Every Thursday afternoon, the Dance Foundation, located in Homewood, offers a 45-minute dance class for students with special needs. “They are working on coordination and building strength. Dance is such a good way to encompass all of that in a fun way,” says Blakely Cottle, who taught the class prior to assuming the additional roles of community partnership program director and development coordinator.
Now, teaching artist Jasmine Rodgers leads the class, which begins with the students in a circle, practicing a demi-plié, or a small bending of the knees.
“Go away toes. Come back toes,” sings Rodgers, while demonstrating how to point and flex the feet. The class is based on the organization’s Movement-to-Music curriculum, which was developed by founder Jennie Robertson in 1975, Blakely explains. “Song and music is a big part of keeping them interested and getting them to learn the musicality of dance,” she says. “Not to mention, it’s just fun.”
The students lie on their stomachs to fly like Superman, a disguised core-strengthening exercise.
Emily Hauber, who has been a student at the Foundation for about four years, runs around the circle as her classmates cheer her on. “When she first came, she stimmed and flapped and she just ran basically laps the entire time,” said her mother Christina Hauber. “She loved it, and she wanted to come, but she didn’t really participate. She didn’t do the steps, and now she does. She goes to other kids, and she holds their hands, and she does the moves. I mean, she interacts with them.”
Watching her teacher, Destiny Parker stretches to one side while sitting in the butterfly position.
Nicholas Brown gives Jasmine a high five as they stretch. Nicholas was introduced to dance classes, led by the Dance Foundation, while participating in an early intervention program at the Bell Center. He has now been taking class at the Foundation for 12 years, says his mother Deborah Brown. “When he was younger, the main thing we were concerned about was gross motor skills,” she says, “but now, it’s more of a social time.”
“We really try to encourage expression and individuality,” Jasmine says. “It’s just nice to see how the kids will catch on to that and really run with it, figuratively and literally.”
The students use shakers as props while they sing, “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.”
Nimisha Stewart, left, helps Nicholas build an obstacle course. “Dance is very social,” Blakely explains. “You are working as a team, especially the way we approach it here at the Dance Foundation. We are always talking about building community.”
One by one, the students successfully make their way over steps, around cones, along a makeshift balance beam, and through a hoop.
Nicholas leans on Jasmine for support.
Assistant teacher Riley Ford, left, and Anna Bishop wait for the cue from Jasmine to lift the parachute overhead.
The students take turns running under the parachute.
Jasmine, originally from Geneva, Switzerland, received her bachelor’s degree in early childhood rehabilitation and special education from Auburn University. After teaching abroad for a few years, she returned to the U.S. to get her master’s degree in education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and she discovered the Dance Foundation. “I realized it was perfect because I got to use my dance history and my degrees,” she says.
Anna practices chassés, a series of quick gliding steps, across the floor with assistant teacher Riley. This is one example of a partnering exercise that is used to encourage social interaction, Blakely explains. “They have to get right next to someone and hold hands and work towards a common goal,” she says, “whether it’s just galloping across the room or whatever challenge we’ve set for them.”
After class, Anna gives her mother, Kara Bishop, a hug, while Destiny stands nearby.