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Tripping the light fantastic while building confidence in the ballroom

Gardiner students learn to tango and much more

By ROGER MOONEY

SARASOTA, Florida – Sarah Parkerson has her left hand on Jordan Soriano’s shoulder. Jordan’s right hand rests on the small of his partner’s back. Their other hands are entwined as they move across the dance floor.

Sometimes it’s a waltz. One, two, three. One, two, three.

Other times, a tango. Slow, Slow. Quick, quick, slow.  

Or the foxtrot. Slow, slow, quick, quick. Slow, slow, quick, quick.

But for Sarah, it doesn’t matter which dance they are doing, or if 100 people are looking on. She is in her own world. She is moved by the music and follows Jordan’s lead.

“I really feel like I don’t see the people (watching),” she said. “It’s just me, my partner, the music. It’s just really amazing.”

Sarah, 15, and Jordan, 20, are both on the autism spectrum. Both receive the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs, managed by Step Up For Students.

Sarah, who lives in Sarasota, and Jordan, who lives in nearby Ellenton, train at Dynasty Dance Club in Sarasota under Sarah Lototskyy.

Jordan Soriano and Sarah Parkerson are two of the Gardiner students participating in Dynasty Dance Club’s Dynasty Stars program.

Sarah and Jordan met there two years ago when she joined the studio’s Dynasty Stars program after moving from Alabama with her mom. Though she danced at a ballet studio in Alabama, Sarah arrived at the new dance club as a shy teenager with little confidence. Her mother, Cathy Parkerson, said Sarah kept to herself, standing with her hands clasped and her head down while avoiding eye contact.

Now Sarah is poised and smiles as she looks into her dance partner’s eyes. The progress has surprised even Sarah.

“Before I was very unconfident. I didn’t really move much at all,” she said. “Once I started dancing, I felt better. I felt happier. I had more confidence.”

When asked what she likes most about ballroom dancing, Sarah thought for a few moments, then answered, “Basically everything.”

The Stars are born

Dynasty Stars was born in January 2016 when Lototskyy noticed the brother of one of her students bopping to the music while he watched his sister dance. The boy’s name is Michael, and he has Down syndrome. Lototskyy asked Michael if he wanted to dance. He said yes, and they danced for 10 minutes.

Lototskyy decided to start a program for those with special needs. The first class consisted of a man with autism, a young girl with epilepsy and Michael.

Soon after, Colleen Buccieri, who runs the nonprofit Face Autism and is Jordan Soriano’s godmother and caregiver, learned of the new program. Buccieri told Lototskyy she would bring some children who are on the spectrum to the next class.

By the end of the first month, Dynasty Stars had 20 students. It has grown steadily ever since. Through her Dynasty Dance Club Studios in Sarasota, Venice and Lakewood Ranch (she will soon open a studio in St. Petersburg) and the schools where she teaches, Lototskyy estimates she teaches 150 special needs dancers, ranging in age from 3 to 54.

Nine students attend the Dynasty Stars class that meets in Sarasota on Tuesdays and Fridays. Five of those dancers, including Sarah and Jordan, receive the Gardiner Scholarship. The scholarship does cover the dance lessons. For Sarah and Jordan, the dance instructions are covered through Gardiner to help them with music education, socialization and memory skills.

“What’s been so great about Gardiner is students have been able to explore this side of themselves,” Lototskyy said. “With all of the therapies, it’s nice for them to have a mentally and physically stimulating activity to do.”

Why can’t they?

Jordan was 9 when Buccieri started Face Autism to provide sensory friendly activities, support groups and more for children on the spectrum and their families. As Jordan’s godmother, Buccieri watched him grow up without going to the movies or the mall or to children’s birthday parties. She formed the nonprofit and with the help of volunteers, organized autism-appropriate activities and classes, asking questions that always began with the same three words: “Why can’t they …?

Why can’t they go fishing?

Why can’t they go golfing?

Why can’t they go horseback riding?

As soon as she learned of Lototskyy’s new dance class, Buccieri asked, “Why can’t they go ballroom dancing?”

Lototskyy has been teaching dance for 12 years. She said anyone can learn. Jordan, who was in the first group that Buccieri brought to the new class, is proving his teacher right.

