NDI’s DREAM Project Marks 10 Years Of Inclusive Joy For Children With And Without Disabilities

February 6, 2024

National Dance Institute (NDI), is the Harlem nonprofit arts education organization that delivers award-winning dance and music programs to thousands of children worldwide.

Will host a DREAM alumni homecoming on February 23rd in honor of the 10th anniversary of the NDI DREAM Project (Dancers Realize Excellence through Arts and Movement), an inclusive dance program that provides children with and without disabilities the opportunity to perform together in true partnership.

The NDI DREAM Project was co-founded by Kay Gayner, NDI’s Artistic Director, and Pediatric Physical Therapist, Dr. Agnes McConlogue Ferro. 

Along with Aileen Barry, NDI’s Senior Director of Education & Outreach, Gayner and Ferro developed a program that is a model for inclusivity in NYC and nationwide, growing into an increasingly popular training program that equips dance and music educators as well as physical therapists with tools to expand accessibility and inclusivity in their own communities.

“Access to high-quality arts education is every child’s birthright,” said Gayner.  “We welcome children with a wide range of disabilities. If you have a body, you can dance. The DREAM dance curriculum’s magic is in the mix: partnering children with disabilities with age-matched peers empowers all of our dancers to maximize participation, teamwork and creativity. In the end, DREAM inspires mutual respect and empathy among the dancers and helps audiences understand and redefine what dance can and should look like. Inclusion elevates everyone.”

Driven by a wholehearted embrace of inclusion in the fullest sense, the NDI DREAM Project pairs children with and without disabilities in partnerships that foster long-lasting friendships, promote artistry and collaboration, and build community through the power of the arts.

In DREAM, every child’s contributions are necessary and valued. Each of the dancers shares their individual talents, ideas, and unique embodiment of the choreography – often using wheelchairs, assistive devices (such as walkers and gait trainers), augmentative/alternative communication devices, and other adaptive equipment to provide opportunities for artistic discovery, innovation, and to enhance the ensemble’s overall success. 

NDI was founded with the belief that everyone can dance. For nearly 50 years, NDI’s fully inclusive programming in schools has served children of all abilities, including dancers who are Deaf and hard of hearing; dancers who are blind or have low vision; dancers who are neurodiverse; and dancers with a wide range of neurodevelopmental disabilities. Gayner and Ferro first met in the Fall of 2000. They were collaborating on the design of an NDI program for students who were wheelchair users at Public School 199 in Manhattan. From there, the seeds of DREAM were planted.

The 10th anniversary of the NDI DREAM Project represents an opportunity to celebrate the past decade’s transformative dance experiences. Current DREAM enrollees will participate in a full four-day workshop February 20-23rd, culminating in a final performance and reunion for students and alums.

“When I started DREAM in August 2017, I felt a spotlight was put on me — and it has forever changed my life,” said Avery Roberts, a dancer who uses a wheelchair, and currently serves as Community Outreach & Engagement Coordinator at Cure CMD. “NDI is where I felt the most heard and valued. I continue to use the lessons NDI taught me, such as standing up for what you believe in. As Jacques said, ‘The arts open your heart and mind to possibilities that are limitless.’ NDI is one of the few companies that allows me to feel free. Happy 10 years to where it all started, and where I first found my voice. Cheers to another 10 of touching many children’s hearts just like how you touched mine.”

Among the DREAM alums attending will be Harry Belafonte’s granddaughter, Sarafina Belafonte, and grandson, Amadeus Belafonte; they’ll be joined by many beloved dancers with whom they’ve partnered in the past, including wheelchair users Avery Roberts, Greta Baier, and Alexa Rodriguez.

“Participating in the DREAM project was one of the most enlightening experiences of my life,” said Sarafina. “Dancing with people who might require the use of a wheelchair with such passion and skill is an endless source of inspiration about the art and nature of movement. I’ve been honored to share that inspiration with others.”

DREAM Project graduates, who were between 6 and 18 years old when they first participated, are coming back 10 years later to share their journey with new DREAMers and expand the spirit of community and the enduring bonds forged by dance, music, and performance among all ages. Aside from connecting the past and present, the anniversary event is intended as a beacon to the arts community that will shine a positive light on the expansive array of talents that people with disabilities must be able to contribute.

“I believe our DREAM partners learn a lot from us — and we also learn a lot from them,” said DREAM alum Peter Nicholson. “Through DREAM, I’ve expanded the ways I communicate by collaborating with greater flexibility and creativity with different people.”

Nicholson credits his DREAM partner, Jack, with helping him become a more sensitive, aware communicator. The depth of communication skills gained by DREAM alumni is one of the key takeaways past participants cite. As Jack says, “DREAM is about love — Everybody dances! Together!”

Ferro, who began dancing as a pre-teen focusing on ballet, tap, flamenco, and jazz, danced with Radio City Music Hall’s famed Rockettes in the mid-1980s. She was able to bridge her love of dance with the movement science of pediatric physical therapy. Working as a full-time physical therapist at PS 199 on the West Side of Manhattan, Ferro began her life-changing relationship with NDI when its programs were introduced to her school in 1997. In 2023, Ferro completed her Doctoral degree regarding the impact of the NDI DREAM Project from the perspectives of the children (with and without disabilities) and their families.

“Nothing has ever come close to watching children dance together in an inclusive environment in front of an audience,” Ferro said. “Even more beautiful is what happens after they leave that dance room and go out into the world. Children are changed, and as a result, we are changed — for the better. DREAM has always been about much more than ‘just’ a dance class. It is about inclusion done right, belonging, and artistry that transcends expectations.”  

Gayner has served as Artistic Director of NDI since 2021. As Artistic Director, she oversees all artistic projects and programming for NDI, mentoring NDI teaching artists, leading NDI Advanced Teams, overseeing the NDI Collaborative for Learning and the Arts, and directing NDI’s In-School Program, which currently serves approximately 6,500 children in New York City schools.

Prior to becoming Artistic Director, she served as Associate Artistic Director from 2017-2021. In addition to co-founding the DREAM Project, she served as Director of International Projects from 2011-2021, Co-Director of DREAM from 2014 to present.  She began teaching for NDI in 2000, after having served as assistant to Jacques d’Amboise from 1987-1990. 

National Dance Institute

National Dance Institute (NDI) was founded in 1976 by New York City Ballet principal dancer Jacques d’Amboise, and leads the field of arts education with a program that has been studied and replicated worldwide. At the root of NDI’s methodology is the belief that the arts have a unique power to engage children of diverse backgrounds, abilities, and socio-economic positions, and motivate them toward excellence in all aspects of their lives. NDI’s goal is to support the social and emotional development of children through active, participatory arts experiences. We celebrate the creative, confident, and compassionate young adults who emerge from our program with a strong sense of self and an enduring belief in their ability to succeed. Since our founding, NDI has impacted the lives of more than two million children. For more information, visit NDI online at nationaldance.org

Photo credit: 1-2) Courtesy of National Dance Institute.

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