Adam Minter sits center stage and throws his arms in the air, pumping them more or less to the beat of the music. Girls in baggy sweatpants and tight tees twist and bounce in front of him. Adam smiles as he watches the dancers. Keri Hilson’s catchy single “Get Your Money Up” pulses through the auditorium. Occasionally, Adam, 22, kicks his legs to the hip-hop beat.
Next to Adam, his 18-year-old brother Sam rocks to the bass line. He hoists a tentative arm above him and then drops it in his lap. Every so often, he claps.
The brothers’ dance teacher, Bonnie Destakasi, stops the music and hops up on stage.
“Adam and Sam, I need more from you,” she says.
It’s not a reprimand, but the brothers seem to get the point. On the next take, they are more animated.
They better be. In January, the Minters, along with the rest of Destakasi’s intro dance class at Essex High School, are slated to perform at the Champ Sports Bowl in Orlando with hundreds of other scholastic dancers.
That’s assuming they raise the money needed to get there. Between now and December 7, the 24-person class must produce a sum in the neighborhood of $40,000. Not an easy proposition even for prolific and experienced fundraisers.
If Destakasi’s class were an average dance crew, the price tag wouldn’t be nearly so high. But the ever-optimistic, plucky teacher’s class is called Inclusion Fusion, a nod to the fact that kids of all kinds are welcome in her class. Her students range from varsity soccer players and aspiring professional dancers to kids with cerebral palsy, autism and Down syndrome.
The Minter boys both have an undiagnosed global developmental disability whose symptoms include limited language skills, low muscle tone and delayed cognition. Adam uses a walker, while Sam gets around in a wheelchair pushed by an aide. But that doesn’t stop them from dancing.
Seeing the brothers dance on stage with a crew of other students is heartening to their mother, Sue Minter. Adam and Sam’s participation in Destakasi’s class gives them a chance to interact with their peers — a rarity for the boys.
While most of their schooling at Essex High School has been special education, it’s important, their mother says, for them to be exposed to “regular” classes where they work side by side with their contemporaries — as they do in Inclusion Fusion.
The class began last year as a beginner dance offering for students in all grades at the high school. Then Destakasi got some interested inquiries from special educators who wanted to integrate their students into more traditional classes. Dance seemed like a perfect way to do so.
Soon Destakasi had eight kids in her class who had a variety of disabilities, some more complicated than others. Of the 24 students in the class, “almost half are accessing their personalized learning plans in nontraditional ways,” Destakasi’s says. Because of privacy rules she can’t say anything more about the students’ disabilities. During this practice, the teacher seems to treat all the kids the same, not differentiating between those with physical and emotional limitations and those without.
But the inclusion of kids with special needs has not been without its problems. Some of the conventional students were initially unreceptive to dancing with their disabled counterparts. Destakasi did her best to nip the bad attitudes in the bud.
“We really had to build a climate of respect and compassion,” she says.
Liz Weller, a 17-year-old junior with professional dance ambitions, found Inclusion Fusion hard in the beginning, saying she had to “warm up to it.” But now she sees her class as a family of sorts.
“I love how everyone’s included, and there’s no drama. It’s like a real crew,” she says. “We’re all connected to one another.”
Last year, the class performed at football games and other school functions. At one of their events, someone filmed the troupe and put their performance on YouTube. The video caught the eye of a talent coordinator for the halftime show at the Orange Bowl, one of the largest college football bowl games in the country.
Earlier this year, Destakasi received a phone call asking if her class would be interested in performing at the halftime show with other dancers from around the country. The talent coordinator said she liked how inclusive Destakasi’s group was and thought they’d be a good addition to the show. Destakasi was floored, she says. She had kids with severe disabilities who needed 24-hour care and multiple aides. Transporting them to Florida and getting them to perform in front of such a gigantic crowd was overwhelming.
Ultimately, Destakasi declined the Orange Bowl. But she accepted the talent coordinator’s second offer — to perform at a similar halftime performance at a smaller Florida bowl game. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all her students, she says.
Choreographing a dance routine that includes dancers who do not move independently or consciously is a challenge. Not only that, but Destakasi has to teach students whose cognitive capacities are stretched by the task of following stage directions. Somehow it all works out.
During a rehearsal for the class’ routine to Eminem’s provocative number “Love the Way You Lie,” student Chris Davide sits in a chair beside Sam Minter and waits for his part. Something is agitating the 18-year-old, who has autism as well as cerebral palsy and walks with the aid of a crutch. He begins hitting himself in the head and biting his arm. His aide tries to calm him as the other dancers continue the steps, literally not skipping a beat.
After Chris settles himself, he begins rocking to the music. His part is coming up. Four able-bodied boys bust out solo hip-hop moves around the trio of Chris, Adam and Sam and then lift them up to let them sway to the music.
It may not seem much like dancing, but even that small movement is essential for Chris, says his mother, Barb Davide. Perhaps even more important than the dancing is her son’s participation in an activity with his peers.
“The dance and the music allow kids to blend in with other kids,” Davide says. “You have to read his body language and his signs, but you can see he likes being in with the crowd. If he didn’t want to, he wouldn’t.”
One of the kids helping the three boys in the middle of the stage is senior Stephen Gonyea, a self-taught dancer who spends hours perfecting his moves. If he hadn’t already enlisted in the army, he’d have liked to pursue a professional dance career. Gonyea, 18 and full of energy, says dancing with fellow students who are disabled can be trying at first, but “it’s good to know people are learning to express themselves through movement.”
As the deadline for fundraising creeps closer and closer, Destakasi grows increasingly anxious, worried the class will fall short and she’ll have two dozen devastated kids on her hands. At present, Inclusion Fusion is a third of the way toward its $40,000 goal.
The airfare is a killer, Destakasi says. At least four aides will have to travel with the group to assist the kids who need extra help. It’s a huge undertaking. But Sue Minter knows how much it would mean to her sons and the other students to hear the roar of 70,000 football fans cheering for them. It would also be a poignant moment for her.
“It brings me to tears each time I see them perform,” Minter says. “We’re doing everything to make this trip happen. It’ll be a Christmas present that lasts a couple of years.”
Essex High School is accepting donations to help send Inclusion Fusion to the Champ Sports Bowl in Orlando, Fla. Donations are tax deductible and may be sent to:
c/o Essex High School
2 Educational Dr.
Essex Junction, VT 05452-3194