Most little girls dream about being a ballerina. Thanks to Kellie Lightfoot, a pediatric physical therapist at Akron Children’s Hospital, there’s about 40 little girls with special needs who are living the dream.
Every Wednesday evening, dancers of all ability levels and both genders assemble in the Emily Cooper Welty Expressive Therapy under the direction of the cheerful, effervescent Lightfoot. Don’t tell the kids, but they are having a therapy session. They think they are just having fun with a bunch of friends.
“The motivation in a dance class astonishes me compared to the motivation in therapy,” said Lightfoot, a former Cavs Girl dancer. “The kids are actually getting extra benefits from our dance classes, but they are really just having fun and don’t even realize it is a form of therapy.”
For Makenzie Yovanovich, dancing with the kids in Dance Unlimited is a dream come true. Born with a rare form of congenital muscular dystrophy called Bethem Myopathy, Makenzie became obsessed with watching wheelchair dancing videos on YouTube about a few years ago. She occasionally uses a wheelchair for longer distances, and her father, who also has muscular dystrophy, has been using a wheelchair since he was 12.
“She would watch the videos over and over, memorizing them. She would beg me to let her take a dance class,” said her mother, Jennifer Yovanovich. “I thought it was impossible because of her disabilities, but it broke my heart to tell her that. When I mentioned the dilemma to my friends on Facebook, someone had heard of the Dance Unlimited program and suggested we look into it. It was a great discovery for Makenzie.”
Lightfoot says Makenzie feels right at home with her fellow dancers and benefits from the ability to express herself through movement.
“Makenzie really represents what Dance Unlimited has to offer,” said Lightfoot. “This is a little girl who would have great difficulty trying to participate in a typical dance class, however in Dance Unlimited, where we can pair her with a spotter to help her do moves, she shines.”
The program began 2 years ago and started with 15 students. The demand has been high because there aren’t many opportunities like this for special need kids. Accordingly, the program has grown to two classes comprised of 45 students.
“For many kids in the class, this is their first opportunity to participate in a recreation activity,” said Lightfoot. “They get to be around other kids who are faced with similar challenges. They are able to open up and try new things without the fear of judgment from other kids.”
The classes benefit kids dealing with a variety of diagnosis, including Down syndrome, limb length difficulties, pulmonary problems, autism and cerebral palsy. Lightfoot teaches them a variety of dance styles, including ballet, country line dancing, jazz and hip hop.
“There’s been a huge demand, with waiting lists for every session,” said Lightfoot. “If anything I hope it brings awareness to the need for other activities for kids with special needs. If you are an expert at something, such as a sport like baseball or a hobby like scrap booking, start something for these kids to do. You’ll definitely get as much from the experience as they do.”