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My Favorite Dancer

I know I talked earlier about the dance club I had started when working in residential. I feel like after that last post that made me cry as I wrote it, we need some excitement and happiness! So, let me fill you in a little bit about the dance club and then we will talk about my favorite dancer.

I was usually able to get off work around three in the afternoon. I would head home, see my husband, eat a little dinner, then head back to the facility for dance club at six in the evening. I spent the few weeks before the first class burning CD’s, choreographing dances, making warm-up routines, and recruiting dancers. I sent out mass emails to everyone at the facility, encouraging them to have their children on the units come to dance club. A few of the girls knew that I had danced and still taught dance and tumbling and were always asking me to show them. I finally agreed and decided, why not give this a try! Even if only those two girls came to the dance club and enjoyed it, then that would be a success in my book.

I was blown away when the night of the first class, 32 kids showed up!

I was so excited and slightly overwhelmed. What a huge turnout that I was not expecting. I looked around at the residents who had come and was surprised at some of the ones who showed up. Some of the more reserved and anxious kids. Some of the ones who avoided being around the others as much as possible. Maybe this is exactly what they needed. A break from the normal daily routines to do something fun and distracting. Something that would bring them a sense of normalcy and happiness.

I started the first class by having them run two laps around the gym and to my surprise, only a few complained about it. With so many kids, I was nervous on how they would behave. It was residents from all nine units; a variety of personalities in one room. To my surprise, as soon as I started the warm-up routine, they all followed and were interactive and motivated to learn.

After the warm-up, a few of them started to complain that it was too hard and they were too tired. So, I did lose a few dancers that first day and that was okay. I was so happy that they at least gave it a good try.

We worked on strengthening our stomach muscles and stretching our legs. We worked on turns and simple dance moves. It amazed me how many kids picked up so quickly. We then started working on one of the routines I had choreographed. The hour class went by so quick and was over before I knew it.

I was so happy the next week when almost all the same kids came back, bringing other kids from their units along with them to give it a try.

After about a month of dance club, I was down to 16 kids. They were so committed and focused. We finished the routine and performed it for the talent show that the residential facility put on. Proud was an understatement. It made me want to cry when these kids hugged me afterwards and asked when we were going to learn another dance. I laughed and said we could continue next week and learn something new.

This happened every Wednesday for almost a year. I was always amazed at the talent that some of these kids possessed and wished that they had more opportunities to dance and do other extracurricular activities. Even on the days when I was tired and did not want to go back to work for dance club, I did it anyway because for some of the kids, it was one thing they had to look forward to every week. The kids came and went as new ones were admitted and others were discharged. I got to know so many great kids and see their amazing talents that they otherwise may never have gotten a chance to show.

I’ll never forget this boy when he walked into dance club for the first time. He had thick white glasses and brown eyes full of fear. His hands were shaking as I starting to begin the warm-up with the kids. He did not participate. He stood there and watched with his hands shoved down into his pockets and then out and then in again. He was restless and nervous. After we finished the warmup, I told everyone to take a water break.

“Hi! I’m nurse Brandy. I don’t think we have met yet!” I said to him, overly animated and with a smile.

“Hi,” he said quietly, not looking at my face. I asked him if he had ever danced before and he said that dancing was his favorite thing to do in his free time. That made me smile. He truly wanted to come to dance club, but he was nervous. He said that he had never danced in front of someone before. He said that he only liked to dance when he was alone. I encouraged him to give it a try and that he didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want to do. I told him to try and just have fun. He agreed.

He was very hesitant at first with following the choreography. He was moving ever so slightly, but he was at least attempting to participate. I was happy with that. He didn’t say much at the end of that class and looked just as nervous as he did when the class had started. I told him that he did a great job and I hope to see him back at the next class. He said that he would think about it. I smiled and told the kids goodbye and hoped that he would start to come out of his shell the next week, if he decided to come back.

He did.

He looked just as nervous had he had the previous week, but he came back nevertheless, so that was a huge start.

“I’m so glad you came back again this week,” I told him with a smile as I started playing our music to warmup to. After our usual exercising and stretching, we started to work on the choreography again. We did that for about fifteen minutes when I had an idea that would maybe force him to enjoy dance a little more and let go of his anxiety.

“Okay! We’re not doing any more of this choreography today. Instead, everyone circle up! We are going to do some freestyle!” I told them as I turned off the song we were dancing too and started taking requests for what they wanted to dance to.

The wobble. Cha-cha slide. Cupid shuffle.

Everyone was so nervous to get in the middle of the circle and dance on their own without some sort of known choreography. So, they continued to request these dance songs, which was fine with me because they were having fun and so was I.

I continued to keep an eye on this boy as he danced sluggishly, trying not to exaggerate his moves or participate too much. I did catch him smiling and laughing which melted my heart and I finally felt like he was starting to come out of his shell. He was talking to the other kids more and started to speak up in a tone that was more than just an under-his-breath whisper.

