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Arts & Culture

Fighting Disabilities Through Dance

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Greg Lacour
/
WFAE
Clients of InReach perform at the Charlotte Ballet.

A group of 22 dancers staged a year-ending public performance last week at the Charlotte Ballet. They weren’t ballet dancers, though. They were people using dance to fight the effects of their disabilities and make friends along the way.

C&C Music Factory's Gonna Make You Sweat  is not what you usually hear at the Charlotte Ballet.

Then again, what a crowd of about 40 people witnessed on stage wasn’t the standard display of leaps and entrechats.

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These were people who had trouble with basic movements, much less dance moves. It took extraordinary effort for most of them to even be on stage. Three were in wheelchairs.

“Every week, it’s a surprise about what they’re going to do or what they’re not going to do. And just to come in and listen to good music with each other and share an hour of dance—it’s just amazing.”

For the past two years, Gretchen Jax has taught adults with developmental disabilities through a partnership between the Charlotte Ballet and a group called InReach, formerly Residential and Support Services. The group houses and supports people with cerebral palsy, mental retardation, severe autism, and other disabilities.

The group ranges in age from 19 to 70. It’s met once a week since August. This performance was the dancers’ year-end showcase. They ran through a series of simple dance routines for arms and legs, both sitting and, for those who could, standing; the musical selections included the previously referenced “Gonna Make You Sweat,” Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, and the disco hit “Car Wash.”

Some could handle the movements more easily than others. But everyone took part. Linda Thompson, a 65-year-old InReach client, gyrated her hips to the music and earned a whoop of approval from the audience.

“I was happy,” she says with a laugh. “The music makes me get down.”

The dance program is one of a few that InReach conducts with Charlotte arts organizations; the group also works with the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and Clayworks on classes for the disabled.

But InReach’s president and executive director, Lori Gougeon, says dance benefits her clients in ways other arts don’t.

“We see people that we never knew had it in them that really just bloom and blossom, and they look forward to this. This is like the highlight of their week, coming to dance class.”

Dance gives this group the physical benefits of exercise, plus an emotional boost from talking with peers who struggle with similar problems. That can push clients to lead more active lives. Gretchen Jax says she’s noticed a difference.

“They become more confident, to move their bodies and not be afraid to move and express themselves through movement,” she says. “And I see their confidence grow in interacting with one another. A lot of them don’t get a lot of interaction with other people.”

The class has given Jeremy Perez, a severely autistic 29-year-old, a way to satisfy his need to socialize without putting him in awkward spots, says his caretaker, Robin Baker.

“Well, Jeremy is very social, and him being here and getting this opportunity—he gets to make friends, which, because of their special needs, it’s maybe not as easy to make friends.”

It’s easy for her to get Jeremy to talk.

“Why do you like coming to dance class?” she asks.

“Because I like to dance...I like to (dance).”

The Charlotte Ballet and InReach want to keep the program going. The next session will commence in late June. If this group is any indication, none of the participants will spend much time worrying about technique or form. They’re on a stage, and for these dancers, that’s more than enough.

This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance.