Joann Ferrara, a pediatric physical therapist from Bayside, was one day working with a patient who was wearing a tiara and a tutu. Ferrara said to the little girl that she looked like a dancer.
“I wish I could be a dancer, but nobody wants me,” the patient responded.
The statement inspired Ferrara to start a dance class.
“No child should ever feel like nobody wants them,” Ferrara said. “I walked out into the waiting room and, without thinking anything through, said to her mom, ‘I’m starting a dance program.’ And I started a dance program in the back of my office with five physically-challenged little girls and it just took off.”
The class would begin to grow bigger and it became hard to hold it in a small physical therapy office. Ferrara decided to move out and make her program a nonprofit organization in 2008, officially dubbing it Dancing Dreams. She started holding classes at a bigger location in Bayside. Soon after that, the organization expanded to holding classes in Manhattan as well. In 2019, a third location was set up in Plainview for Long Island dancers, located at the Plainview American Legion Hall at 115 Southern Pkwy.
“We had many inquires about opening on Long Island,” Ferrara said. “We knew that Plainview was a central location on the island. It takes a lot for us to find a location because it needs to be accessible and available after school. We were very lucky that we found the American Legion Hall.”
The classes offered by Dancing Dreams, whose motto is “everybody creates, they just do it in their own way,” are for children with physical and medical challenges. Classes are a combination of ballet, jazz, tap and hip hop. They are taught by physical therapists, so they are able to accommodate a wide variety of challenges and everything is adapted to meet the needs of each child.
“That’s what makes our program special,” Ferrara said. “They don’t have to fit in, we fit to them.”
Abigail Penny, a dancer with the program since she was 4, is about to graduate high school, thus ending her time as a dancer with the program.
“Its been amazing,” Penny said. “I always look forward to going there, not only every year but every week. The experience for me has given me so much more confidence in myself and so much more freedom to do things that people think that someone who is disabled is not able to do, but we just do it in a different way.”
Along with that, each child is assigned a helper, local high school students who volunteer to work with the dancers. Students have come from all over the island to help out, from Plainview, Jericho, Bethpage, Hicksville, Huntington and more.
“This is part of our leadership program,” Ferrara said. “Not only are they trained to work with and talk about disabilities, they attend workshops on leadership and self-esteem. It’s a very structured program for the high school students. Many of them stay with us for several years.”
Lucas Blair, a Jericho High School senior who is pursuing dance and biology after he graduates, said that he learned a lot about misconceptions while working as a helper.
“I think a lot of people may walk in here wondering how these kids are going to dance, but I just learned that dancing is relative,” Blair said. “My dancing might not be what the kids are doing, but what they are doing puts the biggest smile on their faces and it’s life-changing for them. It’s life-changing for me too how happy it makes everybody.”
While the classes are going on, the parents are invited to attend a workshop held by the organization that focuses on topics of interest pertaining to kids with special needs.
The celebration of the dancers’ achievements comes at their year-end show at York College Performing Arts Center in Jamaica, where dancers from all three Dancing Dream locations come together and dance for a crowd. Last year’s performance saw a crowd of more than 1,300 people attend. This year’s show will be held Sunday, April 26, at 2 p.m. and the theme is “The Four Seasons.”
Dancers who leave the program always are welcome back to say hello and help out. Kathleen Downes, who was a dancer for many years, ended up coming back after graduating from the University of Illinois and now volunteers as the parent education coordinator at Dancing Dreams.
“Its been cool going from being a dancer to being able to help out with the organization,” Downes said. “I’m glad to see the mission still reaching a lot of people and the program continuing to grow. I’m happy to give back to the cause.”
Donations are welcome, but Ferrara said people can also help out by attending the show and getting the word out about the organization to potential dancers and helpers who may want to join. For more information and to donate, visit www.dancingdreams.org.