Dynasty Dance Clubs' special needs ballroom program is more than just dance lessons.
The lights were bright, everyone was screaming his name and his teachers were worried the environment would be overstimulating.
But ballroom dance student Riley, who lives with autism, surprised Sarah Haworth and Colton Gannon. Riley had never spoken a full sentence in class, but he turned to a nearby supporter cheering him on and calmly said, “Thank you very much,” before snapping back into position. He began his competition routine with all the suave of a professional.
It’s moments like these that make Haworth and Gannon’s Dynasty Stars dance program special.
“I said to his mom, ‘Who is this boy?’” says Haworth. “My mouth just dropped open. I couldn’t believe it. He was giggling and pulling me onto the dance floor, he was so excited.”
Dynasty Stars started in January 2016 when Haworth asked (now current student) Michael to dance with her one day. Every week she saw him sit cheerfully in the Dynasty Dance Clubs’ ballroom, bopping along to the beat while watching his sister’s dance lesson, and she thought it would be fun to teach him a move or two.
After seeing how much Michael enjoyed the impromptu lesson, she got the idea for a ballroom dance program for students with special needs.
Gannon, meanwhile, was a student of Haworth’s who had turned to ballroom as an escape. Dancing was something he had always enjoyed during nights out with friends, but he wanted to try it outside the bar scene.
After a little research, he found Dynasty and became infatuated with ballroom dance.
Gannon was then a full-time caregiver to a man named Ian with autism. Leaving work one day, Ian noticed Gannon had changed shirts. Ian, who rarely spoke, asked Gannon where he was going. When his caregiver told him he was going dancing, Ian asked if he could come along.
That brought Haworth’s class count to two. Gannon came on as co-facilitator, and after asking around the studio, they soon gained a third student, a student’s friend’s daughter, Bryanna, who has epilepsy.
“It just took off,” Haworth says.
Another student introduced Gannon and Haworth to Face Autism, a nonprofit that connects people with the disorder and their families to helpful resources. That organization added six students to the roster, prompting the pair to add a Tuesday night class specifically for children with autism.
Within the next few weeks, the student count was up to around 15. To date, the group has taught 75 students, and there are currently about 35 students between the ages of 4 and 53.
The parents couldn’t believe the progress they were seeing in their children. After a few classes with Gannon and Haworth, students were more communicative, more engaged and more willing to open up to their peers, both in and out of the studio.
“(Earlier,) Cody would barely do a box (step) but he loved the social aspect and was laughing, making friends,” Haworth says. “Now he’s doing his box step and so many things his mom never imagined he would be able to do.”
Riley jumped up a level in school after joining the program. His mom attributes it all to Dynasty Stars.
Haworth says sometimes the progress is trickier to notice as someone who only sees these students a couple hours a week. The mom of another early student, Nick, came to Haworth after a couple months with teary eyes to share the story of how her son had recently introduced himself to another student his age at school — something he’d never done before Dynasty Stars.
Gannon says he teaches the stars the same as his other students, they just require a little more patience and much more observation. He and Haworth have to study their students’ habits to understand what their limitations are and how often they can challenge them.
One student might say he can’t do something, for example, but they know he just needs a quick break to catch his breath before being told his two minutes of rest are up.
The expectations of all the students, regardless of ability level, remains the same. Haworth says they’re all required to greet their dance partners, escort them across the floor and give them a high five at the end of class as a sign of a job well done.
It’s this expectation of communication, trust and support from one another that the pair thinks helps their students most — both on and off the floor.
BEATING THE ODDS
It’s when they’re faced with challenges the students show their true strength.
During one competition, student Bryanna had a seizure in the bathroom shortly before she was supposed to dance. Exhausted, she was unable to compete and had to go back to her hotel room to rest while the group performed.
After they got off the floor, the dancers decided to head up to Bryanna’s room to keep her company and see how she was doing.
“You need people to cheer you on, and that’s what they have here,” Gannon says of the support system the students have formed with each other.
“It gives them the support of peers that they’ve never had before,” she adds, noting that many of them have a hard time connecting with other kids or adults outside of class.
As they reflect on the success of the program, Haworth and Gannon keep looking to the future.
“Now we’re trying to decide if we want to open up our own nonprofit and help people on a national level,” Gannon says.
There’s surprisingly few special needs ballroom programs in existence, he says, and that’s resulted in several studios recommending Dynasty Stars to potential students. There’s only one other studio in Florida, a group in Jacksonville, that Gannon has found that offers a similar program.
His goal is for students to perform for as many people as possible. The group has performed at galas, senior care centers, churches and other community hubs to share their talent, which often brings tears to audiences’ eyes.
He gets teary-eyed himself talking about the death of Ian, the student he cared for.
“Look at how that one guy has now affected so many other families,” Gannon says. “That’s how I look at it now — being able to help more people than just him.”