Dance class offers ease of movement, friendships

By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

The music was as varied as were the moves. Combined, these two elements helped keep the attention of the students with challenges in a special, hour-long dance class at Loyola University New Orleans.

For the third semester, Lisa A. Richardson has held a 10-week class on Saturday afternoons through Loyola University’s Preparatory Arts Dance Program. It is open to students ages 5-13 with varied challenges such as autism, ADHD and Down syndrome.

For Richardson, the class combines her love of dance – she’s been dancing since age 2 and instructing since 13 – and being a special education teacher for 20 years at several schools in Chalmette and Lusher Elementary and High School. 

“I feel like a bird, because I was flying in the air,” said Isabella Hampsey, 11, and a  student at Alice Harte Charter Elementary, after learning a new dance routine. She currently attends the class with Lucia Linares, 6, a student at Ella Dolhonde Elementary.

“You should,” Richardson told Isabella.

Variety yet consistency

Richardson said the hour-long class centers on movement. She keeps students motivated through variety – from pretending to be a cobra with their legs rolled up and then kicking them out to jumping like a frog or doing a downward dog yoga pose. 

“(They like) moving the joints, things like following simple directions, changing levels up and down and dancing to different kinds of music,” Richardson said.

She also incorporated an obstacle course with cones to teach her young students to follow a pattern and then do it backwards. And, she’s adapted a follow-the-leader movement game to rock music.

“Good job y’all. That was hard,” Richardson praised them.

She allows freedom in movement, too, offering chances to do their best “Vogue” pose.

If a student gets distracted during the class, she or one of her assistants or student buddies – current Loyola students – gently urges the student back on track.

Understands feeling different

Richardson can identify with a student’s frustrations since she herself has dyslexia and had to learn to compensate for it as a student at St. Louise de Marillac and Archbishop Hannan High School in St. Bernard Parish. She found her niche to excel was through dance, which she calls her life saver.

“The arts are where lots of these kids excel, and I like teaching them,” she said. “They are a lot of fun.”

Richardson said she saw the love of teaching in her great aunt, Sister Juanita Federico, a former principal at St. Scholastica Academy. Her parents also motivated her to be charitable toward others, telling her that she had been given much in life and that she was not here to take. She earned a bachelor of arts degree in theater and returned to school for a master’s in special education from the University of New Orleans.

Archbishop Hannan High School’s motto – “Charity leads to perfection” – wasn’t something that was just said. It lived in the student body, faculty and its namesake, the late Archbishop Philip M. Hannan.
“The man (Archbishop Hannan) and the school were big on helping each other out,” she said. Richardson recalled the archbishop’s graduation speech to the class, saying that being a Catholic “is not just going to Mass once a week. No one will believe you are a Christian just by going to Mass if you let people starve. Your job is to be a doer – to do for those who cannot.”

Richardson’s experience in dance and with children with special needs taught her that a regular dance class that often changes teachers and movements was not conducive to children with challenges. Because of that, few children with exceptionalities take regular dance classes.

Alyssa Stover, head of the Prep Department of Dance and assistant dance instructor and adjunct professor of dance, knew of Richardson’s dream of offering a dance class for children with challenges and let her create the special class.

“It’s consistency that counts,” she said.  “I think everybody should have a chance to dance. And, the way that a typical studio is set up is not conducive to the way these kids take stimulus. It’s nobody’s fault, but having done dance, there is a particular way to do this class.”

She said the class gives special students an exposure to different types of movement, music and friendship. She established the current age range so the older kids can act as mentors to the younger ones who will often follow them.

“These children often have a hard time making connections, and this helps build friendships,” she said. “My goal is to see the older students who don’t need a ‘buddy’ take leadership roles.” 

Richardson ends the class stretching on the ground, where she encourages them to move like making “snow angels.” 

“She loves the class,” said Isabella’s parents, Matt and Karen Hampsey. “Right now, it’s her favorite time of the week. I feel like she’s learning and finding it easier to move and dance. She’s also learning to be with other kids.”

Richardson evaluates each student’s progress using an age-appropriate printout called “Glows and Grows,” which she adapted specifically for the class. The evaluation helps the children see how well they did that week, how they will try to improve next week and how they feel at the end of the class.

“Lucia, do you think you did a good job on the obstacle course today?” Richardson asked.

“Yeah!” she yelled back as she wrote the word school and her name on the sheet.

“That’s good, Lucia,” she said.

Isabella thought she did well on the jumps that day and drew a picture of her watering plants.

“I really want to see (the class) continue,” Richardson said. “It’s needed.”

The class is held at Loyola’s Communications building. To register, visit prep@loyno.edu or call 865-2637.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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