“He was all left feet,” Buccieri said. “Unfocused. He was a mess. And now he’s really, really good and he loves it. He feels it’s something that he himself has accomplished.”

Jordan is progressing though the levels of ballroom dancing. He has shelves in his home filled with more than 25 trophies earned at dance competitions.

“I love to dance, because it’s fun and it’s challenging, and I get to see my friends,” he said.

The many trophies Jordan has won for ballroom dancing.

Like Sarah Parkerson, Jordan was shy and avoided eye contact when he first walked through the doors of the dance studio. But that changed. It had to. Ballroom dancing requires the male to escort his partner to the dance floor, to look into her eyes and lead her through the steps.

“The main thing is the confidence to get out there on a big ballroom floor, and they can really overcome their sensitivities, because you have the bright lights, the loud music. You have the crowd. They’re out on that big ballroom floor, looking into the eyes of a hundred or more spectators just staring at them,” Buccieri said. “It’s sometimes a little overwhelming, but they seem to get into that music and that all goes away.”

At the beginning, Buccieri thought dancing would be like any other activity sponsored by Face Autism. She hoped the kids could dance for an hour a week, get some exercise, maybe make a friend or two and go home. Never did she dream Jordan and the others in the program would develop into competitive ballroom dancers with their own routines and trophies earned around the Southeast.  

“I never thought Sarah would take it to the level she has,” Buccieri said. “Now she’s well-known in the dance world for her special needs program. There’s nothing like it around.”

Take a bow

Lototskyy, who owns her dance studios with her husband, Maks, has been dancing for 27 years. She thought of becoming a special education teacher while in high school before her dancing career took off. She said teaching the Dynasty Stars students is her favorite class of the week.

Recently, Lototskyy sat with a visitor to a Dynasty Stars class.

“Do you know how to do any of these things?” she asked, motioning to the students who were dancing a salsa.

One, two, three. (Pause.) Five, six, seven. (Pause.)

The answer was no.

“So,” she said, “you can imagine how difficult it is to just (learn one move) with everything else they are facing. So, the fact that they can go out there and perform at a high level and pick music, that gives them confidence.”

Sarah and Jordan practice with dance coach Sarah Lototskyy at the Dynasty Dance Club in Sarasota.

Confidence is the word used most often when talking about the benefits of ballroom dancing to someone on the spectrum.

Cathy Parkerson, Sarah’s mom, said her daughter receives that and more.

“So much more,” she said. “The interaction is amazing because there are so many skills they are doing. Socially, they have to listen with other people, interact, work with a partner. They have to think, ‘What does my partner need from me? What do I have to do?’ Thinking of someone else is a really good skill, especially for someone with autism. They are kind of sometimes in their own world.”

Being in their own world is what ballroom dancing provides. Each dance has its own personality, Lototskyy said. The tango is passionate, dramatic, aggressive. The foxtrot is sassy and playful.

“The waltz is more elegant and more dreamy, more like Prince Charming and Cinderella,” she said. “They get to feel that way even if when they leave here, they have seizures and take so many medications that they don’t feel like Cinderella or Prince Charming. But they do when they’re here.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Public, private schools’ partnership lifts up Orlando neighborhood

By JEFF BARLIS

Every week, students and parents at Calvary City Christian Academy, a K-12 school in one of Orlando’s most hardscrabble communities, convert groceries into care packages for scores of their neighbors. That those neighbors happen to be homeless students at Sadler Elementary, another school three blocks away, is only the first clue that the relationship between these high-poverty schools – one public, one private – is special.

Calvary principal Denise Vega and Sadler principal Kahlil Ortiz say that uniting as one makes both school stronger. “That sends a message to our parents. We’re not divided. We’re not two. We’re one. One with one purpose – to work together to make sure our children in our lower-income communities are getting everything possible. That only happens when you unite.”

For four years, the schools have worked hand-in-hand to serve their students, parents and neighborhoods, regardless of which school the students attend.

The result: Both schools and their heavily Hispanic populations now benefit from a wide array of social services – everything from English-language classes to housing assistance – provided by the church affiliated with Calvary. Both see each other as assets that can best uplift a community by cooperating. And both are quietly offering a glimpse of what’s possible if artificial walls between public and private schools can be knocked down.

