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Video + Story: UTEP Alumna Spreads Joy Through Dance

The dancers in Laura Escobar’s ballet class on Tuesday afternoons are less concerned with technique than they are with having fun.

Isabella Garcia, a spunky 9-year-old with Down syndrome, giggled as she and her classmates bent their knees outward (plié) and jumped into the air (sauté).

“We plié and we sauté and we plié and we stretch!” instructed Escobar, a UTEP dance graduate who teaches “My Joyful Dance,” a free ballet class for children with Down syndrome that she teaches at The University of Texas at El Paso. “Good job, Isabella!”

Escobar started the class in 2014 during her senior year in the UTEP dance program. For her capstone project, Escobar studied how light and graceful movements could improve the health and overall quality of life of children with Down syndrome, a genetic condition that occurs in about 1 out of every 700 babies and can cause both mental and physical challenges.

“Ballet has a lot of benefits for everyone,” said Escobar, who received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance from UTEP in 2015. She earned a bachelor’s degree in business management from UTEP in 1996. “It’s exercise. But specifically for the Down syndrome population, they tend to be obese, so any kind of physical exercise is going to help. They tend to have a hunched back, so ballet helps them with their posture and it also helps correct their pronated feet (feet roll too far inward). But most importantly, it’s a lot of fun for them. Their self-esteem grows so much. It’s empowering to them.”

The class, which began as an eight-week course with six students during the fall 2014 semester, was so successful that parents encouraged Escobar to continue teaching it after her project was finished. Today, she has 16 students ranging in age from 7 to 22 years old.

Students learn ballet movements and dance coordination. They also work on motor skills like jumping and balancing while having fun, building strength, improving muscle tone and boosting their self-confidence.

Joining Escobar on the dance floor are students from UTEP’s Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) Program. Because children with Down syndrome often have low muscle tone, MOT students help Escobar modify ballet steps and combinations to reduce their risk of injury. They provide visual aids like putting blue and red tape on the left and right slippers of the ballerinas so they know the difference. They also help correct behavioral problems.

“A lot of what we do is to make sure that the behaviors stay in line so that Ms. Laura can teach the class,” said Vanessa Buckler, who has volunteered with the class since the 2016 summer semester. “We also make sure that their positioning is correct, that their motor coordination is good, and their balance is good.”

Although ballet requires intense discipline, Escobar takes a more relaxed approach with her students and uses terms that they can understand. To get students to stand up straight, she’ll tell them to have a “happy back,” instead of a hunched or sad back.

“Ballet is very strict, but here we can’t make it like that because they won’t enjoy it,” said Escobar, who started dancing at age 7 and has taught ballet for more than 10 years. “I want them to enjoy it.”

If students are too shy to dance, Escobar will enlist the help of MOT students like Brenna Perez to help the ballerinas through the dance moves.

Perez held Caitlyn Slape’s hand during the group’s dance recital in December. The timid 11-year-old dances at home all the time but doesn’t like to do it in front of an audience, her mom, Candy Slape, explained.

Perez and Caitlyn Slape tippy-toed across the dance floor and waved their arms like butterflies until the young ballerina was ready to let go.

“She was begging me to help her so I said, ‘Okay, I’ll get up with you,’” Perez said, “but I pushed her to do it a little more by herself. I told her, ‘I know you can do it. We see you do it in class.’ So she did it.”

Parents like Michelle Lowrance gushed about how much the dance class has made a difference in their children’s lives. Other dance classes that Lowrance looked into for her daughter Gabrielle were too expensive and couldn’t accommodate Gabrielle’s needs.

“This is one of the few specialized classes that we can find,” Lowrance said. “I think it’s very good for them socially. Gaby is not very verbal. She doesn’t talk a lot to the other kids, but I’ve seen her start to hug the other girls more. She gets more excited about class. I think that she’s starting to understand that these are her friends.”

For UTEP students like Perez, the class allows her to apply what she’s learned in the classroom while giving back to the community.

“It gives us more experience working with children, especially for those of us that want to work with children,” said Perez, who expects to start an internship at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, in September. “But what’s also important is that we’re helping Ms. Laura create opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in the community and be part of these experiences.”

Author:  Laura L. Acosta – UTEP Communications

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