Teenagers with disabilities learn to dance from the heart

Pennsylvania Ballet II dancer Halle Sherman, left, helps Tamika Lincoln, a student at St. Katherine Day School, during rehearsals for a joint performance by young professional dancers and students with disabilities. Sherman said: 'We are friends forever!'

Six teenage students with cognitive and developmental disabilities from St. Katherine Day School in Wynnewood and seven young dancers from Pennsylvania Ballet II, the company’s community-outreach ambassadors, have spent 10 Tuesdays rehearsing together, building bridges between different worlds, finding common ground and joy.

Jessica Kilpatrick, head of adult and youth programs at the School of the Pennsylvania Ballet, grew up with close friends who had disabilities. “So, working with special-needs students has been a dream of mine,” she said.

She’s been living that dream since Art-Reach, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that promotes cultural activities for people with disabilities, brought the two groups together in March to create the dance "I Am."  They will perform it at Saturday’s Art-Reach Cultural Access Awards benefit brunch, from noon to 3 p.m. at FringeArts on Columbus Boulevard near Race Street; tickets are $150 to $300.

At a first get-together in a PBII studio, Kilpatrick and Kathleen Gould, St. Katherine's principal, weren't sure what to expect. “I’m very protective of my students,” said Gould, whose school has taught students with cognitive and developmental disabilities since 1953. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

Then the pizzas arrived. The dancers and the St. Katherine students, ages 15 to 19, overcame shyness, made eye contact, and, Kilpatrick said, “gravitated toward each other,” pairing up as they soon would in “I Am.”

She began with a movement class, then matched a section of the music to each student’s personality and ability. J’son Richards "kept going in and out of the group, snapping his fingers, doing his own freestyle, hip-hoppy kind of movement,” Kilpatrick said, while an adagio moment made her think of Tamika Lincoln "and her soft personality and angelic smile. When Tamika smiles, she lights up the whole room.”

Then there was Thomas Bradford, “always secluded, away from the group, almost as if he was in his own little world, dreaming," Kilpatrick said. "I felt he wasn’t comfortable speaking, but when I taught him movement, he thrived. This dance gave Thomas an opportunity to find something that sings to him, that felt like home.”

At a rehearsal this week, “I Am” felt like home to dancers and their student partners alike. Tamika and PBII partner Halle Sherman, beaming megawatt smiles, danced a slow, graceful duet. "We are friends forever!” Sherman exclaimed.

Thomas greeted his partner, PBII dancer Katherine Duffy, with a long hug before their elegant duet. “Thomas is very quiet and shy when you first talk to him,” Duffy said. “I’m shy at first, too. But as soon as you start dancing, he’s one of the most expressive people. True artistry doesn’t mean years of training. It means heart and passion. Thomas has that.”   

PBII dancer Randolph Fernandez and student partner Christina Lincoln  practiced their dramatic lifts. “At first, Christina would not practice any lifts at all,” Fernandez said. “Now, we’re doing multiple lifts. She’s breaking free.”

Kilpatrick kept the rehearsal moving swiftly, demonstrating technical moves and encouraging her ensemble to "try to remember we are taking pieces of our heart and we're sharing it with the world." 

Afterward, Gould said she had worked in special education for more than 20 years, “and honestly, I’m amazed. My students have gone from pure apprehension to pure joy.  This is all very new to them.  Heck, it was new to me.  Now, I worry about when this is over and my students ask me, ‘Why aren’t we leaving school to go to dance?’ ”

Gould said she hopes future grants will allow all 75 St. Katherine students, ages 4 to 21, to enjoy the PBII experience.

Kilpatrick would welcome that opportunity. “Dance is a vessel, a vehicle, a portal in which we share who we are on the inside," she said. "Dance heals and empowers. When you give someone a voice and a way to express themselves, you set them free.”