Darby’s Dancers Step into Rewarding Friendships

Dance teacher Colleen Giardina loves all her classes, but Wednesdays and Saturdays are extra special at Ashburn Academy of Dance.

This fall, the school partnered with the Darby’s Dancers nonprofit to launch a program for special needs students, pairing them with teen volunteers and helping them discover the excitement of dance.

“It’s such a joy for me. It’s two hours of my week that I look forward to and enjoy. I leave the class smiling every time,” Giardina said. “It’s become this wonderful community and it’s brought unbelievable happiness to my life as well.”

Darby’s Dancers is national program for special needs dancers and is completely free for students. The organization was launched by Valerie Jones whose daughter, Darby, was an avid dancer. She had Down Syndrome and died of leukemia in 2013.

When Ashburn Academy owners Anne Marie Kimmell and Katie Beliveau decided to bring the program to Loudoun, Giardina and fellow instructor Katie Hooper jumped at the chance to teach. The school started with a Saturday morning class for children ages 5 to 10, and in response to community demand started a weekday evening class for teens and young adults.

[View Loudoun Now’s photo gallery here.]

To prepare for the program, Giardina took a class focused on teaching dance to special needs students, offered through National Dance Education Organization. And after meeting Valerie Jones, Giardina discovered the Rhythm Works Integrative Dance program for teaching students with learning differences, and is now certified by that organization.

For Giardina, watching the talents of her young students bloom is inspiring, as are the friendships that develop among the volunteer helpers and her students, who have a range of physical and intellectual disabilities including Down Syndrome, autism and visual and hearing impairments.

“They’re with them the whole class and they dance with them,” Giardina said. “They’re becoming amazing friends through this.”

The social element is a big part of the fun for 8-year-old Noah Annis of Ashburn. The energetic and chatty young man is always looking for a chance to move and be active, but just as important, the class is a chance to socialize and have fun. Noah said his partner Julia Kern is a perfect match.

“I enjoy dancing with her and I also enjoy talking with her quite a bit,” said Noah, who has also enjoyed getting to know fellow students. “That’s pretty much the most fun part of it.”

Hannah Gamble, a student in the Darby’s Dancers program, Gamble does a high kick during a recent class. [Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now]
Noah has a dyspraxia diagnosis, a developmental coordination disorder that affects fine and gross motor skills. But he loves sports and being active, said his father, Mathew Annis. Noah is a member of the Challenger Division Little League, which also pairs players up with buddies, and Darby’s Dancers is another fun way to get moving.

“I’ve been very, very impressed by [Julia] and all the other volunteers. They seem very committed to what they’re doing,” Mathew Annis said. “It means the world to all the kids that they’re there helping and we’re, of course, so grateful for Colleen for setting up the program and putting in all the time and effort. A free program like this is pretty remarkable.”

The Darby’s Dancers program is also rewarding for teen volunteers who are students at Ashburn Academy, said 16-year-old Sophia Berger. Berger not only volunteers as a helper in both the Saturday and Wednesday classes, she’s also in charge of fundraising for the program, helping to cover the costs of tuition, costumes and dance shoes for participants.

Berger, a Stone Bridge High School junior, has been dancing since the age of 3 and is a member of both of Ashburn Academy’s performance companies. She’s also a member of the National Honor Society and manages a tough academic load in addition to her own dance schedule and volunteer commitments. But the joy of experiencing dance through the eyes of her partners makes the time commitment worthwhile.

“I feel like it is the passion that I have for dance that helps me create the time to do it,” Berger said. “The most exciting part is the joy the dancers have in the class. When we’re with them, it really brings back the appreciation for dance.”

Berger, who hopes to have a career in dance and possibly open her own studio one day, has also stepped into a leadership role in fundraising, reaching out to businesses, organizations and individuals for sponsorships and planning special events and parties at the studio to raise money for Darby’s Dancers.

For Giardina and her team of volunteers, this year is just the beginning of a program designed to tap into gifts and enthusiasm in children who may have challenges in other areas.

“They’re amazing kids and they come in with a sense of wanting to move and loving the music,” Giardina said. “They jump in with both feet and they do everything we ask them to do with huge smiles on their faces.”

Find more information on Ashburn Academy of Dance and the Darby’s Dancers program in Loudoun at ashburnballet.com.

To find out about sponsorship opportunities, contact Sophia Berger at sophiacberger@gmail.com.

The Darby’s Dancers class at Ashburn Academy of Dance means a chance for special needs students to stretch their toes and their comfort level. [Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now]

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