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Kids with disabilities dance with help from teen volunteers

At first glance the nonprofit organization looks like your average dance studio with a barre, mats and dozens of props.

Sixteen-year-old Abigail Penny, from Merrick, is a ballerina with spina bifida, a condition that can make it difficult to move and speak. On Tuesday, Nov. 6, she spoke about Dancing Dreams, a nonprofit that has helped her realize her own dreams of dance. (Credit: Newsday / Tulika Bose)

Gripping and leaning over the barre, struggling to keep herself up in a room surrounded by dancers, Abigail Penny, 16, stood for more than a minute — the longest she’s stood since the fourth grade.

“The fact that I was able to stand for that amount of time again was like a really special moment and it made me really, really happy,” said Penny, who has spina bifida, which affects her ability to walk, stand and speak.

Penny, of Merrick, is just one of the many dancers who gather every Thursday evening in Bayside, Queens, for class with the Dancing Dreams program. The program has helped her build confidence and strength, which she loves to show off during her performances for others.

At first glance the nonprofit organization looks like your average dance studio with a barre, mats and dozens of props. But its students have physical and medical disabilities that make it harder to move like the typical ballerina. Genetic or neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, spinal muscular atrophy and spinal cord injuries are common among them.

Joann Ferrara, a pediatric physical therapist, is a teacher at and creator of Dancing Dreams. The dance program now has locations in Manhattan and has started holding classes in Plainview at American Legion Hall.

“One day a little girl was dressed in a tiara and a tutu and I said, ‘Oh, you’re like a ballerina,’ and she looked at me and said, ‘I wish I could be a dancer, but no one wants me,’” said Ferrara, 62, of Jericho. “And it just struck me as, how sad that at 4 years old someone feels no one wants her.”

That’s when she had the idea to start a dance program. What started in the backroom of her office in Bayside with five girls has grown to four classes in Bayside, three in Manhattan, and two in Plainview with 128 students ranging from 3 to 20 years old. There are another 170 teens enrolled in the Leadership Program as helpers.

Class starts at the barre, as it would at any other studio. Dancers warm up with arm positions in high fifth, raised above the head. Ferrara then instructs them to use their feet and practice pointing their toes in first position — the most common ballet stance.

Since some students can’t stand on their own, Dancing Dreams has helpers for each dancer. All helpers are teens in high school who volunteer to be a dancer’s designated partner for the year — some dancers have had the same helpers for multiple years. Most of the helpers find out about the program through their high school’s guidance counselors and community centers. But a lot of them join through word of mouth from friends and family.

Penny’s helper, Annabelle Lau, 15, has worked with her for nearly three years, and they are now friends outside of classes, too.

Helpers hold each student firmly by their waists so the dancers can focus on Ferrara’s instructions instead of worrying about falling. For students who sit in a wheelchair during class, the helper will point or flex their feet.

Penny is unable to move her feet without her helper gently pushing on her kneecaps to make her stand on her own.

“My experience with Abby from Day One was absolutely magical. She’s such a wonderful person and I’m so glad to be working with her,” said Lau, who’s from Great Neck.

Lau does get tired while holding Penny up for the duration of the class, but she said Penny’s spirit is what keeps her going. She became involved with the nonprofit because her mother has worked with Ferrara on creating costumes for the students.

After warm-up, each dancer gets a moment to shine with a solo dance to classical or hip-hop music.

“A lot of the dancers, before they started here, were really shy and didn’t like to get up on stage or felt awkward about their bodies and how they looked,” Ferrara said. “We encourage them to be the best they can be and to do whatever they can.”

All the props and shoes — donated from various dance studios in New York City and Long Island — are stored for next week. Ferrara says when they started, they didn’t have enough shoes for everyone to have a pair, so each dancer had just a single shoe.

Everyone performs at an annual recital. The older girls, who are in high school, even dance at galas throughout the year.

Penny says ballet is her favorite type of dance, because of the slow movements of the arms and the beat of the music.

She also enjoys “performing for other people and expressing the things I’ve learned and showing people my progress in either standing or stepping.”

Ferrara says people sometimes tell her they won’t come to the shows or class because they find it sad to watch. She couldn’t disagree more.

“That’s just what it’s not. It’s not a pity; it’s not sad. It’s happiness. If you come to the show, the overriding emotion is joy and happiness,” she said. “And we always try to instill a sense of pride for them to be proud of what they can do.”

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