Overcoming disabilities with dance

Dance plays the role of alternative communications for Nathan Dunn. Through dance, Dunn is able to express his desire to fly and touch the sky. (Photo by Mia My Do.)
Dance plays the role of alternative communications for Nathan Dunn. Through dance, Dunn is able to express his desire to fly and touch the sky. (Photo by Mia My Do.)

Tweaking his head, galloping with his tip toes across the floor, bending his back down while reaching his fingers toward the open air. These eccentric movements are nothing like the polished choreography taught in a regular dance class.

“I want to dance like the wind,” Nathan Dunn said. “I want to fly like a bird to reach shimmering and shining stars.”

It is 11:30 p.m. on a Saturday, and Dunn is practicing hopping, galloping and twirling with other kids at Virginia Tanner Creative Dance. Dunn, an 18-year-old boy with Down syndrome, has been dancing for 11 years. The dance program for disabilities at Virginia Tanner Creative is designed to help kids with disabilities develop cognitive and interactive skills.

The blonde-haired boy with glasses is most passionate about dancing in the class. Dunn’s dancing infuses a wish to merge with the great universe where everything is embraced for a distinct value without judgment or limitation.

Ashley Anderson, Dunn’s teacher, said that despite Dunn’s short figure, he possesses some special qualities in dance that others do not have.

“He uses his full body, which a lot of people compartmentalize like making dance follow their arms, and they can follow just a step with their feet,” Anderson said. “He can use his full body in coordinating ways that are very difficult for others in the class. He also can use multiple levels in space and use the full space, use the full ground.”

Ann Dunn, Nathan’s mother, was a dancer, and she thought dance could be a therapy to help Nathan communicate better. When Nathan Dunn was 8, Ann Dunn put him in a dance class at Virginia Tanner Creative Dance. Ann Dunn recalled the time she came to every class with her son to help him dance. Although Nathan Dunn could not follow instructions at that time, he always wanted to come to class to express himself through dance.

“You know how little kids dance to music, and he always responded to music,” Ann Dunn said. “When he couldn’t move as well as he can now, he responded to music. He has the dance ability in him, you could tell. The seed was there, but it took years for him to fully express his talent.”

Looking back at 11 years of her son’s dancing, Ann Dunn thinks dance has helped him in many areas. She said Nathan could not process information efficiently when he was little. When Nathan Dunn was four, his family took him to Disneyland. Nathan completely shut down because he was not able to filter inputs from surrounding environments. Through participating in the multidisciplinary approach in his dance class, Nathan Dunn now can be in a place with a lot of crowds, and he can show his loving and tender cares to others.

“He’s always been a talented dancer,” said Anderson, who has been Nathan Dunn’s teacher for four years. “But he has more stamina now, and he is able to follow complex directions. He’s always focused and very serious. So sometimes there’re things he will think are too silly and won’t want to do them. He doesn’t want to do something because he has a clear picture of what he wants to do. So he’s very focused and direct.”

Ann Dunn’s face brightened when she shared how her son’s dance has gotten better every year. Nathan Dunn now can stand on one leg and do a high kick. He can also do a high jump while stretching his arms.

“Through the 10 years, Nathan’s dance ability has been more gradual than all of a sudden. But the last four years, he’s really gotten some interesting moves. You know, things that he couldn’t do at the beginning. Each year he added a little bit more to his dance. He can do things that are difficult for us to do.”

Nathan Dunn happily expressed his passion in dance. He smiled widely, and his blue eyes sparkled with excitement when he said he wanted to keep dancing in the future.

“I feel happier and more positive,” Nathan Dunn said. “It’s easier now, but it’s hard when I first started dancing. You killed your back and your legs. It hurts.”

Nathan Dunn’s dance shows an aspiring, faithful and striving mind. From a little boy who could not filter inputs and surrounding noises, he now can express himself through dancing. Although it took Nathan Dunn 10 years to become what he is today, he has always been a loving and happy kid who patiently learns things little by little.

“Life with Nathan, things are slower and it takes longer,” Ann Dunn said.

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