Movin’ & groovin’

Instructor takes special needs youngsters to next level on dance floor

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Volunteer Phoenix Garner, far left, works with dance students Brooke Hayes, Abby McClure, Braedon Brown, Haley Drummond, Kasi Richardson and Morgan Ramsdell. (Photo by Mindy Ragan Wood)

By Mindy Ragan Wood, Staff Writer – Thanks to a local special education professional, students regardless of ability have access to dance lessons.

Yukon High School paraprofessional Kelli Smith has been teaching dance at Studio 5-6-7-8 to children she has worked with over the years in special education. She started the class four years ago as a social outlet and as a place to experience success outside the classroom. At the end of the year, her class performs in the studio recital.

Every Sunday afternoon, about 20 dance students practice their routines and have a lot of fun. Mother Connie Drummond said it means a lot to her 19-year-old daughter, Haley, to be able to perform and feel accepted.

“What’s great about Studio 5-6-7-8 is they’re included in the recital,” she said. “That’s a big deal. They have to face some challenges to get there, but they perform and everyone in the room loves it. It’s great socialization and she’s known so many of them for years. It gets her out and gives her some exercise and fun. She looks forward to it every Sunday.”

Haley Drummond and Kasi Richardson are two students who have graduated high school, but “Miss Kelli” and her dance class continue to be a mainstay in their lives.

“Miss Kelli was her aid,” Margaret Richardson said. “She’s always loved dance and music and this gives her an outlet for it. She loves being on stage and being the center of attention. She did dance class when she was from about six to eight years old, but after a while she couldn’t keep up. This has been great.”

For 16-year-old Morgan Ramsdell, who is home educated, the class is a vital outlet for socialization.

“She used to go to school with these kids,” mother Marti Ramsdell said. “So, she still gets to see all her friends.”

Ramsdell said dance is more than a big event for the students.

“For a special needs parent to see milestones these kids pass…to see your kid dance on stage with these other kids…it’s just great. It’s incredible to live in a community where they are accepted. Kelli has been around these kids since third grade and she has such a heart for them like no other. The things she does with these kids is amazing. She even takes them to dinner at Cici’s Pizza. She keeps these kids together. She’s a godsend to the special needs community.”

The classroom is also aided by student assistants who, with Kelli Smith donate their time. Phoenix Garner is 11-years-old and started helping Smith last year. It is not her first experience with the special needs population. Her mother is also a special education teacher at the high school.

“No two kids are the same,” said the astute assistant. “I love coming here because it feels like you’re really making a difference.  They aren’t as different (from us) as we think. They’re still just people. We don’t need to treat them differently.”

Heather Bryant is a studio instructor who donates her time as well.

“They’re happy to be here,” she said. “They want to have fun and they’re always happy to see me. They’re awesome to work with.”

Smith said the seeds for a dance class were planted a long time ago, when she realized that music helped special needs children learn better. When she started working as a receptionist at the studio a few years ago, she asked the owner if she could try opening a class to her students.

“The owner is very supportive and all the students are great. I’ve never had anyone make fun of them,” she said.

Smith’s class, for the first time this year, joined the rest of the studio for the Czech Day parade. She said it demonstrates that these young people are more capable than she sometimes realizes.

“I was going to have them ride on the float, but one of the parents said she would like to see her daughter try to walk the whole way. They walked the whole way. When the kids ran out of candy, Kasi went up to the people and started giving high fives.”

Smith said people can learn a lot from her students and she hopes Yukon residents will come to understand those who have learning differences and physical challenges.

“These kids make the most out of everything, out of every day. Every day is a new day and if they love you, you’re in for life. They don’t hold grudges. If they have a bad day, they come back next brand new. I think we need to be like them,” she said. “I think they’ misunderstood because they don’t understand their disability. If people would just talk to them and ask questions instead of staring a lot of things would be answered. I like for people to know why they do what they do. Our kids do things that might be different to make themselves feel good or comfortable, but don’t we all do things that make us feel better?”

Step by step, Smith is showing a community what these youngsters can do and who they are.

More stories like these in this week’s Yukon Progress.  Subscribe today by calling (405) 373-1616.  Or subscribe online via our E-Edition tab!