By The Flint Journal October 02, 2009, 10:00PM
BURTON, Michigan — For dance instructor Kara Meier, it started with a “God wink.”
For nine young people with special needs and disabilities, it started with toe touches, stretches and poses in ballet positions — just the basics of a beginning dance class. Which is exactly the point, if you ask Jaime Baum of Mundy Township, who proudly watched daughter Maria, 5, move across the floor at Phoenix United Methodist Church. For a time, Baum had wondered if this ordinary rite of passage would remain out of Maria’s reach.
“To see your little girl finally get to take a dance class, it’s a really special moment,” Baum said.
Special for Maria, too, as she watched herself in the studio’s full-length mirrors and called out, “Clap for me, guys!”
This was Dancing Miracles, a new class that Meier, 23, dreamed up with co-instructor Heather Phan, 24, at L&L Dance Studio. Their goal? Give kids of all abilities the same chance to shine.
“Just because their body is holding them back, that doesn’t mean they can’t dance,” Meier said. “Being able to move is so good for them, and for everyone.”
In May, Meier and Phan, both of Grand Blanc Township, had let a 6-year-old student perform in her wheelchair after the girl broke her leg just a week before recital. They watched as the other dancers, improvising, circled around the girl.
They danced to “I Believe” and LeAnn Rimes singing, “I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows …”
“The audience, they were in tears,” Meier recalled.
And the seed was sown for Dancing Miracles.
But Meier said God first winked — giving her divine direction disguised as coincidence — much earlier, in 2007.
Fresh out of Central Michigan University with a degree in broadcasting and a minor in dance, Meier had stopped at church in dance clothes after teaching at a local studio. Her pastor asked if she’d ever thought of opening her own studio: A rental space was available upstairs.
Now, after three seasons, Meier said L&L keeps growing, with 130 students from age 2 1/2 to around 40 — including those whose conditions include autism, Down syndrome and physical disabilities. All this is not just chance, she says.
“This is what I’m meant to do.”
Dancing Miracles, which began Sept. 19, meets for a half-hour each Saturday, leading up to recital in June if all goes well. Meier has an eye out for funding that would defray the $30 a month charge per student.
“We know the parents have enough costs as it is,” she said.
Class starts with a touch of chaos as moms and students circle up on the floor with Meier and Phan.
Meier’s done her homework. She knows teaching will be different: more concrete directions and less imagery, more “tap your toe” and less “walk like a mouse.”
But first, 3-year-old Addison Middleton of Grand Blanc, who has autism, cries in the arms of her mom, Angela.
Student Katie Namenye, 22, of Davison Township, so gleeful she can’t sit, clamors for Meier’s attention so she can show off her pink slippers. Looking on, her mother, Sharon, recounts that Katie “just screamed with excitement” when told she’d be going to dance class.
Order begins to set in after warmups. Ten minutes in, the students take turns gracefully crossing the floor, arms above their heads.
Among them is Icee Pierson, a tiny 7-year-old from Burton who has a prosthetic leg and a passion for ballet.
“I can twirl, but not without my walker,” she had declared while waiting with her mom, Paula, for class to start.
But the walker, with its pink Disney Princesses basket, is left behind as Icee strides, bright eyes lifted, from one wall to the other and back.
Addison, too, crosses the room, held in her mother’s arms and drawing applause when she reaches the far wall.
Not bad for the first day of class.
Middleton hopes the social interaction will be good for Addison, who’s shown an interest in movement.
“She likes to dance around kind of to her own beat,” Middleton said.
Other parents express similar hopes.
“I think it’s going to give her confidence and independence,” said Baum, Maria’s mom, envisioning the class as a place where Maria can feel “safe to be herself.”
For her part, Meier wants life-changing experiences for her new students, none of whom she knew before the first class.
“I don’t know if the kids are more excited or the parents,” Meier said.
With all of the smiles and picture-taking after class, it’s hard to tell.
Regardless, everyone leaves with the same food for thought, hand-painted on the door leading outside:
“Why walk through life when you can dance through it?”