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As a little girl, Holland McDowell was extremely shy. She hid behind her mother's skirt and was reluctant to jump in with other children, no matter the activity. Her mom eventually put her in a dance class and Holland, now 16, says it changed her life.

As spring break approaches for area high schools next week, Holland has decided to spend her time teaching ballet to children with Down syndrome. That probably isn't how most teenagers will choose to spend spring break.

For this 10th-grader at Academic Magnet, it's a clear indicator that dipping her toes into dance truly did change something in her.

Sense of belonging

One in 1,000 children in the U.S. have Down syndrome. Many parents say they learn to focus on what these children “can” do, not what they “can't.” One of the biggest balancing acts, they say, is attempting to mainstream a Down syndrome child. But it's also healthy for that child to be with others who share the same challenges, even if it's just to observe their similarities and differences.

This is where dance comes in. The music, the rhythm, the movement. It all serves to connect.

The children's feet might not move as fast and the actions could often be just a bit out of sync, but this activity is not about perfection, it's about belonging.

Holland is calling her project The Purple Tutu. Why? Because ballet tutus are typically pink and her hope is to give some children joy and hope in a dance setting that they might not typically receive.

After approaching the Rev. John Haig, the coordinator for missions at Mount Pleasant Presbyterian Church, Holland received permission to stage these dance classes in the Fellowship Hall. The goal is to have four students in a 30-minute class. There's no way to know how many will show up. Her hope is that this initial spring workshop will lead to another one in the summer. Parents can be present, but may prefer to watch from a distance.

The Boston Ballet tried this 10 years ago. Down syndrome children were invited and it was quickly revealed that children who were often unsure of themselves and their movements could find new friends, common ground and a sense of belonging.

Holland wasn't even aware of Boston's on-going effort. Her motivation has been driven by a heartfelt desire to spread the joy and excitement of dancing.

She's even handmade the tutus each child will wear.

If you have a Down syndrome child who would like to join Holland for four days next week, reach her at thepurpletutuballet@gmail.com.

Staying 'en pointe'

In ballet, staying on the tips of the toes can be a challenge. All parents are reasonably familiar with this predicament. Parents of children with additional concerns are even more aware. There's likely to be a little joyful chaos in the fellowship hall next week.

Dance, in and of itself, reveals joy and freedom and self-expression. There's a chance that somewhere in these classes next week every child will experience all of these emotions.

Once hesitant to leave her mom's shadow, Holland McDowell will likely leave her own image on some impressionable young girls next week. No doubt, she'll probably be especially drawn to the little one clutching and touching a nearby skirt. But all those fears could vanish in a tutu.



Reach Warren Peper at wpeper@postandcourier.com.

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