Olivia Schmidt and Scarlett Prock love their weekly dance classes, where they leap and twirl as they practice a new dance routine that they’ll perform during their first-ever recital this spring.
“Scarlett doesn’t speak but we can tell when she’s excited,” Jack Mickelson says of his 6-year-old daughter. “When we’re pulling in, she’s beaming.”
Olivia, an 8-year-old from Fall Creek, says her dance class is “cool.” A fan of ballet, she especially enjoys practicing her leaps.
The two girls are part of a new dance program for Eau Claire area youth who have disabilities, a community outreach program created and supported by University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire kinesiology students and faculty. This spring, 12 young people ages 6-16 are participating in the pilot program, which includes two hour-long classes — one for the younger kids and one for the older dancers — every Monday night at Pablo Center at the Confluence in downtown Eau Claire.
The free program gives children and teens who have disabilities an opportunity to participate in physical activity through the art of dance. The classes are adapted to meet the needs of each individual child, ensuring they each have the best experience possible regardless of their disability.
“The kids are incredible,” says Baillie Ollila, a junior kinesiology-rehabilitation science major and director of the dance program. “They come in energetic and ready to go. They already are blossoming.”
Ollila leads the classes, and 24 UW-Eau Claire students volunteer each week to work with the young dancers, offering friendship and encouragement as they work on their dance moves.
On April 18, the final session of the seven-week program, the dancers will perform during a recital in the RCU Theatre in Pablo Center.
Meeting a community need
Ollila proposed creating a dance class for young people with disabilities after volunteering with a similar program near her hometown of White Bear Lake, Minnesota. She saw the positive difference the program made in the lives of kids there and hoped to replicate it in Eau Claire.
With the support of UW-Eau Claire faculty mentors, P.R.I.D.E. Dance was established as part of the Physical activity and Recreation for Individuals with Disabilities in the Eau Claire area (P.R.I.D.E.) program.
The incredible response from local families, teachers and others who learned about the program was a welcome surprise, Ollila says.
That community response reflects just how much the program is needed in the area, says Dr. Tara Putnam, an assistant professor of kinesiology and one of the program’s faculty advisors.
“It’s important to offer opportunities to those who are underserved, and this is definitely a population that is underserved in this community,” Putnam says.
The parents of Olivia and Scarlett agree, saying they’ve struggled to find community-based activities that are designed for kids with disabilities. As a result, their children miss out on experiences that many kids enjoy, including being part of group activities that allow them to spend time with their peers.
“We found out about the dance class from Scarlett’s school, and we were immediately very excited,” Mickelson says. “It’s a challenge to find programs for special awesome kids like Scarlett, so the second we saw this we knew we were signing her up.”
Penny Schmidt, Olivia’s mother, agrees, saying she also jumped at the chance to enroll her daughter in a dance class that was created specifically for children with disabilities.
“I want Olivia to be part of something that is going to be for her ability,” Schmidt says. “It’s also important for her to be with kids who are like her. This class does both of those things.”
After just a few weeks, Schmidt already sees positive changes in Olivia, especially in her self-confidence.
“She’s more confident even at school now,” Schmidt says. “Knowing she can go somewhere and be with kids who are like her every week helps her.”
Putnam is impressed by the changes she sees in the dancers each week. They’ve made “phenomenal” growth in terms of their dancing, but also in their willingness to try new things, she says.
“It’s completely beautiful and a little emotional,” Putnam says of seeing the young dancers gain new skills and confidence each week. “The kids have really taken on the initiative and responsibility to learn the dances and to be in engaged in them. It’s just a beautiful thing to see.”
Engaging the campus community
With just 10 to 12 dancers and 24 UW-Eau Claire student volunteers in each class, the dancers get the time and attention they need to be successful, Ollila says.
“We want them to make new friends but forming new relationships with these undergrad volunteers also is a really cool experience for the kids,” says Ollila, adding that it’s rewarding to see so many of her fellow Blugolds want to part of the dance program.
The 2-to-1 Blugold-to-dancer ratio is among the program’s strengths, Schmidt says, adding that the college students have been an important part of Olivia’s dance experience. Their friendship and encouragement has made a difference, she says.
“It gives her so much confidence when she can open up to these college students,” Schmidt says. “I think it’s wonderful they are doing this for these kiddos.”
Blugold volunteer Molly Rajala, a junior kinesiology-rehabilitative science major with a chiropractic emphasis from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, says she gets as much from the dance classes as the kids do.
“It’s super exciting to be part of it,” says Rajala, who is a member of UW-Eau Claire’s gymnastics team and coaches in youth gymnastics programs. “If there is an opportunity to work with kids, I hop on board.”
Since she doesn’t have a dance background, there has been a “crazy big learning curve,” Rajala says. “But every time I leave this room, I’m feeling great and excited about what I’ve done that day. This is always something to look forward to every week.”
Rajala says it’s inspiring to see the kids — many of whom have not been part of group activities before — find so much joy in being together in the dance classes.
“It’s really fun to push these kids past their boundaries,” Rajala says. “They have really impressed me in their eagerness to learn something new, whether it’s a dance or being around others. It’s just really, really motivating.”
Looking to the future
Given its success so far, Ollila hopes the program will continue and grow in the future. She also hopes it might inspire other businesses, including local dance studios, to launch their own programs specifically for youth with disabilities.
Nicole Prock, Scarlett’s mother, shares that hope.
“I wish it never had to end,” Prock says of the classes. “Scarlett loves it. I’m so happy this was available, and my only wish is that there would be even more programs like this one.”
Describing the program as the “epitome of what we want the university to be,” Putnam says faculty already are planning how to ensure it continues even after Ollila graduates.
“This is a program that adds to the community and the university, and I’m just so glad that it’s here,” Putnam says.
Part of planning for the future involves building relationships with community partners, including Pablo Center, Putnam says. Rehearsing each week in Pablo Center — a beautiful off-campus venue in the heart of the community — adds to dancers’ experiences, as does performing their recital in the 1,200-seat RCU Theatre, she says.
“Pablo Center has been nothing but wonderful,” Putnam says. “They’ve taken us in and encouraged everything we could have dreamed or imagined so we can give our students and the dance class participants an experience they will never forget.”
The dancers, parents and university students are excited for the April 18 recital.
The first group will dance to “When She Loved Me” from the Toy Story movie. “It’s definitely a tear-jerker,” Ollila says. “It’s more ballet style; slower but it incorporates a lot of different movements.”
The second group’s dance will be more funky, jazzy and upbeat, she says. “It’s something fun and we want to finish the recital on an exciting, celebratory happy note,” she says.
Prock says that while she expects that Scarlett will do more running around than dancing during the recital, it feels good to know that it won’t matter.
“What’s so great about this class is that it’s not about perfecting the dance but about being involved,” Prock says. “It’s fine if she learns a dance, but it’s not the main thing. It’s just good for her to have this peer interaction. She doesn’t have opportunities to hang out with her peers or do activities with them, so this class is so good for her.”