Participating in the joyous dance of life

PHOTOS: ANDREW THAYER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Heath Goldberg shows his happiness while rehearsing with his partner, Sonya Budnovitch (right).
PHOTOS: ANDREW THAYER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Heath Goldberg shows his happiness while rehearsing with his partner, Sonya Budnovitch (right).
Posted: May 30, 2014

AN INSTRUMENTAL string arrangement of Coldplay's "Clocks" played through the room and Rachel Federman-Morales began directing the troupe of 10 dancers, as she has every Tuesday evening since early October.

Aligned across from one another, the dancers' eyes locked. They had just completed a long school day and now they had one more rehearsal before the big performance, scheduled for this morning in Drexel University's Mandell Theater at MacAlister Hall.

Like any dance troupe, this one is composed of unique individuals with a common goal. Five students are Drexel dance majors. The other five are students at the HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy. Two more Drexel students and their HMS partners will be at the performance.

The young women from Drexel have spent most of their lives dancing. Federman-Morales has spent nearly a decade at the school as a dance/movement therapist. The HMS students, ranging in age from 10 to 20, have been dancing for only a few years, at most.

Some duos have been together for two years, others only one. All the partners feed off each other, like well-trained dancers in a waltz.

Brett March uses a touch-screen device mounted on his chair to speak with his dancing partner, Karly Bais. The screen is removed when the dancing begins, but they don't need it to communicate. Bais said that March's eyes - and rare smiles - tell her how engaged he is.

"The biggest reward is learning how to communicate through movement," Mary Stickney, 20, said as she massaged her dance partner Emily Aiello's hand.

Touch, or "tactile," as dance therapists call it, is a way that the partners communicate if a wheelchair dancer gets overexcited or anxious. Much like the dance itself, touch can be therapeutic and relaxing.

"They feel that adrenaline - that excitement before they go on stage," Federman-Morales said. "It's a nice opportunity for them to experience something that normal developing kids get to participate in."

Several dancers said that they have noticed vast improvements in their partners' social skills and overall affect since they began dancing together.

Federman-Morales said that this type of development has been commonplace since Drexel's Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design first partnered with the HMS School in 2010.

In her second year dancing with Emily Whiteman, Drexel's Dawn Mazzola said that the "biggest reward is seeing her quality of life improve."

"We make a lot more eye contact now," Mazzola said. "She allows more interaction with others around her, as well."

In a traditional dance setting, there isn't "much of a connection between the dancer and the audience," Stickney said. But in the recital hall today, Stickney said she hopes to show the audience that this dance "is completely about our connection."

The classic elements of dance are present in this collaboration, too, as the experienced dancers dip and spin in swan-like motions. No doubt, maintaining that elegant form is a challenge in this setting, especially when some of the dancers need more assistance than others.

Some HMS students can drive their wheelchairs with mounted joysticks, while others need complete guidance to maneuver the room. This leads to some inevitable imperfections in the performance.

A circle formation made during the bridge of the song was a bit askew, Federman-Morales noted after the first of two run-throughs.

The second time around, the circle was tighter, and the ensemble then formed a line as the song ended.

Sporting an Eagles T-shirt, Heath Goldberg sat to the right of his partner, Sonya Budnovitch, 20. Stickney was at his right.

Before the group took a bow, Federman-Morales encouraged Goldberg, 18, to do a pirouette, as Budnovitch had done a minute or two before.

He steered his chair in a circle prompting applause from the others.

Body language is the best communicator in this classroom, Federman-Morales later observed.

Goldberg's exuberant grin said it all.

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