At first, Anna Juett would sit down in the middle of practice, or stand back and watch the other kids dance. Now, several years later, she's front and center in her sparkly costume, more confident in her moves and on stage.
"It's purple and it's my favorite color and it's just pretty," she said proudly about her recital costume.
Anna is one of 22 students in a local dance program that holds weekly classes for children and teenagers with disabilities. The program, called "A Chance to Dance," is led by University of Kentucky College of Education student Jenna Lyon. And while it's true that students are getting a chance to dance and perform, they're gaining so much more.
"Overall I think it gives them confidence," said Sara Robeson, who is mom to dance students Anna and Will Robeson. "And it just really helps with their motor skills, especially for Will. You know it helps with the memory; helps with learning to follow directions which is so very important."
Lyon is constantly amazed by her students and how they master the routines together, but never surprised.
"I think sometimes when kids are labeled with special needs some people just feel like they don't have the abilities and capabilities that other kids do, but really they just have all the same capabilities and it might just take them a little extra time and practice," Lyon said.
She makes a point of teaching the class just as any other dance class — same terminology, type of moves and challenge — but often with a personalized touch, helping students with positioning and even adding in their favorite song or dance move for motivation.
"You know lots of people throughout my life like in school have told me you can't, that I can’t do things or that I'm not good enough," said Lucy Harding, who dances in the program. "Jenna makes me feel like I can do those things and that I am, you know, worth something."
The class started in Lyon's hometown of Georgetown, Kentucky, with four kids meeting every Sunday night, and it continued for two years until Lyon left for college. When she came to UK, she brought the program with her. A local studio opened its doors to Lyon and her students. Now in its third year in Lexington, the class grew from four students to 22 — including those first four — and one class to two.
"She started this when she was a junior in high school. Can you imagine?" Robeson said. "And now keeping that up through being in college and with everything she has on her plate, but yet every Sunday she is there teaching them …"
Thankfully, Lyon said, she not only has the support of other dancers and family members helping, but she has also made friends in the UK College of Education who now assist with the classes.
After seeing Lyon in the studio with her students, a lot of those friends have asked the elementary education junior, "why aren’t you going into special education?" She's thought about it, but her goal is to have an open classroom for all children.
"And just work on mainstreaming them and really teaching all kids to be accepting of everyone," she said. "So I feel like instead of being a special education teacher, if I'm in the traditional classroom setting then the kids could benefit a lot more by coming into my classroom."
"She's going to know how to deal with those type students and get them involved and love them and not be afraid and I'm just excited for her," said Karen Juett, who is Anna Juett's mom and a special education teacher herself.
In her four years of teaching children with disabilities to dance, Lyon said she's also experienced something else invaluable — friendship.