“We’re modeling what is right by working together,” said Calvary principal Denise Vega. “That sends a message to our parents. We’re not divided. We’re not two. We’re one. One with one purpose – to work together to make sure our children in our lower-income communities are getting everything possible. That only happens when you unite.”

“You think of it as an octopus with eight legs,” said Sadler principal Kahlil Ortiz. “There are certain things that these legs can do, and certain things that those legs can do. So that’s kind of how we work. What can I help you with? What can you help me with?”

The partnership started with a phone call.

Four years ago, officials at Sadler asked Calvario City Church if they could use the church as a shelter in case of emergency. Of course, the pastors said. Is there anything else we can do?

That’s when they heard about Sadler’s homeless children. There were 30 to 40 back then. Now there are 85 to 90. (Sadler’s enrollment ballooned from 400 to 800 over that span.)

Vega, who is also a children’s pastor at the church, said she was in shock. “I felt a burden,” said Vega, a whirlwind of motion with a perpetually hoarse voice. “How can you learn on an empty stomach?”

One hundred percent of students at Sadler are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch. About 60 percent are English language learners. The demographics at Calvary City Christian Academy are challenging, too, with about 90 percent of students using the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students. The scholarship is administered by Step Up For Students.

But that didn’t deter anyone at either school from joining hands. In fact, the profound need compelled it.

The schools and the church hatched a plan to provide food to the homeless families on weekends, when the public school could not provide for the students. The groceries are purchased on Wednesdays, bagged on Thursdays and handed out from a pantry at Sadler on Fridays.

In addition, large companies like Publix, Goya, Nabisco and Merita have donated food unsolicited. It all ends up with the lowest-income families at Sadler.

Valeria Angeles, a sixth-grader who attended Sadler from K-5, was one of the students who received them. She brought them to her grandmother, Enitt Manzano, at the hotel she paid for weekly.

“I was so surprised and amazed,” said Manzano. “I didn’t have words to describe the happiness. It’s only the two of us, and all of a sudden we were overwhelmed with so many groceries.”

Valeria now attends Calvary City Christian Academy. She did well at Sadler, but her grandmother wanted to put her in a private school and she qualified for a Step Up scholarship.

Vega said there have been occasions in which each school has recommended to parents that the other might be a better fit for their child. The bottom line, she said, is helping the community, not staking out territory.

“Are they my competition? No!” Vega said. “These are children and they need support from people who are willing to extend a helping hand. That’s all we want to be.”

Food wasn’t the only thing missing at Sadler.

As the schools grew closer, other needs were identified and other services offered.

To start the school year, Calvary families round up backpacks full of school supplies to give to their counterparts at Sadler. At Thanksgiving, they give additional baskets full of food. At Christmas, they deliver presents in an Angel Tree event in response to student wish lists.

Calvary students, families and church members have painted buildings at Sadler and gardened in the courtyard. Vega taps into the church’s ministries for more resources.

The result is a suite of wraparound services for Sadler’s most disadvantaged families: English-language classes for parents. Assistance in getting food stamps, affordable housing, health care and jobs. There are even referrals for drug rehabilitation and a shelter for abused women.

“Everything that is available to us, we make available to the community,” Vega said.

Vega and Ortiz have forged a tight bond that reflects the closeness of their schools. They laugh together, plan social events together, and finish each other’s sentences.

A 15-year educator, Ortiz said the support his school receives from Calvary is unlike anything he’s ever experienced. It’s given him a vision of the future where institutions, including schools, can form even stronger ties to maximize their strengths.

“There should be no hurdles to providing for the community. That’s it. That’s basically what this is all about,” he said. “It’s just saying there are no lines here. Let’s make sure we can help our neighbor out, just as they would help us.”

About Calvary City Christian Academy

Located in Orlando’s Oak Ridge community, the school is a ministry of Calvario City Church and was formerly known as Iglesia El Calvario. There are 256 K-12 students, including 226 on the Step Up scholarship. Affiliated with the Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS), the school is accredited by the Association of Christian Teachers and Schools (ACTS) as well as Green Apple. It uses a mix of A Beka, Bob Jones and Saxon Math curriculums. The Terranova test is administered three times a year to measure growth. Tuition is $6,000 annually for K-8 and $6,300 for high school.

Reach Jeff Barlis at jbarlis@sufs.org.