Dance for every body

El Camino YMCA hosts inclusive dance class

The room is packed, and the bass is pumping. More than 30 people are on their feet, dancing to the rhythm of the music. Facing the two instructors at the front of the room, they follow along: stomping their feet, clapping their hands, bending their knees to the beat. Most of the dancers are teenagers, though some are much older and a few are younger. And though their movements aren't all precisely synchronized, the group is clearly united in spirit.

You can tell, because every single person in the room is grinning.

Welcome to Dance for All, held every Saturday afternoon at the El Camino YMCA in Mountain View. Dance for All is just what the name implies: a class that's open to everyone. Many of the participants have disabilities, but not all; there are no rules about who can and can't take part.

Launched nine months ago by experienced dance instructors Teresa Maldonado Marchok and Mercy Forde, both of whom are also mothers of teenagers with disabilities, the class has quickly gained a devoted following. Most weeks, there are between 25 and 30 dancers on the floor. The music -- primarily pop, R&B and rap arrangements -- is catchy and increasingly boisterous as class progresses.

In some ways, Dance for All is your average dance fitness class. The routines, a blend of hip hop and aerobics, look a little tricky at first, but most people seem to catch on quickly. Marchok and Forde wear Lycra outfits and athletic shoes; fitted with head mics, they demonstrate and call out the moves enthusiastically, sometimes jogging out into the crowd to give a quick correction or a high five. In addition to high-energy dance routines, they spend part of every class focusing on skills like core strength, flexibility and balance.

What's not so normal are the levels of enthusiasm and camaraderie the class inspires, even in passersby who stop at the door to watch and are often drawn in to dance along. Dance for All is downright irresistible.

That's the conclusion Darin Li has come to, though it took him a while. Li is 13 years old and in the seventh grade. He's into swimming, karate and movies, and he loves math. He's also autistic. When his father, Qiang, started bringing him to Dance for All back in July, Darin wasn't having any of it. He sat outside the studio, watching through the window while Qiang dutifully took part in class each week. For two months, Darin refused to enter the room, until the day Marchok put on what unbeknownst to her was Darin's favorite track: "Gangnam Style," by South Korean pop star Psy. In a flash, Darin was up on his feet, dancing.

Now, he and Qiang are regulars on the dance floor.

Qiang and Darin discovered Dance for All through their involvement with Youth Drama for All, a Mountain View-based nonprofit that since 2007 has offered performing-arts opportunities for teens from both mainstream and special-needs classes. Marchok and Forde both contributed to Youth Drama for All as choreographers. About three years ago, they realized that to take their work with students to the next level, they needed a dedicated space and more instructional time. That's when the YMCA stepped up, offering a dance studio for free.

According to Lisa Zuegel, whose 15-year-old son Jeffrey takes part in Dance for All, the YMCA is "a phenomenal place for encouraging people with differences.

"The fact that Dance for All is happening here at the Y is not inconsequential or coincidental," Zuegel said. "When the kids come here, they are in an environment that is by its nature inclusive and connects people in community."

Many families who attend Dance for All also take advantage of the YMCA's other resources, including the swimming pool and family changing rooms, both of which they say are particularly useful and welcoming to those with special needs.

Chief Operations Officer for YMCA of Silicon Valley Elizabeth Jordan stopped in to Dance for All last week to observe and share her thoughts.

"The cool thing is, you can't always tell who has a disability and who doesn't," she noted after watching class for a few minutes. "People really value that in their Y membership: the diversity and inclusivity." As Jordan sees it, being part of a group like the Dance for All community builds compassion and enriches lives. "I think if people come to the Y and experience this, they'll develop more empathy," she said.

Jordan noted that in her own childhood, she didn't have access to such an open and inclusive community.

"When I was growing up, if I saw someone who seemed different, my parents would say, 'Shhh! Don't look; don't ask questions.' We really want the opposite here: We want to develop curiosity. This is how the general population gets to appreciate what it means to be a community."

To that end, Dance for All is open to anyone who wants to try it out. For those who decide to make it a regular thing, a YMCA membership is encouraged; financial assistance is available for those who can't afford the fee. As word spreads about the class, interest continues to grow.

On a recent Saturday, students knelt on stability balls to practice their core strength and balance. One boy who was new to class sat on the floor with his mother, shifting restlessly. When it was time to dance again, he bolted from the room, eventually settling in a chair just outside the door.

Half an hour later, as the class fell into place for a conga line to Pitbull's rap rendition of "Shake SeƱora," he came tearing back in and ran the length of the room, laughing.

Allowing students to participate at the level that works for them -- and for their families -- is exactly what Dance for All is all about.

"In here, any behavior is anticipated," Jordan said. "It's all good."

"Kids will often do utterances or physical stims that in another environment might be off-putting, and here it's OK," added Marchok. "No parent should ever be embarrassed."

For the moment, Dance for All is clearly making a difference to the 30 or so people who participate regularly. But Jordan, Marchok, Forde and others see the potential for a much broader impact. They're talking about establishing a program where teens and young adults can volunteer in the class as buddies, and are also thinking about how they might train instructors to offer similar programs at other YMCAs in the region and even beyond.

Jordan, who oversees the operation of all 11 YMCAs in the Silicon Valley, hopes the other centers will eventually adopt the program. "If we can attract this many people to one Y, I can't imagine why we wouldn't scale it," she said.

In addition to building their student and volunteer base, Jordan and the Dance for All team are actively looking for ways to integrate existing students into the larger community, and to help shift attitudes about ability and disability. For a start, they intend Dance for All to prepare students to take part in other YMCA fitness classes.

What Marchok and Forde know well, and what is amply evident after just one class, is that these young people are brimming with capability and with joy. Yet too often, they're separated from the communities that would benefit from getting to know them better.

"It wasn't until I started speaking with parents of teens with disabilities that I learned the term, 'fake social,'" Jordan said. "That's when someone tolerates your child and pretends they're welcome, but you can tell they're just being politically correct."

Regardless of where such behavior stems from, Jordan said, "We want to help the community get beyond that."

At the end of class, after the hugs and the high fives, a small group of students stuck around to chat, discussing what they like most about Dance for All (the friends, the exercise, the music) and what their favorite songs are (like Darin, most favor "Gangnam Style"). Marchok and Forde stood nearby, brainstorming with Jordan and parents about the future of the class. Their conversation returned again and again to an emphasis on inclusion and integration rather than separation.

"This is not a special-needs dance class," Marchok asserted. "It's open to everyone. Any time you can include everyone, you're sending a message that it's truly inclusive. That's a great message for society."

Jordan nodded in agreement. "What's really important," she said, "is linking people."

What: Dance for All

Where: El Camino YMCA, 2400 Grant Road, Mountain View

When: Every Saturday, 1-2 p.m.

Cost: New students welcome to drop in for free. YMCA membership encouraged; no one turned away for lack of funds.

Info: Go to ymcasv.org/danceforall or call 650-429-1323. Those interested in volunteering for Dance for All should go to ymcasv.org or call 650-429-1310.

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