At the Southwest Washington Dance Center all-abilities dance class, everyone is a dancer.
And sometimes they’re even more.
On Monday nights, the youngest dancers will be cats, cows, super heroes, seals, dragonflies and flamingos, just to name a few.
Among these activities, including crown hands, pony trots and rainbow breaths, is serious work disguised as a fun time with their friends, said teacher Rachel March. In addition to giving kids with special needs a place to dance, the class is about helping them work on physical, social and emotional skills.
“This space gives them an opportunity to move around and have fun,” March said. “A lot of them need help exploring their space and their bodies and we work on skills like balancing and stretching and moving their limbs in ways that might be difficult.”
The new class at the downtown Chehalis dance center is the brainchild of March, a special education teacher at Winlock High School, and Tanya Zimmer, a special education teacher at Edison Elementary in Centralia. The two met at Southwest Washington Dance Center because their children dance there. They said they started talking about a year ago about the need for a dance class that could be more inclusive for those who may need modification of one kind or another. They recognized their own students from school often face barriers to many of the traditional youth sports and activities.
“There just isn’t a lot of options for them in this community,” March said.
Eventually, the duo brought their idea forward to the nonprofit Southwest Washington Dance Center’s board and were given the thumbs up. At first, the class was offered just one day a week for all ages. March said the reception from the community was so great that within two weeks, they began offering two class days: Mondays for younger kids and Fridays for teens and adults.
Southwest Washington Dance Center donates the space for the classes and March and Zimmer and March’s daughter, Lizzy, donate their time to plan and teach. The nominal fee they charge families is reinvested into the program to purchase both equipment for the dance class as well as costumes for their students for this spring’s recital. Both classes will offer a routine at the recital.
“A lot of the kids are so excited to get to be on stage and be in costumes,” March said.
Some of their dancers have siblings that dance at Southwest Washington Dance Center or have attempted traditional dance classes but found them difficult. For others, it is another option to keep their minds and bodies active. Teen and adult class member Kayla Davis, of Ethel, also takes part in Special Olympics of Washington and said she signed up for the dance class to keep strong.
“I like the exercise,” Davis said.
Class sessions focus on many movements that help with the muscle stiffness and range of motion issues that many of the students experience in their daily lives. March explained that many of the movements are completed while standing or can be modified for a student’s particular need, such as stretching while sitting on a chair instead of sitting on the floor. For many of the students, it is the social aspect of the class that is another major draw, March said.
“A lot of it is just conversation,” March said. “Just having some time to get them together to talk and have fun with somebody different.”
Janelle Akers, of Centralia, has sons Henry, 8, and Zachary, 7, who take part in the younger children’s all-abilities class. Akers said all three of her children have special needs and finding activities for them can be challenging. She explained that Henry had been enrolled in a ballet class previously but had struggled with it. Akers said she liked that the Southwest Washington Dance Center all-abilities class is suitable for both Zachary, who is more outgoing, and Henry, who is less so.
“We were very excited when they started this class,” Akers said. “It’s really nice when there’s something they can do together.”
And when they say all-abilities, they mean it, March said. Some of the dancers in the class do not have special needs but come just to have fun with their siblings who do.
“The whole premise is it’s all about everybody working together and helping each other out,” March said.
For more information about Southwest Washington Ballet’s All-Abilities classes, email Rachel March at Rachelmarch@yahoo.com.