Joy radiated from performers as they played the hit song “Best Day of My Life” in a class focused on encouraging musical expression among adults with a range of disabilities.
The Shining Stars music and dance class offered by Stillwater Music, a Durango nonprofit, teaches music and dance skills to adults with disabilities, such as cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.
One of the instructors, Bailey Barnes, was inspired to start the Durango group three years ago after working with a similar group in northern Colorado. She wanted to ensure adults in Durango with disabilities had a chance to be celebrated and applauded, she said.
Shining Star student Brian Shafer, 35, who has Down syndrome, said he loves dancing, and in particular, he likes “freezing” or holding still in the middle of improvisational dance. One of his instructors, Gabrielle Dugan, a music therapist, said stillness is an important part of the classes she teaches.
“From stillness, you can relax and you can then move how your body wants to move,” Dugan said.
Dugan’s expertise in music therapy helped make the adult music classes possible.
She uses a color-coded system that eliminates the need for students to read music. Instead, a conductor holds up a colored sign, and students strike the corresponding color on their pianos, xylophones and marimbas, she said.
Stillwater Music started offering similar inclusive classes this semester for students at Park and Riverview elementary schools through Spark Ensemble, a program for students with and without disabilities to learn how to dance and play music together.
At a Spark rehearsal this week, Leaf Baxter, a seeing-impaired student, led his peers at Park Elementary in a dance featuring hand-held ribbons with assistance from a member of the school’s staff.
For Dugan, giving students with limitations the opportunity to lead their peers in dance however they can is a key part of eliminating isolation those with disabilities can experience, she said.
Dancing in groups or pairs can also help foster friendships, she said.
Stillwater took over Spark from Michaela Knox who, before moving away, ran it as an independent nonprofit in town, said Jeroen van Tyn, executive director of Stillwater.
In addition to bringing together students with and without disabilities, it also draws more boys than traditional dance programs.
“This is really about creative self expression and inclusivity,” van Tyn said.
Stillwater is interested in expanding the classes into higher grade levels but that would require additional funding and staff members within the schools interested in helping to recruit students, he said.