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Dance as a Healing Art: Performance Pairs Drexel Dance Majors with Local Students with Cerebral Palsy

April 15, 2014

Haley Robinson has spent every Tuesday evening over the past six months dancing with William “Billy” Geilfuss. Although he isn’t able to say hello or wave to her – in the traditional sense – when she arrives, she can sense his excitement in the way his face lights up.

Geilfuss is a non-verbal high school student with cerebral palsy who was paired with Robinson as part of a partnership between Drexel University’s dance program in the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design and HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy in University City.

HMS student William Geilfuss (L) and his partner Haley Robinson (R). Photo by Bill Hunter.This year, there are seven Drexel students and seven HMS students participating in the fully-volunteer program. The student-pairs meet once a week from Oct. – May to practice choreography for seated and standing dancers. The months of training will culminate in a final performance at Drexel on May 30.

The collaboration challenges traditional definitions of dance, and provides the HMS students – each having movement and speech disabilities – with a therapeutic outlet to express themselves and make connections with peers. This year marks the fifth anniversary of the partnership.

“This experience redefines dance for students as a healing art,” said Miriam Giguere, director of Drexel’s dance program. “We believe that it’s essential for students to have practical and personal experiences in the field – outside of the classroom or studio – so this is a great opportunity to get involved in the community and to connect with people at a fundamental level.”

The class is taught by dance/movement therapist Rachel Federman-Morales, who has worked at HMS for the past 10 years. HMS’ dance program has been in existence since the fall of 1999, and has collaborated with other local dance groups such as Dancefusions’ fusion2. HMS’ partnership with Drexel started in 2010.

“You can see wonderful progress in the relationships that are built and the connections the students make with each other as they share their love and joy for dance,” said Federman-Morales. “It’s evident in the way the HMS dancers lift their heads higher, make eye contact and are more spontaneous and intentional in their contributions to the dance.”

“The Drexel students learn their partners’ movement repertoire and dancing style,” she said. “It may look different than what they are used to because we’re bringing together dancers who are able-bodied and dancers with physical disabilities.”HMS student Emily Aiello (R) and her partner Mary Elizabeth Stickney (L). Photo by Bill Hunter.

As preparation for working with students with cerebral palsy, Federman-Morales hosts an ability awareness orientation during which Drexel students learn about the HMS student population, the dance collaborative and the goals of the project. Dance majors are also required to take an "Introduction to Dance Movement Therapy" class as part of their curriculum.

The final performance will take place at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, May 30 in Mandell Theater at Drexel’s MacAlister Hall (3201 Chestnut St.) for an audience of Philadelphia middle school students. Another performance will take place as part of HMS’ Volunteer Appreciation Evening on April 29, which is open to family, friends, volunteers and the HMS community. The theme of this year’s dance collaboration is “space, shape and flow.”

The event on May 30 also will include a performance by the YPE Residency Program, which assigns small groups of dancers to develop choreography with elementary and middle school students throughout the city. This year, the participating schools are Belmont Charter School and Lingelbach Elementary School.

Both programs fall under the umbrella of the Drexel University Youth Performance Exchange, which provides several outreach opportunities for students interested in informing and engaging young people through the art of dance. More information is available here.HMS student Ryan Bonner (L) and his partner Sara Nichols (R). Photo by Bill Hunter.

The dance major at Drexel University is a four-year bachelor of science degree that prepares dancers, not only for performance, but for three dance-related careers. Dancers can track into graduate programs in dance/movement therapy, physical therapy or elementary education. Students are exposed to a wide range of dance techniques and approaches through performances, intensive classes and community participation. For more information, click here.

About HMS
HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy, a Pennsylvania Department of Education non-profit Approved Private School located in the University City area of Philadelphia, serves school-age children and young adults through age 21 who have complex, multiple disabilities, usually resulting from cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury or other neurological impairment in day and residential programs.

Media Contact

Alex McKechnie