Diane Sturmer standing behind Nancy and flanked by members of “Heart of Dance”
After every performance, the dancers put one foot into a symbolic circle of community
I really love my job, but being part of the MALS program at Nazareth College has made it even better. I work with individuals with a variety of developmental disabilities, but also incredible abilities. I am celebrating twenty-five years at Heritage Christian Services. Eight years ago, my two children were attending college and I was longing to continue my education. I had been single parenting for eighteen years. It was my turn.
One day my friend Nancy, who was confined to wheelchair and very limited in her movement, signed the word “dance.” I asked her if she wanted to dance and she said, ‘Yes.” My heart jumped. This was what I wanted to do. I wanted to give Nancy the opportunity to make her dream come true. I knew that Nazareth College had a dance therapy program, but I was looking for something a little different that would involve performance. I had a couple hurdles to overcome. One was finding a program that would fit; the other was the cost involved.
I looked on-line and found the MALS program and knew that I could have input into the design of my program. In the process, I discovered that with tuition reimbursement from HCS I could pay my bill at the end of the semester. This was encouraging because I knew it would be difficult to pay for the first class at the beginning of the semester. I called the Director of MALS and set up an appointment to begin my journey in MALS. I was on my way!
I began with the Core classes in the MALS program and have to admit I had butterflies walking into that first class. It had been awhile since I was in a college class and this was my first Master’s level course. I was set at ease the moment I walked in and fell in love with learning again. I began to share my idea for my LST 600 capstone with my professors. I had so much support. I was also encouraged to talk to some of the professors at Nazareth with expertise in dance. After successfully tackling some of the Core courses, I decided to do an independent study with one of the dance professors. This brought me to New York City to meet Luigi, a dancer and choreographer who developed the jazz step out of his own physical disability from a car accident in his 20’s. And Nazareth College helped me with my plane ticket! Luigi had taught Liza Minelli and many broadway dancers. When I met him, he was in his 80’s, still teaching dance. What an honor! I spent time learning about movement and how to overcome any challenge to dance. I was able to see the possibility of helping Nancy and others move differently and become dancers.
My capstone thesis/project allowed me to integrate research, my work at HCS, and my love of dance. I knew that creating a dance group that had all the important ingredients would take work. Thus began Heart of Dance, a performing troupe that would include people of all abilities, ethnic backgrounds, and ages. With Nancy’s inspiration and the support of my MALS professors and another MALS graduate with experience in theatre and dance, the journey began. Nancy and I, along with other dancers from HCS, practiced for over a year and a half. Then other dancers joined us from all over the Rochester community. We had a group of teens who specialized in hip hop and classical ballet, dancers young and those experienced in life, and a tapestry of people from a multiple of ethnic backgrounds.
The song that Nancy wanted to dance to was called “Seasons.” When we practiced, she beamed. She worked over a year with our clinical team to extend her arm so she could express springtime through her dance. She worked hard. When we tried on our costumes, Nancy cried with joy! On stage, she was beautiful. I danced with Nancy. She loved moving across the floor in her wheelchair and spinning around. As the song came to a close, she received a standing ovation. Leaving the stage, she looked up at me and signed again, “dancer” and pointed to herself. I am a dancer! Backstage, her best friend George presented Nancy with a bouquet of flowers and told her she was beautiful! Nancy’s dreams had come true, and so had mine!
What I learned at Nazareth College and in the MALS program will always be with me. I have been enriched educationally and continue a wonderful connection with the Nazareth College community. Heart of Dance has been invited back these past four years for encore performances at Nazareth College. We have also traveled to Killarney, Ireland to perform at an international conference. My confidence has grown, and as a result I have published my first book, continued to climb mountains with individuals from HCS and much more. The impact of this experience has affected so many lives throughout the community in such a positive way. Thank you Monica Weis, the whole MALS team, and Nazareth College!
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