For Kellie Lightfoot, dancing is more than movement. It’s a way of life.
Her passion for dance started at age 3 and has afforded her many opportunities over the years, including performing at the collegiate level and as a Cleveland Cavalier Girl dancer. Her most satisfying dance achievement, though, has come off stage, as the founder and instructor of Dance Unlimited at Akron Children’s Hospital.
“I got the idea for Dance Unlimited when I was in high school,” said Kellie Lightfoot, physical therapist at Akron Children’s Hospital and founder of Dance Unlimited. “Dancing has always been such a huge part of my life and I knew I wanted to work with kids with special needs. Dance Unlimited is the result of two things that I am most passionate about.”
In 2007, with the support of the physical therapy department, Lightfoot was able to bring Dance Unlimited to life. The dance program replaced typical physical therapy sessions to benefit kids dealing with a variety of diagnoses, including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy (CP), autism, Spina Bifida, paralysis and pulmonary problems.
“Although the program has tons of physical benefits, it’s important to me that it doesn’t feel like therapy,” said Lightfoot. “I want kids to come to a dance class, like other little dancers do, and make new friends, be a part of a team.”
The hospital’s Emily Cooper Welty Expressive Therapy Center provides the ideal ‘studio’ space for Lightfoot to teach kids a variety of dance styles including ballet, contemporary, jazz and hip hop.
To further support an environment of fun and learning, she teaches kids dance terminology like “plié” and “relevé” so the moves don’t seem like work or therapy. She also includes spirited dance games and uses fun props to keep kids engaged in the 45-minute class.
With the help of dance assistants, volunteers who assist kids with balance or movement, Lightfoot teaches dance routines in translations. She translates moves to fit every child’s abilities – a version for stand-up and sit-down dancers, for kids wearing braces and for those who can only move their head and neck.
Lightfoot is quick to point out that these versions are dance techniques not compensations.
“Just because one child moves differently than another doesn’t make it wrong. We celebrate those differences and make sure the kids are proud of the way they can do the dance move,” Lightfoot said. “Instead of standing out because they aren’t able to do something, they get to be in the spotlight because of what they can do. It’s a chance for them to show why not blending in can be a gift…”
In fact, one of Lightfoot’s students with CP confessed to her that she knows people stare at her because she walks differently. But, when people watch her on stage, she knows they aren’t looking at her because she is different. They are looking at her because she is a dancer.
“It’s feedback like this that makes me stop and realize just how important the program is to these kids,” Lightfoot said. “If it (dancing) can help shape their self-esteem then it makes me love what I do even more.”
The benefits of Dance Unlimited can not only be seen in the faces of the dancers, but also felt by the parents who watch.
“During practice, parents get a chance to talk with other parents who have similar life experiences. They talk about their struggles or things they’ve found success with,” said Lightfoot. “They also get to sit and watch their child learn and enjoy something all on their own, without their help.”
The dancers also benefit greatly from participating in a group with other kids in similar situations and make friendships they otherwise might not have made.
“Making friends can be tough for some of these kids but, by being part of this class, they don’t have to worry about being accepted. They just get to be friends,” Lightfoot said. “We’ve had kids get invited to a birthday party for the first time and some go on their first sleepover all because they met through Dance Unlimited.”
Today, Dance Unlimited has grown from 1 class of 13 dancers to 3 classes with 60+ students. Thanks to a 2014 grant received from Akron Children’s Hospital’s Kids Are #1 Run, the program continues to be offered at no cost to families.
Lightfoot feels the success of the program is due to the intangible, positive feeling that comes from belonging to a team, many for the first time. As such, Lightfoot makes sure the group receives end-of-year trophies, gets team pictures taken and performs on stage, as a team, at venues like the Akron Civic Theater and Quicken Loans Arena.
“My favorite part of Dance Unlimited is seeing the kids feel proud of themselves,” said Lightfoot. “…I really feel like this (Dance Unlimited) is what I am meant to do.”
See Kellie perform “My Grown Up Christmas List” with Nicole, an assistant with Dance Unlimited, during their 2016 holiday recital.