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The healing power of dance

"Danceability” isn’t a word you’ll find in Webster’s Dictionary. But, say Robin Bishop and Christine Dwyer, it means “to empower through movement.” It’s also the name of their Cheektowaga-based dance studio that caters to individuals with special needs.

Bishop and Dwyer, both in their mid-thirties, founded Danceability in 2007 with the goal of using the “physical, emotional and mental components of dance” to provide individuals with special needs the tools they need to experience a better quality of life.

With combined backgrounds in dance, special education and social work, Bishop and Dwyer used their knowledge and experience to come up with a dance program that would accommodate individuals of all ages with special needs. Participants  may have Down Syndrome, autism, learning disabilities, ADHD, Angelman syndrome, seizure disorders and more.

“We purchased some space for the studio,” said Dwyer. “And learned everything we could about a start-up non-profit.”

“We did what would now be called a ‘Kickstarter Campaign’ and asked our family and friends for money,” added Bishop. “We knew how to teach dance and work with special needs individuals, but we did not know anything about running a business.”

Eventually, Bishop and Dwyer got their feet underneath them and Danceability was up and running. They were so excited and eager to get started that they forgot to have the electricity turned on in the studio before their very first registration event.

“We did everything by a camping lantern,” laughed Dwyer. “But you know what? No one cared. We had 64 people sign up.”

Fast-forward eight years and Danceability now has 127 dancers and a class schedule that includes everything from jazz and tap to hip-hop and creative movement. They also offer fitness-based classes such as boxing, step aerobics and yoga. The studio, plastered in purple and white, is a fun, bright space, with inspiring quotes and pictures on the walls.

More importantly, the lights are on.

Fostering friendships

Nick Hallgren loves to dance. He loves to show off his own moves, do a little break dance and strike a pose. But even more, he loves being part of something and connecting with other kids like him.

“Nick has Down Syndrome,” said Nick’s mother, Janell Hallgren. “He doesn’t have the same opportunities or freedom of typical kids his age. For example, he doesn’t go to the movies with friends, or play school-sponsored sports or activities, or spontaneously ‘hang out’ with friends from school. The kids in Nick’s dance class and some of the other dance classes are his best friends.”

One of those friends is Amy Zelasko, a 15-year-old freshman at Cheektowaga High School. Like Nick, Amy has been dancing at Danceability since its inception.

“She loves to dance,” said Amy’s mother, Sue Zelasko. “Not only does she learn a new dance routine, she’s also getting exercise, therapy and socialization.”

Both parents agree that Danceability has been beneficial for their children, but they believe they’ve benefited as well.

“We all have made many friends,” said Zelasko. “When our kids are dancing the parents chat in the waiting area.  It is good therapy for us, just talking about things going on with our kids.”

“We all share our triumphs, concerns and struggles,” Hallgren added. “And we share information from our different agencies and school programs, plan for the future, and also enjoy each other’s company.”

The big show

Dancer Emily Stefanski shows her moves at Dancability’s spring recital with the help of
volunteer instructor Ashley Bystrak.

Every year on the Saturday before Mother’s Day, the stage at Cleveland Hill High School comes to life. Bright lights twinkle and applause rings out as dancers line the stage, full of nerves and excitement. When the music bursts from the surrounding speakers and the dance recital begins, the audience goes wild.

“Our dance recital is like a sporting event,” said Bishop. “People holler and hoot and cheer. It’s big and fun. Everyone stays until the very end.”

Dwyer added with a laugh, “You never know what’s going to happen.”

According to Bishop, no one wants to leave the recital because all of the dancers have a unique and special bond. They are a big family unit, and some of them have been dancing together for years. Parents have formed lasting friendships and the kind of understanding that goes hand-in-hand with special needs families.

The many volunteers that take part in the recital, and are paired with the dancers throughout the year, also make a difference. “They are amazing,” said Dwyer. “And they come from everywhere — community service organizations, religious institutions, college students looking for experience in the workforce, young professionals, former dancers and retirees. We had over 90 volunteers last season. We wouldn’t be what we are without them.”

Through fundraising and donations, and the hard work of many, Dwyer and Bishop have successfully turned their Danceability vision into a viable non-profit organization.

And in August, Nick and Amy will sign up for their ninth season.

“The best thing about our program is that you can never age out,” said Bishop. “I’ve had dancers since they were three and it’s a different class and experience every time.”

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