Strapped in an electric wheelchair, Cynda Kimsey struggled to move her legs to the disco music.
Kimsey wanted her tiny kicks to be in step with her classmates, who kept up as teacher Barbara Wilcox led the fifth period jazz dance group in a series of jumping jacks, aerobic kicks and dance steps.
Kimsey, who has cerebral palsy, did not draw special attention from the able-bodied dancers in the gymnasium at John Glenn High School in Norwalk. These students have long since gotten used to dancing with orthopedically handicapped and mentally retarded students.
"At first I was nervous when they were around. Now it's easier. Dancing with (disabled students) is fun," said Jenny Kong, a 10th-grade student.
Ninth-grader Jennifer Dierkes said she is "touched by them. They come out here and try their best."
Combining the jazz dance class with a physical education class of disabled students is the brainchild of Wilcox, who is studying for a master's degree in counseling at the University of La Verne.
Wilcox developed a four-week curriculum for teaching dance to both disabled and non-disabled students as part of the final project for her graduate degree. The curriculum will soon be available to other educators, said Wilcox, who has taught dance, art and humanities courses at John Glenn for seven years.
The idea has caught on with her students. After trying out the project for nine weeks last semester, Wilcox said that students in both classes have asked to continue the dancing once a month.
"The disabled kids came in the door and developed friendships. It all happened because of dance," said Wilcox, who noted that most of the physically and mentally disabled students have difficulty communicating verbally. "It made dance a perfect medium."
When the project first started in October, she said, both groups of students hesitated to mingle. The disabled students, most of them in wheelchairs, huddled together in one corner of the gym. But as the dancing progressed from week to week, the students became more comfortable with one another. She described how the able-bodied students gradually grew accustomed to touching the disabled ones, rather than merely putting a hand on their wheelchairs.
"We can communicate easier through dancing than regular talking," said Tina Griswold, an able-bodied ninth-grade student.
Dancing with the disabled students also taught Wilcox a few lessons.
"When I first came here, it was the first time I had taught in a school with severely disabled children. One day I was walking across campus and I saw the students coming in their wheelchairs. I was so emotionally overcome, I walked around the building to avoid them. I felt sorry for them," said Wilcox, who has since learned "that's what they don't want."
Wilcox got the idea to combine the classes when she noticed some of the disabled students--who used the gym at the same time as her dance class--peeking around a partition. Some of them were trying to move to the music.
Laurie Miller, who teaches 12 disabled students in her adaptive physical education class, said her students have come to enjoy the social setting as much as the dancing. The sessions allow the disabled students to participate, even though they may not move as easily as able-bodied students. For example, Miller said Justin Buche--who has cerebral palsy and must have someone move his limbs--could just as easily get physical therapy in private, but he benefits from the social contact.
"We've done aerobic sessions before" but without the able-bodied students, said Miller. "It's not the same as having someone stand beside you and show you things."
Miller said the disabled students like the informal structure of the dance class because there "is more opportunity for interaction" with non-disabled students.
"I'm amazed at how quickly they warmed up to each other," Miller said.
Both instructors say the disabled students know they are not doing exactly the same thing as their classmates.
"Just because they don't do it our way, doesn't mean it's wrong. They are working through their limitations," said Wilcox, who pointed to Matthew Eckroad, 14, as he stretched his hands above his head. His feet remained on his wheelchair. "Some of these kids are hard to motivate. Seeing something like that blows me away."
Wilcox said the combined dance class has led to two similar projects elsewhere. She has been invited to teach a one-day workshop on dancing for disabled students at a camp in Big Bear, which has sessions for both disabled and non-disabled students. Wilcox also will teach a series of dance workshops in April at the Very Special Arts Festival at California State University, Northridge.
"It's like opening a whole new window in my life," Wilcox said.