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Dancing all the way: Kids with special needs groove at Akron Children's Hospital

Kids dance in a holiday recital through Akron Children's Dance Unlimited program
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Dancers in Akron Children's Hospital Dance Unlimited program rehearse on Wednesday Dec. 13, 2023, in preparation for an upcoming holiday recital. The program is geared toward children with mobility challenges and other special needs.

There is no shortage of dance classes for children in Northeast Ohio. However, not many programs accommodate kids who have special needs, like cerebral palsy.

Staff members at Akron Children’s Hospital wanted to change that, so they created Dance Unlimited, an extracurricular program that gives children with various needs an opportunity to express themselves through dancing.

“Some families and some kids don’t have access to a general dance program because of their physical needs or cognitive needs,” said occupational therapist Lauren Hoffman. “We really just want to have an inclusive environment where they can just be kids and have fun.”

The program began in 2019 but was put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic. Staff members decided to restart the program this fall.

Patients in two different age groups — 10 and under and 11 and over — meet weekly at the hospital to learn their dances. Lately, they've been prepping for a holiday recital.

Kids with special needs dance in Akron Children's program
Anna Huntsman
Ideastream Public Media
Kathlin McCann (left) smiles at her twin children Mehkai (center left), who has cerebral palsy, and Noel (far right) at the dress rehearsal for the Dance Unlimited holiday recital on Dec. 13, 2023. Lauren Hoffman (center right) is Mehkai's occupational therapist. The dance group is geared toward children with special needs.

On Dec. 13 at the Downtown Akron branch of the Akron-Summit County Public Library, about 20 young people participated in a dress rehearsal for the performance.

Children in the 10 and under age group wore puffy white tutus and sparkly silver vests and bowties. Some of them used walkers and wheelchairs to get around, like Mehkai McCann, a 7-year-old Akron Children's patient who has cerebral palsy and developmental delays from being born extremely pre-term at 25 weeks.

His wheels were decorated with “Merry Christmas” signs for the recital.

Several kids grabbed onto his wheelchair as they lined up for the rehearsal, leading Hoffman, his occupational therapist at Akron Children’s, to step in.

“Remember, this chair is a part of Mehkai. So, we’re not just going to grab it and move it as we want. This is how he moves his body,” she told the children.

Other kids in the group have mobility issues, as well as autism or attention disorders, Hoffman said.

Roxy Balukh, creative director of Dance Unlimited, talks to the dancers during their dress rehearsal on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Roxy Balukh, creative director of Dance Unlimited, talks to the dancers during their dress rehearsal on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023.

The program was created to allow kids with special needs the opportunity to dance in a group setting - regardless of how they’re able to move, said Roxy Balukh, creative director of Dance Unlimited.

“I believe that everyone should be able to dance, whether they can wiggle a finger, whether they can just move their head – you should be able to express yourself and dance,” Balukh said.

Balukh, who is also the choreographer, is a physical therapist at Akron Children’s.

As the children rehearsed their first dance number, “Hot Chocolate” from ‘The Polar Express,’ Mehkai excitedly swayed from side to side in his wheelchair — his “signature move,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman helped Mehkai move his arms to the music. Akron Children’s physical therapists, as well as volunteers from the community, assisted other children with certain movements.

The dancers are either current or former physical therapy patients at Akron Children's, although it is open to non-patients, as well, Hoffman said.

A way to 'jazz up' physical therapy

Balukh specifically incorporates movements from physical therapy into the dances.

“The fun thing about this program is they’re participating in different strengthening activities, different balance activities, different postural activities that are all helping them, but at the same time they’re having fun and they’re dancing, so it really doesn’t even feel like exercise to them,” Balukh said.

The program has been helpful to Mehkai since he joined earlier this year, his mother, Kathlin McCann, said. She’s noticed improvements in both his physical and mental abilities.

He is non-verbal but loves music and being around other kids, she said.

“He’ll just get going and start laughing and moving with the music and he just loves being here,” McCann said.

Siblings of the special needs children are welcome to participate, too. Mehkai’s twin sister Noel dances in the troupe, which has allowed Noel to make friends with kids who also have a sibling with special needs, McCann said.

The program also connects parents.

“We don’t often get to hang out with other parents of kids with special needs,” McCann said. “We sit there for 45 minutes every week and so we’ve established friendships, and that’s really nice to be able to do that and hang out with people who understand.”

There aren’t many dance programs that accommodate, let alone focus on, children with special needs, Balukh, the creative director, added.

Dancing in a group like this gives the kids a sense of belonging, she said.

“And (they) feel not just included, but celebrated, for their similarities, and for their differences,” Balukh said. “I think it’s so important to them, not just physically, not just working on those different skills, but also just emotionally and making those kind of connections with other kids.”

McCann loves watching her twins dance on stage — especially knowing there aren’t many other opportunities like this, she said.

“You know, here’s my son in a wheelchair and he gets to go out there and dance. He’s moving his chair around, and he’s sparkling,” McCann said. “He’s got a sparkly tie and a sparkly vest and he’s with other friends, and it’s just amazing.”

The Dance Unlimited holiday recital is free and open to the public. It is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 20, at the Akron-Summit County Public library downtown.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.