Every June, 15-year-old Eric Petersen gets to become a hip-hop dance star for one night — an experience made possible for him and other students with developmental disabilities through dance classes organized by the Town of Islip’s Youth Bureau.
“I always get emotional when I see him up there dancing,” said Bea Petersen, Eric’s mother, of East Islip. “He has a diagnosis of autism, but that’s just part of who he is. Who he is up there is that dancer who is giving his heart and soul to it.”
The hip-hop dance program is free to developmentally disabled youth and young adults and is offered at David Sanders Dance Dynamics in Oakdale.
Tim Mare, executive director of the Youth Bureau, said the program is part of officials’ efforts to ensure the agency’s programs include offerings for all children.
The program is in its 13th year and is free. It is funded through a $9,000 grant the town’s Youth Bureau received from the New York State Office of People with Developmental Disabilities.
The program offers two classes to 22 youth and young adults with special needs every Friday evening at the dance studio in Oakdale. Mare said there is often a waiting list to get in, with a 25-person cap on spaces.
Officials said the goal is to increase self-awareness, improve self-image and create a positive social experience for people with autism and intellectual disabilities.
Sisters Samantha and Mandi Kovalevich work together to teach the class, along with two aides who jump in to help when the dancers have trouble learning a move or have behavioral issues.
“We provide such a great environment for them,” Samantha Kovalevich said. “I think it comes down to the community that we’ve built for them beyond just what we’re teaching them.”
Petersen said class has helped her son learn how to make friends and maintain social relationships. Seeing him perform is the ultimate culmination of those lessons.
“These kids, when they go out on the dance floor and perform in front of the crowd — it’s a standing ovation,” Petersen said. “People appreciate that these guys had to work very hard to be there . . . They’re able to send a message to the kids that this is important, this matters. You are a star.”
Classes run during the school year, with summers off, and an annual recital is held in June, when the students get a chance to showcase their dance skills.
Mandi Kovalevich said the class has been just as rewarding for the teachers.
“Watching the way it changes these kids’ lives, there’s no better feeling in the world,” she said. “I had kids who could not get off the floor, who now do things that in my wildest dreams I would never have imagined them pulling off on a stage. I’m like a proud mama.”
To learn more or apply to join the dance class, contact the Islip Youth Bureau at firstname.lastname@example.org.
$0 — The program is free to participants, but there is a waiting list
$9,000 — Funding grant for program from the New York State Office of People with Developmental Disabilities
2 — Number of classes offered
22 — Number of youths and young adults participating