Kim and Chris Smith's daughter, Reagan, was diagnosed with autism at just 18-months old. The couple went through the waves of emotion that come with raising a child with special needs – disbelief, anger, sadness and acceptance. Through the roller coaster of emotions, Kim knew she wanted to do something to make a difference, but she just wasn't sure what that something would be.
Two years ago, Kim posted a message on Facebook out of frustration. She wanted studio space to start a dance program for her 6-year-old daughter who enjoyed dance, but couldn't find the right fit in the community. Immediately, Donna Mitzel, owner of Miss Donna's School of Dance, where Kim danced as a child, responded, "What do you want?"
That was the beginning of A Chance to Dance, a dance company for the differently abled, within Miss Donna's School of Dance. They opened with seven dancers. Now, the program has 46 dancers ranging from 3 to 27 years old. There are four classes a week with competitive and non-competitive options. Dancers who are too medically fragile to visit the studio are given the routine on video to learn from home. Seventeen high school volunteers from Ms. Donna's School of Dance provide one-on-one support for each dancer.
I met Kim a year ago when we were advocating together for the county's special education program. I followed A Chance to Dance on social media, as the program received national recognition on the Today Show. After that, Kim was contacted about writing a book. In November, she released A Chance to Dance: Singing in the Rain. I met Kim at Trade and Lore Coffee to hear about the book and the program:
Creative Loafing: What types of dance do you teach your students?
Kim Smith: We do tap and ballet, lyrical. We do a lot of flash mob style choreography. The kids love doing that. We have a signature dance that the kids have learned and when we get asked to perform we always do the same thing. We dance to Katy Perry's "Firework." It's our anthem song.
What is the book, A Chance to Dance: Singing in the Rain, about?
The book is based on my differently abled competitive team that went to the World Dance Championships this past summer. They gave Reagan a voice and told the story as if she was able to tell it. It starts with her telling about being afraid in the dance classroom and how her mom comes up with the idea of making a place where everyone can feel included. It's about our dance family and how they embraced us.
What has A Chance to Dance done for you?
Oh my gosh. A lot of healing. It's helped take away the part when I am sad about Reagan. It gives me joy and happiness. It's the best feeling in the whole world to know you are making a difference. It's given Reagan exactly what I wanted it to do — value and friendship.
And what does it do for the students?
The most important part is not the dance. The most important part is giving them value and giving them an opportunity to have peers and build friendships. These kids don't get invited to parties; they don't have friends — people always stare and look at them. I think that's why the program works because we are so blessed to have so many volunteers who are engaged and become a buddy. Parents are most grateful for the friendships.
If you could wave a magic wand, what would you wish for?
Our own studio space. Our students are beginning to do solo and duo routines. These kids have grown so much in confidence, and they are competing just like typical kids are. We need a room that is available during the week.
How did the company get to the World Dance Championships?
When we were at one local competition, a company fell in love with our students and gave them a bid to the World Dance Championships. Children from all over the world come to this dance competition.
A mom whose daughter dances at another studio in Charlotte follows our program and she donated $10,000 to cover hotel and travel for all ten students. We were the first and only differently abled team to ever be at the World Dance Championships. The kids killed it on stage and they did a big presentation on stage and gave them a performance award. It was incredible.
This year will be hard to top.
*A Chance to Dance: Singing in the Rainmay be purchased for $7-15 on Amazon.