'Dance with Todd' transforms lives of children with Down syndrome | With Video

They flutter their arms, following the lead of 10-year-old Gus Zaletski. They shape their bodies into first position. One or two gaze at themselves intently in the wall-length mirror.

Their movements are accompanied by classical music and the soft, live African drumming of Greg Lee. Then, the group is on its toes, helpers and students moving as one, reaching for the ceiling, disabilities falling away, blending together as dancers.

The adaptive dance class for students with Down syndrome, held twice a year in 10-week sessions at 8 a.m. on Saturdays, is special for everyone: the students, helpers, parents and instructor Todd Rosenlieb.

"It allows them to feel free and joyous and establish a community," he said. "The benefits of the class extend into their lives."

Hampton resident Billie Miller has accompanied her daughter Mary Claire, 12, since the program started. She summed up the transformative magic of the class.

"When Mary started she was nonverbal. The first three-word phrase she used was 'dance with Todd,'" she said, her eyes glistening.

Rosenlieb, instructor and owner of the studio — a New York transplant who teaches professional dancers and teens alike — envelops the students in welcoming hugs. They don ballet slippers marked with colored ribbons — red for right, blue for left — navy blue tops for the girls, white for the boys, with black bike shorts or leggings. They are dancers!

The class tops out at about a dozen, along with student helpers, Rosenlieb's pupils at the Governor's School for the Arts, and Morgan Bek, a physical therapist with Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk.

"They pay attention and follow the directions and they have fun. They work their muscles and interact with peers," Bek said, contrasting it to the strictness of therapy.

"This is what I look forward to all week," said 16-year-old helper Madison Vickhouse. "I had brain surgery in the eighth grade and had to sit out for a long time. These kids struggle on a daily basis. When they're here they forget it. Their smiles are such a reward."

And all of them are smiling, including Jackson Koelling, 20, the oldest and tallest in the class, who started last year.

"He loves it," said his mother, Robin Koelling, who drives from Newport News to the Norfolk studio each week during the fall and spring programs. "Then we do soccer," she added.

Adaptive dance

The idea came from Gus' grandmother Melissa Zaletski, who read a March 2009 article in People magazine about a program at the Boston Ballet.

"I really wanted a professional outreach. Todd just stepped up to the plate," she said.

A dynamo of energy and warmth, Rosenlieb had no training in special needs, but didn't hesitate. Fifteen children signed up for the first class, and eight are still with him. "They're like my family now. It's amazing," he said.

In the first class, he confessed, he ran out of things to do after 20 minutes. Since then he has "made up things to push them a little." He wanted to get them invested with the music, to make them dancers.

"That's what they are to me when they're in that studio moving," he said, and he starts each transition by addressing them as "Dancers!"

He has taught them the nomenclature, they know the names of the steps, the pliés, tendus, relevés, degagés, the positions.

There's an order of events that he teaches in all his classes. "The ritual worked," he said. As individuals with Down syndrome are often knock-kneed and have weak muscles, he doesn't attempt fourth or fifth positions because it requires them to cross their thighs. "I'll wait until they become more muscular," he said.

He recently introduced work at the barre. "It was like jungle gym at recess," he said with characteristic humor. "They can do some amazing things with their bodies. They have this incredible body strength."

The barre requires the dancers to be still, to prepare together, and to see themselves in the mirror without losing focus. "It's a lot of stimulation," he said, but he has learned that he can be firm without hurting their feelings. "I underestimated the power of the sharp tone. I set up rules and we go back to them. I like that there's a parameter," he added.

Rosenlieb constantly takes ideas from his other classes and modifies them for the "repeat offenders" in his early morning Saturday class.

The class

The students filter in and sit in a circle on blue, red and yellow chairs in the spacious studio with pale taupe walls. Half a dozen helpers take their places. Rosenlieb starts the music, and places a box of tissues in an accessible spot.

"Everybody stretch," he says, while urging one dancer to keep on her leotard and another to bend all the way down. "Good, nice, excellent," he exhorts as the music got louder. "We flex, we point, up high, and plié. Hands on the hips, and bend to the right, and switch. He called out to one, "you're Martha Graham," another is "Mr. Balanchine" — arms and arabesque, en bas. Applause punctuates the proceedings as each performs the assigned step.

They play the "rhythm game," they kick and march. He distributes scarves — yellow, pink, mauve and lavender — and they toss them and swirl them and hide under them. Helpers aid the shy ones as parents dash in to push a child to participate or to wipe a nose.

For 50 minutes, the class is in constant motion as Rosenlieb leads the students in classic ballet moves while issuing constant encouragement and endearments.

"You did a great job, honey," and "I love you, I love you," he said, as they take turns dancing with him.

"I have to keep them engaged," he said.

There's a collision, when one student forgets to wait for a turn. The parents, watching proceedings intently through the observation window, issue a collective gasp. The music stops, there's some empathetic crying, the tissues are brought out, apologies given, and class resumes.

"It can be total chaos," says Rosenlieb cheerfully. At the studio's spring recital, they'll perform with their scarves to a Bach soundtrack. "They always come through. It's a miracle. At the show it's perfect."

Salasky can be reached by phone at 757-247-4784.

Want to participate?

• Adaptive dance class, Todd Rosenlieb Dance, 325 Granby St., Norfolk. 757-626-3262. http://www.trdance.org. The studio recital is at 7:30 p.m. on April 11, 12.

What is Down syndrome?

Down syndrome (also called Trisomy 21) is a genetic disorder that occurs in approximately one of 830 live births. More than 95 percent of individuals with Down syndrome have three copies of chromosome 21 instead of the normal two in all of their body cells. About 1 percent to 2 percent inherits additional genes from chromosome 21, but not in every cell. This is known as mosaic Down syndrome and they often don't have all the typical physical characteristics and may not be as severely intellectually impaired as those with full Trisomy 21. It is associated with mild to moderate learning disabilities, developmental delays, characteristic facial features, and low muscle tone in early infancy. The symptoms can range from mild to severe.

• Down Syndrome Association of Hampton Roads, 6300 E. Virginia Beach Blvd., Norfolk, has support groups, including "first call" to help those with newly diagnosed child, a group for DADS — Dads Appreciating Down Syndrome, and on June 28, Step Up for Down Syndrome a fund-raising motorbike ride. Information: 757-466-3696 or http://www.dsahr.org.

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