crosses one foot over the other, sways his hips, feels the music with soft, curved arms. One by one, his students follow.

It's a free workshop at Pearkes Recreation Centre and a modest number of students, with and without disabilities, have come to try it out. If Magnus finds enough interest — and funding — he hopes to be teaching a regular class by fall.

"I think it went good," Magnus said after the workshop on Tuesday. He practised three times in advance, and then just tried to be himself, he said.

Magnus moves with the fluidity of an accomplished dancer, but with spontaneity that reveals his own sense of rhythm.

What does he feel when he dances? He took a few moments to respond.

"Joy." Pause. "Love." Pause. "Happiness."

He has been dancing for more than 20 years and was excited to take on new responsibility as a teacher, said Magnus's dance teacher Anna Haltrecht.

"It has been his passion and his way of interpreting life and what he feels," she said. "Now he wants to give that to other people."

His mother, Ethel, said it was a proud day for her. "It's been a dream that he's had for so long."

Magnus began dancing in his final year of high school, after seeing a poster for modern and ballet classes.

Ethel said Brad gave her a sneak peek of the dance he had been learning, ahead of the performance.

"He started doing these beautiful movements in our living room to Anne Murray's song, You Needed Me. And the lovely part of it was, he got the message through loud and clear that, not only do I need you, Mom, but you need me," she says.

That's how she knew this was really something Brad wanted to do. "Brad seems to have been able to relay messages through songs and dance. He finds a song that says something important to him, then develops his movement and expression."

Since then, Brad has travelled the world, touching international audiences with his emotional performances — including onlookers at the closing ceremonies of the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria and the opening ceremonies of the 1997 Special Olympics World Games in Toronto.

In Japan, Prince Tomohito, who is considered a deity, crossed a sacred line after one of Brad's performances to embrace him in a hug.

"I did not cross over the line, he did," Brad said. "It felt amazing, to tell you the truth."

The response over the years has been very positive.

"In our travels with Brad, we've been really moved and impressed by how helpful it's been to other people — to understand and see for themselves what someone with Down syndrome, with a disability, can do," Ethel said. "A lot of what he can do has to do with being treated with respect at home and being part of a community."

When Brad was born, Ethel said, attitudes toward people with disabilities were very different than they are now.

She had to fight to take him home, ignoring advice from doctors to institutionalize him, she said.

After many people had told them all the things Brad wouldn't able to do, the family focused on all the things he can do.