Imagine a studio in 2004 at the El Camino YMCA filled with tiny dancers wiggling joyously as their hair bounces wildly to the beat of the music. With smiles beaming on their six-year-old faces, they giggle while holding hands and twirling in circles. To the side is another beautiful, highly active child. This child is different. She has yet to learn how to talk, loud sounds make her prone to outbursts, and rather than controlled little arms, they often flail, accidentally hitting some of the other children. Integrating this precious child is a challenge, for in the eyes of the others, she is not like them. But as the weeks progress, the children begin to see her as one of their own, one to protect and love. The child’s mom looked on and wished all children like hers could have an experience like this—an experience where they feel cared for, accepted, and free. Oh, the beauty of childhood innocence when looking beyond the visual and embracing not just the person, but the soul.
Today there is a space where young and old alike gather to experience the same joy of movement to music with no judgment, no criticism, and no fear. All levels learn at their own pace and are given the freedom to express themselves with no preconceived idea for perfection. This all-inclusive setting has parents dancing with their child with special needs alongside those labeled “normal.” All feel welcomed, included, and safe. This is pure magic—this is Dance for All.
In 2014, Teresa Maldonado Marchok and Mercy Forde, both fitness instructors, teamed up to create this delightful program. As fitness enthusiasts, they know firsthand how important physical activity is for everybody, no matter what age. As mothers to special needs children, they found it difficult to find classes for their children that were not separate from the community because of their challenges. Their children, just like all children, brimming with equal capability. All they needed was an opportunity to participate. And so, Dance for All was born.
The dance class is run similar to other fitness classes, with Teresa and Mercy demonstrating and instructing a variety of movements and techniques that develop and improve core strength, flexibility, and balance. Students not only learn current dance moves in rhythm with the latest music, but there’s also Pilates mat work, and a closing meditation that allows all to center themselves before leaving the studio. Participants are not only welcome but encouraged to interpret the moves as the music flows. Though they might not all be synchronized, they are all united in spirit and fun.
The program’s mission is “Connecting the Community through Movement,” and this inclusive class allows the unique twofold beauty of the program to shine. First, Dance for All gives the special needs participant the tools to conduct themselves in a movement class, thus enabling integration into other classes as well as a sense of belonging to society as a whole. Second, the class creates a fun environment for the typical fitness participant to learn more about and interact with this precious sub-set. Despite initial perceived differences in thought process and language, the typical student begins to see that each member of the class has dreams and desires, just like anyone.
Dance for All is celebrating its fifth anniversary. What started as a dream has morphed into a beautiful weekly event and a studio packed with participants. Whether dancers come alone or with their children, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
Margie Pfister, who attends class with her adult daughter Ellen, summed up their experience, which many can relate to. “Amidst the ups and downs of our days, Dance for All has been a positive welcoming spot from the moment we entered the class and are greeted by name.
Through the warm-ups, dance, and cool-down, my daughter and I are inspired to be our best as we encourage others to do as well. With the positive music, and Teresa’s and Mercy’s kind encouragement, we not only feel a sense of belonging, but our posture has improved in our daily activities. By the end of class, we feel a sense of accomplishment, have met new friends, and this world feels like a better place, and we feel better in it.”
As for that bright-eyed child in that dance class so long ago, she is Teresa’s twenty-year-old daughter, Katelyn, and I was privileged to be her dance teacher. Today, she takes all kinds of classes at the YMCA and is a joy to watch as her face still beams while dancing. How fortunate is our community to embrace such a program where students come together as equals and friends. Just as Margie said, this experience makes the world feel like a better place, and all feel better in it.
If you want to participate in a joyful experience, come check out Dance for All every Saturday from 1:00-2:00 pm at the El Camino YMCA/ 2400 Grant Road, Mt. View. Ages 8-88 gather in the multipurpose room and unite to elevate awareness, promote community acceptance and just have fun.
Written by Jackie Madden Haugh
Critically acclaimed published author, former columnist for The Los Altos Town Crier, realtor, dance instructor, devoted mom and grandma…and a dear friend.
Written by Jackie Madden Haugh
Critically acclaimed published author, former columnist for
The Los Altos Town Crier, realtor, dance instructor, devoted mom and grandma…and a dear friend.