In October of 2014, I was asked to teach dance/ movement therapy classes at ATCO (Advocacy, Training, Careers, Opportunities), a center for adults with disabilities in the Athens Community, along with a fellow student in the Dance Division. I had no idea that simply spending one hour per week with these individuals would make such a significant impact on my life and become the best part of my junior year.
It is often said that it takes a special kind of person to work with a population like the individuals at ATCO. I didn’t think I was that person. I walked in to the facility on the day of my first class questioning how in the world I was going to do this. Would they listen? Would they be violent? Would they even understand what I was saying? I went into the experience with an attitude based on stereotypes of mental hospitals in horror films and TV shows. I could not have been more wrong.
Going into the first class, Grace (my fellow teacher) and I had no idea what our students would be capable of. I was used to teaching trained dancers who had knowledge of ballet vocabulary. For ATCO, we had to approach the class as a movement experience rather than a dance class. We focused on getting them to reach their limbs out into space, use both homolateral and contralateral movements and learn basic rhythmic patterns such as stepping or clapping to a beat. We focused primarily on arm motions because many of the students had to sit in chairs or wheelchairs.
The amount of material our ATCO students were able to pick up and maintain was astounding. In just a few weeks they had improved significantly and could move with confidence. I could also tell that they were more comfortable and enjoying our weekly classes. One day our supervisor, Tami, approach Grace and I to tell us that one of our students who uses a wheelchair said that this was the best she had felt in years. Another student told Tami that dance class was his favorite part of the week. I hadn’t realized how much dance was impacting them. I took for granted the power of movement since I was used to dancing for hours on end each day in my classes and rehearsals.
In early March our students performed at the Disabilities Awareness Festival held at the Athens Community Center. Seeing the confidence in their eyes and the smiles on their faces as they performed the choreography was amazing. I was so proud I could have cried right there.
The next week we had our final class of the year at ATCO. Grace and I were in awe as we walked in to a party thrown for us by our students. We performed in front of the other clients and employees at ATCO and celebrated the year with cookies and fruit punch. Each of our students made us thank you cards, artwork, and one student even sang us a song. We received endless hugs and thank you’s. Tears started to well in my eyes as I thought about the coming months without these wonderful people.
The individuals at ATCO are some of the most amazing and inspiring people I have ever met. They are kind, caring, funny and intelligent. They proved that anyone can dance and I am convinced that they can accomplish anything they put their mind to. When I began teaching in October, I thought I was just teaching dance class. I was wrong. As my students were learning new ways to move their bodies, together we were collectively learning about each other and how we can come together as a community.
Volunteering at ATCO was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I can’t wait to return in September to reunite with my students. I encourage everyone to seek out an experience similar to mine. Try something new, work with a population you never have before and take a chance because it will change you forever.