Adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities dance for The Arc's festival

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It’s Friday night, and a studio at Eastern Connecticut Ballet in East Lyme is buzzing with energy. As C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” booms from speakers, a half-dozen adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities are happily focused on learning dance moves. They rock back and forth on their heels to the rhythm. Tap one foot while snapping their fingers. Do a box step.

Christine Finch, who is teaching the session, stands in front, doing the choreography herself for everyone to follow. She offers support — when one dancer says he is nervous, Finch says with a smile, “You’re not allowed to be nervous — just like at Special Olympics.” And she provides helpful cues. To prompt a segment where everyone waves their arms back and forth over their heads and then swivels their arms from side to side at waist height, as if they are doing a variation of The Twist, she prompts them with real-life activities that resemble the moves: “Paint the ceiling, wash the table.”

A couple of people occasionally break into grins as they move and let out a whoop or two. A male dancer twirls a woman under his arm like a ballroom pro and then smiles and exults, “I did it, I did it!”

The rehearsal wraps with Finch giving the dancers high fives.

These dancers are participants in The Arc Eastern Connecticut, a nonprofit human services agency that supports individuals with intellectual, developmental and other disabilities, and they are going to perform at The Arc’s fourth annual Film Festival on April 18 at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center.

In this recent rehearsal, they danced alongside a special education teacher, an Arc staff member, and some teenage students from Eastern Connecticut Ballet. The ECB students will join in for the film festival performance.

Everybody dance now

The idea for the dance project came from Denise Tift, who used to run The Arc Eastern Connecticut’s Community Life & Advocacy Program and is now the organization’s director of community outreach. She and Debbie Densmore, who now runs the Community Life & Advocacy Program, had talked for years about doing something dance-related with The Arc group and, Tift says, “This seemed like a perfect fit.”

A couple of reasons for that: One of the short movies being shown at this year’s film festival is “Determined to Dance,” a documentary directed by Peter Barton, about a group of dancers with Down syndrome. The idea grew to pair that dance movie with a live dance performance.

And they knew that Christine Finch, whose sister Megan participates with Arc, had recently studied how to teach adaptive dance.

“It’s just one of those moments when the stars aligned,” says Kathleen Stauffer, chief executive officer of The Arc Eastern Connecticut.

Finch started teaching adaptive dance at ECB last fall, after taking adaptive dance teacher training two years ago at Boston Ballet. (Adaptive dance training covers techniques for teaching dance and movement to individuals with disabilities.)

“It’s something I’m really passionate about. My older sister has Down (syndrome), so growing up, she never was really able to take a dance class with me or do the same things as me. She’s 32 now. She’s in this (Arc) dance. … It’s actually the first time I’ve ever had a dance class with her, and she’s doing fantastic. That makes this project with The Arc even more special because I get to dance with my sister, so that’s exciting,” Finch says.

Megan Finch does the day program at The Arc, and Christine says, “It’s such a great organization. They take such good care of her and really help her be the best human being she can be and support her in that.”

A half-dozen people with IDD (intellectual and developmental disabilities) are participating in the dance at the film festival, and most have danced at social events before but haven’t taken classes.

Christine Finch happened to know all six because they each do Special Olympics with her sister. 

“I have a relationship with all of them, and I didn’t even know it until they showed up. It’s been really, really fantastic because I’ve only seen them in Special Olympics doing track. I’d never seen them dance before. It’s been great getting to know them and what their capabilities are,” she says.

The piece that will be performed at the film festival is “just a little demonstration,” Finch says.

How the process worked: Finch put on the music, and, she says, “We started playing around with some steps, and it unfolded naturally. They had some input and came up with steps. … They’re very opinionated. (She laughs.) They have a lot of strong feelings about the choreography and what steps that should be added.”

When talking about the process, the Arc participants are just as enthusiastic. Heather Telgarsky of Gales Ferry says that both rehearsing the dance and working with the ECB students has been a lot of fun. She hopes that the audience at the show will smile and applaud the performers.

Aaron Newton of Norwich likewise says it’s been wonderful and that Finch “has been amazing. … She knows what she sees in us as a group, and the good thing with her is when she taught us a lot of stuff, we learned it. … We picked it up and we’ve gotten better.” He hopes the people who watch the performance will “be happy that we did this because we did it as a team.”

The power of the film festival

Finch, who grew up in Old Saybrook, started dancing somewhere between ages 7 and 9, and she studied at ECB. After graduating from St. Bernard School in Uncasville, she earned her bachelor’s degree in dance pedagogy (teaching) from Butler University in Indianapolis.

She explored adaptive dancing a bit when at Butler but, when she saw later on that Boston Ballet was offering a course in adaptive dancing, she jumped at it. She then worked with ECB Executive Director Lise Reardon to start the adaptive dance program there. (She also leads a Monday night class at ECB for differently abled people who are overcoming more difficult physical limitations; she almost always has a special education teacher, occupational therapist and/or physical therapist for those sessions.)

Teaching adaptive dance, Finch says, “has just been so fulfilling. It’s one of my favorite things.”

While the dance is a new addition to the film festival, the fest itself has been flourishing since it began four years ago. Other movies to be screened on April 18 include “Watching Over,” about an elderly woman who provides a home and care for two older women with Down syndrome, and “This Is Jim,” about a young man who is independent, has a job, participates in Special Olympics, and enjoys being part of his community.

“The thing about the film festival is that it’s hard for people to understand exactly how powerful it is,” Stauffer says.

“You think, ‘Oh, that’s going to be depressing’ or ‘Oh, I don’t know if I want to do that on a Thursday night.’ But you walk out of it, and it’s a transformative experience. I know it sounds like a sales pitch, but it IS a transformative experience for every person who goes,” she says, adding that even those who work with people with IDD every day are affected by the festival.

“It reminds us about what matters. It reminds us about not judging people. It reminds us about not taking things at face value and looking deeper. And it challenges our presuppositions of what we think we know about other people. … You see people overcoming challenges bigger than your own, and you think, ‘I can be a better person, I can be a bigger person, I need to go out there tomorrow and do a better job at what I do.' The lesson is really powerful."

If you go

What: The Arc Eastern Connecticut's Film Festival, including a dance performance 

When: 5:30-8 p.m. April 18

Where: Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, 110 Pequot Trail, Mashantucket

Tickets: $35

Includes: Hors d'oeuvres, cash bar, silent action

Benefits: The Arc Eastern Connecticut's Community Life and Advocacy program


Call: (860) 889-4435, ext. 116



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