Dance

Angela Elwood poses for a photo with her summer dance class last week. Pictured: Dylan Payant, Shane Glassett, Brielle Jessop, Analie Nelson, Dawson Jessop, Brecken Jessop, Alex Nelson, Brigham Nelson, Ella Owen and Gracie Owen.

For the third summer, Angela Elwood’s “All Abilities Dance Camp” is bridging gaps and supporting parents of children with disabilities in Cache Valley.

“Everyone, no matter what their ability, loves to dance. I loved it growing up,” Elwood said.

Elwood grew up in North Logan and took dance lessons until she was 17. A few years ago, while looking around for activities for her two autistic sons, Dylon and Tatum, dancing wasn’t available. So she decided to start a dance class herself.

“I charged a little bit the first year,” Elwood said, “but I know that a lot of families with special needs kids are already spending a lot of money on their medical needs and therapies. This year, I decided to do it for free as a service for my community.”

Every Friday for an hour throughout the month of June, Elwood received permission from leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to teach hip hop dances to children aged 3-6 with such disabilities as Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, development delays and epilepsy, along with regularly developing children in one of the church’s meeting houses. She also welcomed siblings of the children with disabilities to join in the fun.

At their final recital on June 28, the children wore the T-shirts and hats that Elwood had given each child to decorate. Every child also got a chance in the spotlight as they performed their own 8-second solo for the audience.

Elwood explained that a lot of children with special needs struggle with coordination and socialization, and dance helps them develop these skills. But the class doesn’t just help those with disabilities develop skills, it also helps regularly-developing children.

Donnell Owen is a kindergarten teacher at Pioneer Elementary in Preston, a coordinator for the Utah Down Syndrome Foundation and the mother of two of the children in Elwood’s dance class.

“Being a classroom teacher, it’s really important for both regular- and special-needs kids to interact,” Owen said. “Special-needs kids need those good examples of kids following directions and doing what they are supposed to. It’s also good for kids without special needs to be around kids different than they are. They develop compassion, understanding, and learn not to be afraid of them.”

Commenting specifically on Elwood’s dance class, Owen said, “The best thing about this dance camp is that it feels like Ella is specifically invited to it. … I feel so much gratitude towards people like Angie who purposely try to include kids with disabilities. Normally, I’m the one who has to do all the work try to make things work for Ella.”

Both Elwood and Owen commented on the difficulties of raising children with special needs. Having classes like Elwood’s allows families create a sense of community where they can share information on where to get help or gain some understanding.

Elwood said: “One of the hardest parts about raising children with special needs gaining understanding from the community for the way my children behave in public. It’s also incredibly expensive for all the therapies and needs that they have if you don’t have good medical insurance.”

Owen added: “A lot of people assume that if you have a child with disabilities, the government is taking care of you, and it’s not necessarily true. Up to age 3, the state does provide help with their therapies, but that is based off income. More often than people realize, families don’t make the cut-off and end up still having to pay.”

Owen said that their 5-year-old daughter, Ella, has Down syndrome and has required physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and been in and out of the doctor much more often than their 3-year-old daughter, Gracie. They also have to save more to help provide for Ella’s financial future as an adult.

When asked how they would like others to interact and respond to their children with disabilities, both Elwood and Owen said that they wish their children to be treated as normal children. Conversations may take more time and responses may not always be typical or immediate, but it means a lot that people try. Asking questions to parents also conveys a feeling of support and interest.

Owen commented that’s it’s not always easy for parents and others to find the right line between ability and disability with each child. She said the expectations seem to be too high for autistic children because they look like regular-developing ones. But because Ella’s disability is obvious, sometimes people don’t expect enough and allow her to get away with bad behavior.

Elwood says teaching dance to disabled children takes a lot of patience, but it has been something she loves.

“Teaching this class just makes me happy,” Elwood said. “I feel like I’m doing something good for those who are in need.”

For more information on Elwood’s class for next summer, contact her at elwoodangela@gmail.com.