I wish I could remember what song he requested, but I can’t. What I can remember is the look on his face, the tone in his voice, the way he maintained eye contact with me for the first time. He asked me if I could play this song, so I did. I had never heard it before. It was a newer rap song with a good rhythm and all the other kids started dancing right away. He started to sing along, and I was in awe at the tone in his voice. From being so quiet and shy for so long to singing at the top his lungs with a smile on his face; I was so amazed. And so were the other kids.

“What?! I didn’t know you could sing like that!”

“Your voice is amazing!”

“Where did you learn to do that!?”

All the kids were complimenting him and you could see his eyes light up. You could tell that he probably had never been complimented like that before. I had not worked with this boy a lot before he started coming to dance class. I wasn’t exactly sure of what his history looked like, but I could tell that there was some sort of trauma based on the way he carried himself and the way his anxiety presented in different situations. I knew that I wanted to dig more into his history and find out exactly what I could do to help him. When he continued singing and then started dancing, I was geeked. (That’s what all the cool kids say when they mean excited! Working with teenagers definitely keeps me hip!)

The kids started clapping and when class was over, I went up to him and had to find out where he learned to dance. “Why didn’t you tell me you were so talented?” I asked him as he gave me a high five and then a fist bump.

“I just taught myself, I guess,” he said smiling. “I just do it for fun in my room.”

“No one has ever seen you dance or heard you sing before?” I asked him.

“That was the first time I’ve ever danced in front of anything other than a mirror,” he laughed. “I sing a lot in front of people. I like writing music and stuff like that. Do you want to read some of the stuff I wrote?” He asked excitedly.

“Of course I do!” I told him as the rest of the kids started to leave the gym and head back to their units. I walked him back to the unit with a few other kids and he showed me one of the songs he wrote. It made me want to cry because it was so serious and sad. It was about his parents leaving him and him feeling alone. “This is really good,” I told him as I handed him back the piece of notebook paper.

“Thanks. When will we have dance class again?” He asked.

“Every Wednesday,” I reminded him.

“I really wish we could do it every night. It makes me feel better.”

My heart was so happy that he was finally feeling comfortable talking to me and wanting to continue coming to dance class. I went home that night and told my husband about this boy and about how it had made my night. I was nervous at first with starting this dance club because I didn’t know if the kids would follow through with coming every week or if they would even enjoy it. But they were and it gave me motivation to keep working on the choreography and come back every Wednesday to teach them everything I could about dancing.

I remember being in the nursing office one day and this boy was visiting with his grandma and cousin in the room beside it. His grandma knocked on the door and asked if she could talk to a nurse. I wasn’t busy so I said I would be more than happy to talk to her. I went over into the next room with her and sat down. This boy and his cousin were sitting at the table in the room playing a card game while his grandma and I sat in the chairs at the other side of the table. She started to ask me questions about his current medications that he was on because she was having concerns about possible side effects. I answered her questions and eased her mind. I will never forget what she said at the end of our conversation. She made it very clear to me as to why this poor boy did not want to be at home with his grandma.

He opened up to me multiple times over his twelve-month stay in residential about how mean his grandma was to him. But since his parents were both out of the picture, he had no other family that could take him in.

Like I’ve said before, we are failing these kids. We do not have enough safe environments to place them in so that they can thrive. We spend so much time stabilizing them, teaching them coping skills, building back up their self-esteem, helping them work through traumas. And then we send them back into the same environments that caused the issues in the first place!

This boy’s grandma, I kid you not, looked right at me and said, “I know he won’t be normal and needs meds because he’s a fucking retard.”


Right in front of this poor boy.

I looked over at him as he put his hand of cards down on the table. He had tears in his eyes as he stood up from his chair and walked out of the room.

“See. I told you. He’s a damn idiot,” his grandma said as she shook her head.

I was speechless for a moment and had to remind myself that I was still in a professional environment because quite honestly, I wanted to call her the same thing.

But, I maintained my composure as I always do in these situations and in the calmest voice I could muster up at the time, told her that she was wrong. “He is one of the sweetest kids I’ve met. He’s so talented. Have you ever heard him sing or seen him dance?”

“Oh, I know he can’t do those things,” she said so matter-of-factly.

“Well, you’re really missing out on getting to see him do amazing things. He’s not a fucking retard or a damn idiot. Have a great day.” I walked out of the room to find him sitting out in the lobby with one of the staff members. He wasn’t crying but you could see the heartbreak in his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he told me as I sat in the chair beside him.

“Why are you sorry?” I asked him.

“Because I’m an idiot. I’m not good at dancing and I won’t come back to dance club.”

I was shocked that he was saying this, and I wanted to go back into the room and escort his grandma out of the building by her hair.

“You are not an idiot and you are coming back to dance class next week because I’m not letting you quit.”

And I kept that promise.

The next week when dance class started, he wasn’t there. I had staff stay with the rest of the kids and I marched over to his unit, into his room, and told him to get out of bed.

“What are you doing, nursing Brandy?” He said, surprised.

“I told you I wasn’t letting you quit dance club, so get up and come on,” I said as I grabbed his shoes off his floor and handed them to him.

I watched him put them on quickly as he held back a tear.

We didn’t say anything as we walked over to the gym. When we walked in, the other kids started clapping and cheering for him to dance again. The kids knew how amazing he was and seeing them encourage each other throughout this process was so heartwarming.

