A group of dance students dressed in pink leotards eagerly await entrance into the room where they will tap, flap and dig their tap shoes and walk delicately on the tips of their ballerina-slipper toes.
It’s 10 a.m. on Saturday at the Madison Area YMCA’s School of Performing Arts. When 6-year-old Grace Nolan arrives, all the girls gather around Gracie, as she is known, while she sits on the floor talking to them and her mom, Kris, ties the ribbons of her shiny, black tap shoes into bows. Gracie, wearing her signature hot pink gloves, and her fellow dancers, clickety-clack onto the hardwood floor to begin warming up with their teacher Miss Ashley.
Kris signed up Gracie two years ago for her first Y dance class. “I wasn’t sure how long she would last because she is not usually able to participate in non-special education classes. There are so few activities that she is able to do in an integrated session with peers,” she says.
Gracie has Down syndrome. She also has found her passion. “Gracie absolutely loves to dance and be on the stage,” says Kris, noting that the Y’s special needs program also provides a volunteer to assist Gracie.
Kris was impressed with how “the Y not only wanted to do whatever they could to keep Gracie in the program, they wanted to keep her progressing.” School of Performing Arts Director Kim Buccheri says, “When I saw Gracie improving, I recommended that she move to the next level. I wanted her to keep improving her skills,” Miss Kim says.
“Gracie walks into dance class every week with a smile that lights up the room,” says Miss Ashley. “I have seen tremendous growth in her independence and confidence as a dancer. Her passion and perseverance is rare and truly inspiring. Gracie is a pleasure to teach.”
“Gracie did the Y’s dance camp last summer,” says Kris. “I thought it might have been the end of the line for accommodating her but the staff said they wanted to keep her in camp. Without me even asking—they came to me,” she says, showing a face of disbelief.
“I’m so grateful to the Y,” says Kris, who acknowledges that she and her husband, Brian, wanted to do more. “When we looked at our charitable contributions this year, we knew that the Y would be included. We were just so grateful that the Y made the offer to find a way for Gracie. We knew, then, that the Y really was inclusive. They didn’t just say ‘yes’—they fully embraced Gracie and said, ‘We want her here.’ It far exceeded any expectations,” says a teary-eyed Kris, noting that she has shared her Y experience with the parents of other exceptional children at Gracie’s school.
I signed up Gracie on a bold, brave, stupid wish with low expectations,” says Kris, raising a tissue to the corner of her eye. “And now we’re hooked! We’re not going anywhere.” When I sat at the computer to make our donation to the Y, I was crying. My 10-year-old son, Jake, came into the room and asked if I was OK. I told him, ‘I’m fine. They’re happy tears!’” she says laughing.