Where joy gets a workout

As Claire Alrich mimes scooping up a large ball from the ground, lifting it high above her head and blowing it to massive proportions, her class follows along. Seven children with varying special needs, assisted by students from the Evanston Dance Center, lift and inflate their own imaginary beach balls.

They’re not playing Simon Says. They’re learning the plié-a ballet step.

These are students in Jump for Joy, a dance class sponsored by the Evanston Dance Ensemble and featuring dance classes for children with special needs. Taught entirely by ensemble students-including Alrich, a senior at Evanston High School-the program offers free physical exercise and dance education to children who, organizers say, might be lost in an ordinary class.

“For some of these kids, they don’t have the opportunity to take a dance class,” Alrich explains. “For me, that’s a huge part of my life, so just giving them a chance to dance is really important. Dance can really help you in life-it builds confidence.”

Now in its third year, the program is catching fire and expanding. It has now been split into two age-appropriate classes to accommodate high demand: twice as many registrations as last year. And as part of its growing appeal to boys, it has switched from its previous name, Twinkle Toes, to the current Jump for Joy.

The new name says it all, says Paula Sjogerman, company manager of EDE. “I think ‘joy’ is the most operative word for the program. It’s so joyous. Everyone’s operating out of this place of happiness.”

Joy is indeed on the faces of the kids as they scamper about the studio. They hold hands in a line and perform ballet steps to a song, “We’ve Got the Whole World in Our Hands.” One girl is reluctant, so Alrich picks her up and whirls her around the room. Later, they’ll all dare a flying leap across the Rainbow River-a tie-dye cloth laid out on the floor.

This Sunday morning is their final performance and parents are here to watch what their sons and daughters have learned. Thomas Jankowski loves what he sees. Jankowski has two kids in the class: son Tommy, 11, who has cerebral palsy and hearing difficulties, and daughter Jean, 9, who has Down syndrome and is partially paralyzed.

“(Jump for Joy) has given them an opportunity to exercise and move in areas in a way that they usually don’t, with their legs and positioning,” Jankowski says.

Jenny Higgins, the adult advisor for Jump for Joy, stresses that the class is not medical therapy. “It’s meant to be more fun and normalizing.”

And in that, Sjogerman says, the program is clearly succeeding. “You just have to look at their faces.”

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