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A Program for the Dancer in All of Them


The performance began with a gentle rendition of Pachelbel's Canon in D, a baroque piece popular for ballet dancing.

Dressed in white, the young dancers swayed rhythmically to the music, their arms gracefully outstretched and their faces radiating joy.

About half of them sat in wheelchairs.

"I think there's a dancer inside all of us," said Suzanne Walzer, director of the recent performance, called "Dance of the Spirits," at the Long Beach center of the Crippled Children's Society. "It doesn't matter if you're in a wheelchair--you can still feel it."

Center administrators hope to help lots of disabled children feel like dancing in coming weeks. The performance late last month launched a new twice-weekly dance class that the nonprofit agency is offering for children with physical and mental handicaps.

While there have been such classes before, organizers say, most have been offered on a onetime basis. This new class, they say, represents one of the first ongoing programs in Long Beach.

"We want (the children) to feel like part of what's going on," said Jane Laspino, the center's director. "It's important that these kids have the same kinds of experiences that other kids have; it helps build self-esteem and a sense of confidence."

The inspiration for the program came from a former volunteer at the center--Caren Robinson--whose career as a ballet dancer was cut short when she contracted multiple sclerosis, a crippling disease that put her in a wheelchair. Robinson's dream was to create a dance program for people with similar disabilities, according to Dixie Langdon, manager of volunteers. But Robinson, for personal reasons, eventually had to abandon the plan.

Langdon took up the cause, getting the aid of Walzer, a traveling musician, to direct the first performance and recruiting Patti Saunders-Wergley, a Santa Monica-based actress and dance teacher, who volunteered to teach the classes.

The approximately 20 members of the class, ranging in age from 6 to 18, suffer from a variety of conditions including cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Down's syndrome, spina bifida, autism and mental retardation. About half are in wheelchairs.

During the hourlong sessions, held on Monday and Wednesday afternoons in the center's large, sunlit recreation room at 3770 E. Willow St., those who can't walk "use their wheels as legs," Saunders-Wergley said. Among other things, she said, they move their arms in time with the music, shake their heads, bend forward in their chairs and roll back and forward to the beat.

"They figure out how to keep up," the teacher said. "They're very innovative (at) following along."

During last month's inaugural "Dance of the Spirits" performance, dancers in wheelchairs whirled gracefully in ever-widening circles. While at times they danced solo, at other times they were paired up with volunteers who took their arms and guided them along.

In addition to improving confidence and self-esteem, organizers say, the program enhances physical strength, coordination, agility and balance. And in the long run, they say, it will help develop social skills.

"They'll feel more comfortable," Saunders-Wergley said. "They'll go to weddings and parties and know how to move their wheelchairs to dance."

During a recent class, a bevy of young dancers cavorted about, their faces bearing expressions of pure joy. "This is fun," said Angela Best, 9, who is confined to a wheelchair because of spina bifida, a condition that affects the spine. "You get to move around a lot. It's healthy."

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