Monday, May 25, 2009

Ballerinas with CP leap with confidence

From Newsday:

Leap, ballerinas, leap.


And that's just what the tiny troupe of ballerinas, ages 3 to 9, did last week.

It was a full dress rehearsal for their first performance ever, after more than a year of practice, which meant everything from quick changes to wearing delicate mermaid and lion costumes instead of practice tutus.

There was an audience, too.

And with each ballerina leap, the full house - which included students and staff from The Children's Learning Center at United Cerebral Palsy Association of Nassau County - clapped and cheered.

Actually, the children, who, like all children, are blessed with the absolute certainty that anything is possible, made most of the noise.

As the curtain opened on a small stage, a row of little ballerinas took their places.

Behind each one was a "buddy," dressed in black and perched on a seat with wheels. One held her ballerina's hands. Another held onto her ballerina's waist. One held the back of her ballerina's rolling walker.

Four times, the music - mostly Disney - started.

Four times, the ballerinas began to dance.

Some could not stand.

And they danced.

Some could not walk.

And they danced.

Some don't have full use of their arms.

And they danced. And they smiled and they laughed. Especially when their buddies pulled them into the air, for leaps. And when their buddies, in unison, rolled the seats around in slow circles, for twirls.

This is the stuff of little girl dreams. Of frilly costumes and tiny black ballet slippers. Of toes pointed out in tendu, arms pulled high into delicate port de bras. This - every grown-up in the room knew - was a ballerina dream, danced and laughed into reality.

And that's all 5-year-old Jimari Velasquez (pictured) ever wanted.

Two years ago, Jimari and her sister (two girls in a set of triplets) wanted to take ballet. A school turned Jimari away, because she could not walk and would not speak. Her sister was admitted.

"The adults would be upset," one school told her mother.

So the family went to other ballet schools, where Jimari was rejected too. Frustrated, they turned to Jimari's school to help. And so it was that in March of last year, the school's ballet club was born.

The children, all of whom have cerebral palsy, learned about everything from pliés to first through fifth position. And, over time, they began to dance. The practices were held during lunch hour, with staff members who volunteered to be buddies.

The dances were choreographed so that the children, many of whom lack full use of their legs, could mostly move their arms. The costumes were selected with care, so that the children, most of whom lack hip flexibility, could easily be put in and out of them.

Over time, Jimari used a walker; then, she could walk, with assistance to help her keep balance. And she wasn't the only one in the school's ballet club who improved.

"Some of the children couldn't raise their arms up," said Kelly DiNoia, a physical therapist who danced ballet from childhood through college.

The dress rehearsal went off wonderfully and, aside from a wardrobe malfunction of the innocent kind, almost hitch-free.

Afterward, most of the children were changed into their school clothes.

In one room, Mia Brown-Brooks sat on a mat.

"What's your favorite part of ballet?" she was asked.

"I like to see my friends," she replied.

Around the corner, in another room, Jimari, still wearing her costume and ballet shoes, held tight to one staff member's hand. In addition to walking, Jimari now talks - mostly to her friends in ballet club.

She didn't use words to talk to me about ballet club, or about her first performance before an audience.

Jimari didn't need words.

The tiny ballerina's smile said everything.