By now, fans of Dance Network are familiar with the National Dance Institute’s D.R.E.A.M. Project and its amazing vision, and I’m proud to report— it’s still doing incredible things. I was able to see the final performance of this summer’s D.R.E.A.M. program, and the students were inspiring, motivated, and transformational.
A brief history: the National Dance Institute was founded by former New York City Ballet dancer Jacques d’Amboise, with an aim to get the world dancing. The enormously successful program, created in 1976, was developed to introduce dance and movement to New York City public school students regardless of their income level, gender, or cultural backgrounds. The ultimate creation of the D.R.E.A.M. Project, a program designed to get children with disabilities paired and dancing with peers, and led by physical therapists and dance teachers, occurred back in 1998 when NDI approached New York City’s only public barrier-free school about implementing a dance program with its students. D.R.E.A.M. has grown to be one of the Institute’s most influential and effective dance programs.
The D.R.E.A.M. Project students. Photo Credit: National Dance Institute/Instagram
The D.R.E.A.M. Project, in short, is a biannual week-long dance program that allows children with, and without, cognitive and physical disabilities the chance to creatively explore the world of dance. With age matched peer partnerships and leadership by physical therapists and master teachers, these dancers discover and celebrate movement by using what they can do. Limitations are used as inspiration, and a focus on the positive is a top priority. D.R.E.A.M., which stands for Dancer Realize Excellence through Art and Movement, was co-created by master dance teacher Kay Gayner and Physical Therapist Agnes McConlogue Ferro. Gayner, in an interview with Dance Network said of the D.R.E.A.M. program, “The idea that ‘everyone can dance’ is only limited by our imagination. Limited by what the perception of ‘dance’ is, what ‘ability’ is, what bodies can do… and, of course, limited only by how big we can dream.”
Kay Gayner (standing left), Agnes McConlogue Ferro (standing center), and teaching artist Jerron Herman (standing right). Photo Credit: National Dance Institute.
For a more specific look at the history and details of this incredible program, read my deep-dive interview with D.R.E.A.M. Project creators, Kay and Agnes here:
At the end of each D.R.E.A.M. Project week, a performance of the student’s creative work is presented for an audience of friends and family members, and last Friday, I was lucky enough to have attended this summer’s show. The performance exuded the truest power of dance I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness. Student dancers who’s physical or cognitive disabilities might keep or limit their bodies from moving in a certain ways, are dancing— and it’s spectacular.
The first presentation of the afternoon was a demonstration of the common dance warm up, the ’plie', but in true D.R.E.A.M. form, this version of the ‘plie’ was not your typical barre exercise. The students here have each discovered, with the help of physical therapists and teachers, an almost personalized and custom version of their plie. Some students, as traditionally practiced, bend their knees, while others, who may not have the use of their hips or legs, move their wheel chairs in a forward/backward motion. The excitement of the dancers in anticipation of the exercise’s planned “surprise ending” was unmistakable, because after the sixteen count demonstration was through, a fast paced self run-around followed. Here, students giggled and smiled as they ran around themselves, spun, or took their wheelchairs into a twirl pattern, and the joy of the “surprise” was immeasurable.
This week’s theme was ‘Rivers’, and most of the choreography for each of the presentation’s pieces were inspired by flowing water. An artistically and aesthetically beautiful piece featuring ‘jellyfish’ swimming through the sea was a standout. Inspired by one of the dancer’s previous Halloween costumes, the lights on the stage dimmed and ‘jellyfish’ danced in the dark on the stage in beautiful circular patterns. To recreate the costume, transparent umbrellas were fastened with sea colored holiday lights and streamers and carried by dancers onto the stage. An emotional and palpable happiness was shared by the audience and the dancers during the piece.
D.R.E.A.M Dancers. Photo Credit: National Dance Institute/Instagram
Many of the special talents the children have were featured throughout the afternoon. One child, Morgan, who has an incredible ear for rhythm counted in a variety of the performances and led the audience in a call and response. Alexa, a dancer who also received a special recognition award for being the only dancer to have attended all the D.R.E.A.M. Project weeks so far, featured an incredible moving dance with just her eyebrows. Veronica dazzled the audience as she danced in both her gate-trainer and her electric wheel chair, the ladder of which she drives only with head movement.
The grand finale of the performance was a compilation of all the work that students had done throughout the week, weaved into one piece. It allowed the audience, but moreover, the students, dance faculty, administration, and physical therapists who all worked with the dancers to reflect on the amazing accomplishments that had been realized.
The key that connects these dancers to the power that lives in NDI’s D.R.E.A.M. Project is the partnerships. When the students are paired with age-matched peers, the expectation that they will be motivated and transformed by their partners is established.
Agnes McConlogue Ferro spoke to this power in an interview with DN earlier this year, “The incredible thing that is so specific to D.R.E.A.M., is that it’s all about the partnerships. We’ll take a child who has a developmental diagnosis, and they’ll get paired with an age-matched peer from NDI’s scholarship program; and the reason for that is, motivation. With the layer upon layer of motivation that these partnerships bring, coupled with the week long immersion of the program, it allows us to ‘go deep’.”
“You know, you’ll hear of programs just for children with Cerebral Palsy or children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders, but here, we run the gamut of diagnoses and we welcome everybody,” continued McConlouge Ferro. “And, in the end, it’s not about the diagnosis, it’s about the child and their potential. We are looking at what a particular child can do and what a partnership could add to that.”
Expectation. Motivation. Transformation. All words
that seem to drive the fundamental values of this program. Dancers come to NDI
and they leave changed for the better. As Agnes said, “It really is ‘realizing
excellence’. For the kids, it’s realizing what ‘you’re’ capable of, and
sometimes, I don’t even think the kids know what they’re capable of.”