Saturday, February 07, 2009

Taking Steps 

Posted by James at 2:01 PM ET

By Philip Raphael
South Delta Leader
‘Come on, pick an exercise.”

Erica Gwyn McFarlane holds out an overturned, black baseball cap in her hand, its dome inverted to serve as a bowl containing narrow strips of paper tossed randomly inside. Printed on them are instructions.

Erica“Come on everyone, it’s time to do a warm up exercise, pick a strip and let’s get going,” McFarlane says, gently encouraging her trio of students to read out the directions on the paper strips and perform the actions.

Run and kick up your heels, up to your butt, reads one of the exercise lottery picks.

Seventeen-year-old Jamie Ross dutifully follows the directions, running the length of the room at the dimly lit, but cozy confines of the Oddfellows Hall in Ladner, his feet thumping on the well-worn, hardwood floor.

Ross and fellow classmates Allison Nicholls, 17, and Taryn Strukoff, 20, are enrolled in the Therapy in Motion therapeutic dance and movement class offered by McFarlane through the The Dance Connection studio in Ladner.

The three have Down Syndrome that has limited their development in varying degrees.

The dance program is tailored for youngsters with special needs to assist with improving physical movement, balance, and fitness. It also provides a nurturing environment where students can take on new challenges without any inhibitions.

McFarlane—who started with The Dance Connection as a three-year-old—says Therapy in Motion is a movement class where youngsters with special needs are the rule, not the exception.

Started last September, the small class is an extension of her long-held desire to assist young people with special needs.

Early decision

“I guess it goes back to when I was in elementary school,” McFarlane says. “I was always drawn towards wanting to help out other kids who had special needs and asked the teachers what I could do.”

That natural empathy developed over the years and McFarlane carried it to her post secondary studies in the Human and Social Development Program at the University of Victoria where she was working towards a career as a teaching assistant—a role she now performs in the Richmond School District.

“I also knew I always wanted to stay active in dance,” says the Tsawwassen resident who last year did a stint as a member of the Felions, the B.C. Lions cheerleading squad. “And this dance therapy class was a way of doing that.”

McFarlane took the first steps in developing the dance program during her fourth year practicum at Oak Bay Secondary School on Vancouver Island.

The classes proved to be so popular she started at program at a dance school in Victoria in 2007.

After moving back to the Lower Mainland last year McFarlane has come full circle by returning to The Dance Connection studio in Ladner to offer the special needs program to local families.

“Not a whole lot of kids signed up, but we have a maximum of six to a class so we can offer close attention to them,” she says.

More than physical

As the trio of students complete their high-stepping warm-up movements designed to loosen joints and get their muscles ready for more complex action, McFarlane says the class is designed to offer more than the opportunity to increase the students’ physical capabilities.

“They learn so much more here. They learn more in the way of life skills—things like patience with each other, taking turns and empathy,” she says. “They learn how to participate in a group and practice their social skills.”

The games the small group plays allows for plenty of interaction and high-spirited fun, effectively cloaking the opportunity to practice motor and life skills.

“Okay everyone, who wants to play four corners,” McFarlane says, gathering the group to the centre of the room.

It’s a modified form of hide and seek where the participants choose a corner of the room while one person remains in the middle of the room, covers their eyes and counts down from 10. On zero, with their eyes still covered, they call out one through four—one of the corners where they think their classmates are hiding.

The youngsters scatter as the countdown begins.

“Three... two... one. Okay Taryn, which corner?” McFarlane asks.

“Two,” comes the response.

“You’re right,” McFarlane says.

The hall erupts in laughter and cheering, a good portion of the noise coming from the parents watching the proceedings.

Big benefit

“This has been big help for Jamie,” says mom Phyllis Ross, smiling at her son galloping across the room, waving a ribbon during a follow-the-leader game. “He’s gained a lot, not just in terms of physical ability, it’s given him the chance to improve his listening skills as well.”

Penny Nicholls, Allison’s mother says her daughter has gained increased mobility and confidence from attending the class.

“Allison used to walk with her legs splayed outwards,” she says. “And as with any dance class, she has built up the strength in the tendons in her legs and she’s walking much better now.”

The fact the class intentionally uses soft music played at a low volume has also created a comfortable environment for Allison to take part.

“She’s very sensitive to loud sounds, she has low shock tolerance. Plus the way Erica is so patient and understanding with the children makes this such a great class for Allison,” Nicholls says, adding it would have been difficult to place her daughter in a regular dance class setting.

For Taryn Sturkoff, the physical aspect of the class has greatly improved her strength and fine motor skills which has been a vital benefit.

“She has two titanium rods in her back to help her with scoliosis (curvature of the spine),” says Taryn’s mother Sherri. “The dancing has been great for increasing her strength and especially her co-ordination. But most of all, the class has been great for her self esteem. This is such a good social event for her. It allows her to come out here and not be intimidated at all.

“I’m just so proud of her.”

Freedom to grow

As the trio runs by the group of parents—the ribbons they trail fluttering in tight coils—the look of sheer joy is etched on the faces of both groups.

The parents see growth and development in their children as they explore new territory. And the youngsters experience the delight of new freedoms brought on by their increase in mobility through dance.

The class is intimate and playfully intense.

There is laughter. There is joy.

And there is change.

“This is an environment where these children can feel safe and try new things in front of people who they can feel comfortable with,” McFarlane says.

The laughter trails off as the session comes to a close. But as the three gather their belongings and reunite with their parents, the smiles remain on their faces.

For more information about the Therapy in Motion program, call The Dance Connection at 604-940-9933.

Go here to see a video from the Therapy in Motion program.

Labels: , ,