When Ann first took Jude onto a bar, she couldn't even walk. She loved it right from the beginning. Soaring through the air snuggled against one of her favorite people. Ann's always loved on Jude and Jude in return let into her special circle. But I expected nothing less from a place that embraced and accepted Camille. Even before we had our official diagnosis, they respected what I knew and worked with Camille's needs. She never got left out or treated different from the other girls but she had the space to do things as she needed to do them. That's pretty special in a world that all too often doesn't understand that inclusion is a dance between acceptance and accommodation. Done right and you have something so breathtaking beautiful you wonder why you haven't seen more. Done wrong, and you end up with kids who feel excluded while being included.
Canopy became a safe haven for us about two years ago when Camille took her first class. After a year of regular classes, she began to work one on one with Ann thanks to the amazing generosity of Canopy's board. I've seen Ann work with other kids and adults who have disabilities. What makes her stand out is a complicated alchemy of knowledge and intuition. First, she's a trained special education teacher who uses what she learned in the studio. Second, she's a good human and she treats everyone the same. These kids and adults are taught the same the kids/adults without disabilities. She doesn't talk down to them. She doesn't modify the moves unless necessary (and she does this with all her students). She expects them to do great things. And they do. Because they trust Ann and Ann teaches them to trust their bodies. I've watched Camille go from being scared to even hang upside down to doing tricks that involve hanging upside while knotted in ropes. Ann knows her students. She's taken the time to figure out what motivates them. What scares them. She knows their limitations and she gently pushes them but never to point of causing fear or discomfort..
And it's never just about one on one although that's cool if that's where you want to stop. Ann has always encouraged Camille in taking classes with other students. She didn't just drop Camille in the class, either. Instead she talked to the teachers with me so that we could help them to understand how Camille communicates. She gives them strategies to work with Camille as opposed to against her. In turn, Camille likes the classes and even more amazing to me, performing with the class. She's never the most chatty or the one who is in the center but she's there every week doing her part. And I think it's been good for the other students too. I've watched them react positively to Camille because her teachers and Ann react this way. No one rebukes her whe she stims (her newest one is to hang upside down and rub her head on the mat). When she cries in frustration not only do the teachers comfort but the girls also try to help. For them Camille is not an outsider but one of them no matter how different she may act.
When Ann said she wanted to work with Jude, I was very excited. I couldn't even imagine what she'd do with this wee girl out there but I couldn't wait to find out. Over the summer, Jude has blossomed as she's learned to climb stairs, swing on a bar (with help), do somersaults, and ride around on a scooter board. I love how Ann talks to Jude with zero condescension. She knows Jude understands her and doesn't assume that she doesn't just because Jude has Ds. When Jude's out there doing her thing, she's just another toddler learning to fly. Today I chased Jude onto the floor, where she managed to grab a bar and used it to climb onto a mat. Ann looked over at us (she was working with Camille) and said "You know she's totally ready for the Sunday class." The Sunday class where the under fours go with their parents. The next step to the PreK class. A class I am assuming Jude will do if we're still in Athens. Of course I knew this would happen because when I told Ann Jude had Ds, she said "Oh how wonderful. My best friend has Down syndrome."
Who knew that we would find true inclusion in an aerial dance studio? Among the robes and bars, the silks, the yoga balls and hula hoops, we found a home for our girls. Canopy knows how to do inclusion in a way that very few places do including most public schools. In addition, to the outreach they do with people with disabilities, they also do a lot of networking in the underprivileged neighborhoods in Athens including one that houses Hispanic immigrants. Ann and Melissa talked to me a couple of months ago about how they're adding a body positive aspect to their teacher training as well. They're not just offering their magic to those with loads of money or ability. They're offering it to the world.
Dancing in the air might sound like not much currency. Yet after three years in this wonderful place, I can tell you that it's worth more than one could imagine. Camille and Jude both grow in confidence with each session. They take this confidence outside to the world secure in their strength and their difference.
If you feel so inclined, Canopy is a nonprofit that takes donations to help with it's many outreach problems including working with children with disabilities. Donate here.