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North Hills Monthly

Yes You Can Dance Transformative Experience for Those with Special Needs

Oct 30, 2015 03:06PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch
Alycia Lazur likes to dance the waltz. In fact, she is on a performance team with her dance group and says that she loves to dance with a partner. Lazur, 33, has special needs, but when she is on the dance floor, she is on an equal playing field with everyone else in the room.

Lazur is a participant in Yes You Can Dance, a nonprofit organization founded in 2011 by Rebecca Stern. “The name of our organization says everything about us. Our mission is to say, ‘yes, you can dance’ to people, regardless of their needs,” said Stern, who strongly believes in the transformative power of dance and has a background in both dance and in teaching people with special needs.

Yes You Can Dance is held in the North Hills at DancExplosion Arts Center on Babcock Boulevard, where the focus is on ballroom dance. Students meet weekly for lessons in six-week sessions, advancing to a new level when they are ready. Some participants also have performance opportunities, such as Lazur. Chris Roth, owner of Steel City Ballroom in Mt. Lebanon, is Yes You Can Dance’s program director.

“We took what he had been doing and worked with special needs educators to come up with adaptations to facilitate working with adults with cognitive challenges,” said Stern.

Students learn to respect one another in a warm and friendly atmosphere. “There is a nice, beautiful community that develops in every classroom that we have had. That is the part of ballroom dancing that can be transformative: a social connection, an opportunity for people to connect in a respectful and enjoyable way,” Stern explained.

Stern works with people with a variety of special needs, including autism and Down syndrome, and is also starting a group for people struggling with the challenges of multiple sclerosis. She also works with people dealing with other physical challenges, including seniors, and those who need a walker or a wheelchair for ambulation.

While the participants receive lesson by professional dance instructors, the organization couldn’t function without dance mentors such as Sally Ondek, a dental hygienist at Dentistry For Kids. Ondek knows something about adversity, having been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and being a two-time cancer survivor. These experiences made her want to give back to the community, and Yes You Can Dance is a perfect fit.

“They are the happiest, most joyous population group—they make me smile as much as I make them smile,” said Ondek. Even though dancers range in age from teens to their 40s, Ondek refers to the participants as her kids. And she sees the transformation every week. “In dance, you have to use your memory, your brain, your body, and you use your arms and legs in different directions,” she explained.

Ondek has worked with Dallas Hoffman, a 17-year-old Millvale native who is a gifted and musical high school junior, and who is also on the autism spectrum with Asperger’s Syndrome, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and pervasive developmental disorder (PDD). Hoffman’s mother, Lisa, said that he was reluctant to take classes at first as he is into heavy metal music, but after the first lesson, he gave the class his approval.

Not only has Dallas improved in his social relations, but Hoffman has observed that many other participants who wouldn’t make eye contact with people are now doing so. “It’s like magic. I don’t know how to explain it,” she said.

Explained Stern, “It’s a vehicle for a wellness opportunity. Their world can shrink and opportunity for social engagement can narrow; this is a way for us to open that world up a bit for them.”