I turned on the music and he started to dance as the other kids joined him. We spent over an hour just dancing and goofing around and by the end of the class, he was smiling and laughing again. I had a great idea for the next talent show to allow him to show off his skills. I knew he wasn’t a huge fan of dancing in front of other people, but he needed that push. He needed a confidence boost. He needed to be reminded that he was not a fucking retard! That he was an incredible kid with multiple talents and a bright future. He needed someone to remind him of that.

The next week at dance club, I told the kids that we were going to learn a new dance for the upcoming talent show. They were so excited because they loved showing off their skills to the other kids. It made them feel empowered and gave them something to look forward to. I turned on the song that we were going to use and let the kids listen to it before we started practicing.

“The best part is, you’re going to get a solo that I want you to choreograph on your own!” I said as I pointed to this boy. All the kids started clapping and cheering him on when he started shaking his head saying that he didn’t want to do it. I knew that he would say that. I knew this was going to be pushing him so far out of his comfort zone that his anxiety was probably going to get worse. But I was ready to help him work through this and prove to himself that he could do it.

We worked on the choreography every Wednesday for about two months. Every week I would try to have him show us what he had come up with for his solo, but he wouldn’t do it. He said that he was working on it in his bedroom and would show us when he was done. I reminded him that the next Wednesday was our last practice before the talent show on Thursday. The color drained from his face and he started to tell me that he changed his mind and that he wasn’t going to do it.

After class was over that night, I stopped him on the way out of the gym door. I reminded him of how proud I was of him. I reminded him of how far he’d come from the first class. I encouraged him to keep trying and pushing through it because I knew that he could do it. “I know you don’t feel like you can do this, but I wouldn’t ask you to do it if I didn’t know that you could!”

“Do you really think that I can dance in front of all of these people?”

“I seriously know that you can,” I answered.

When he came back the next week to dance class and told me he was ready to show me what he had come up with, I was thrilled! He said that he wanted to show everyone in the dance club and everyone started clapping and cheering for him. We had all been waiting for this.

I turned on the song we were dancing to and I watched as everyone started dancing to the choreography I had created. In the middle of the song, I had choreographed that all the kids form a half-circle around this boy and point to him as he showed off his skills. When we got to this part, the kids circled around him and pointed as we stared at him, wondering if he would really show us his moves! And he did!

Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.

I was so proud!

Everyone was hugging him and high fiving him and praising him over and over again. It was incredible to see the kids encouraging him and being so proud of him. He came up to me and hugged me and was crying.

“Was it good?” He asked me.

“It was perfect! Are you ready to show everyone at the talent show tomorrow?” I asked him with a smile.

He looked at me through his thick white glasses with his big brown eyes and shook his head yes. I sighed with relief. I couldn’t have been happier in that moment if I tried.

At noon the next day, it was almost time for my little dancers to perform. They were nervous, but excited and I couldn’t wait for everyone to watch them. They had worked so hard and were so dedicated every week to come to dance club. I had multiple times where kids would skip outings like going to the movies or skating with the other kids on their units just to make sure they could come to dance instead. It was amazing to see what a difference it was making for some of these kids.

I walked up to the front of the gym and introduced the kids and told everyone how proud I was of them. I went to start the music and then walk back to my chair to clear the way for them to take the stage.

When I hit play, the kids started to dance, and my heart was so happy. I looked at this sweet boy in the middle of the group of kids and I could see the anxiety in his face. He made eye contact with me and I smiled and mouthed you can do this.

And he did.

When they were finished, everyone in the gym stood up and clapped and whistled. I stood up and clapped and went up to the front of the gym and high-fived them.

“I did it. I can’t believe I just did that,” he said in almost a whisper, a sound of disbelief. “You were right. I can do this.” He looked at me and then hugged me.

I watched as multiple kids and staff members walked up to him and congratulated him. Everyone was so proud to see this boy reach his potential and to start to find himself. After this, he started dancing all the time: on the unit, in the cafeteria, walking to school. He started writing more music and even singing it to the other kids. He was starting to love himself and everyone could see it. His self-esteem was growing and growing and the day he discharged from the residential facility I wrote him a goodbye letter encouraging him to keep it up; never give up; keep going.

Part of me wanted to tell his grandma to keep her mouth shut and leave him alone because he was doing well. He had come so far. He was discharging back to grandma and when she came into the nursing office to do his discharge, she put her head down instead of looking at me. She knew that she had pissed me off the last time she was here. She knew that she was wrong.

When he told me his goals of wanting to become a professional dancer during our last conversation as I walked him and his grandma to the door, I had to hold back tears. He told me thank you a million times. “I could not have done this without you,” he told me as he walked out of the door and waved goodbye.

I often find myself wondering if he’s still dancing, if he’s still focused on his goal. Maybe one day we’ll all see him on tv in music videos or even Dancing with the Stars! But in all honesty, even if he never danced again, his happiness was all that mattered to me. He’s perfectly imperfect, just like the rest of us. And no matter what he does, dancing or not, his future is bright! I’ll forever be grateful that I was able to be not only his nurse, but his dance teacher and friend.

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