MANSFIELD -- For nearly two years Heidi Augustine has instructed Chance to Dance, a program for special needs children at the Mansfield Area YMCA. The class meets on the second and fourth Saturdays each month.
With her training in dance education, she started teaching a Thursday night dance class covering multiple styles at the YMCA seven years ago.She quickly noticed a need for a special needs dance class.
“There just wasn’t really a steady program in Mansfield that had dance classes for the special needs community,” Augustine said. Chance to Dance averages five to seven children from ages 5 to 19. With the help of volunteers from the Thursday night dance class, Augustine customizes the class to meet the needs of all participants. The volunteers know which students need the most help and which don’t prefer to be touched. “There are adaptations you can do to any dance move to make it work for the needs the participants,” Augustine said.
The children have focused on learning modern contemporary dance moves, but Augustine will soon incorporate tap to honor the requests of the children. Augustine says both the children and their parents benefit from the program. “Above and beyond the physical aspect of gained flexibility, strength and muscle memory; there’s also the social aspect of it,” Augustine said. “Not just the children are getting to know each other better, but the parents get to spend time together as well. They get a little bit of down time where their child is entertained. They get to share their struggles and triumphs.”
The Mansfield special needs community is tight-knit, and many of the children know each other through the other recreational programs at the YMCA. Often, they become close friends. “They are always so excited to see each other when they walk in the room,” Augustine said. “They will cheer when a new person enters the room that they haven’t seen in awhile.” Davis Chapman, a Chance to Dance participant with autism, has grown in his listening skills through Chance to Dance. “There is a lot of discipline involved with dance,” Augustine said. “It’s not just learning the moves.”
Davis said he especially enjoyed a recent dance class that included an animal sounds game. His favorite dance move imitates a swimming motion. “I love practicing,” Davis said. While it is difficult for Davis and the other students to focus for the 60-minute classes, Augustine and her team help them listen, stand in line and move in the right direction. Augustine says Davis naturally lights up the room. “He will change your life as soon as you get to know him,” she said.
Augustine says many special needs parents and caregivers she works with go above and beyond to make their child the best they can be. Davis’ mom Amanda Chapman is one of these parents. “I just watch her in awe as she never stops doing things with Davis to help him grow,” Augustine said. “He’s going to thrive.” Davis’ parents enroll him in as many activities as possible so he can learn his interests, meet other children and have fun. For the second time, Chance to Dance students performed in the annual spring dance recital.
“All of the grown-ups sit down, and we all join in,” Davis said. “I wore my tie and sparkly hat. All of us did a good job.”
Chapman said Davis never stops practicing his moves at home. “I think he is probably more comfortable being in front of large groups of people because of the recital,” Chapman said. “He’s more free to be who he is because of the class.”
Chapman appreciates Augustine’s patience and commitment to helping each student learn the dances. Augustine hopes to expand the program to include both a developmental disability class and a physical disability class. She would also like to offer classes in different styles of dance - tap, jazz, ballet and modern - for the special needs community. However, adding classes would take additional committed instructors.
Augustine is grateful for the support of the YMCA staff that empowered her to start affordable and inclusive dance classes. Staff members understand the needs of the community and put programs into place to meet these needs.
“I love the community,” Augustine said. “I love all of the other programs that the YMCA has that people may not even know about. I wasn’t even aware of all of them. There is so much good going on at the YMCA that you don’t even really see.”
Chapman appreciates the YMCA staff’s commitment to providing inclusive and family friendly experiences.
“Thank you so much for letting the YMCA be a place where we can go and have fun as a family,” Chapman said.