When they're dancing, they're not different.
They're simply smiles and giggles, tutus and tights. They're friends.
"Wish me luck, mom," 7-year-old Saida called out as she steadied herself inside the metal walking brace she uses because of spina bifida. Her dream is to become a ballerina.
Saida's mom, Sara Murdock of Palatine, and the parents of her seven classmates at Dancepiration in Crystal Lake lined a back wall. The day's audience, they watched in silence, a few with tears welling, as their children danced before them.
A couple with braces, all with special needs, the children proudly did "the robot" and "the muscle man," pumping their fists in the air. Those who could, spun around. They wiggled and kicked.
And most of all, they grinned.
For many of them in the relatively new "Physical Therapy Facilitated Dance Class" designed for children with special needs, dancing was never a guarantee.
To see them there, performing, so happy . . .
"I'm trying to find the words," said Jenny Lasco of Fox River Grove, who's 4-year-old daughter, Lea, is in the class. "Amazing, overwhelming."
She trailed off as she choked up a bit.
"Just the fact that there are so many different kids with so many different issues and variations, I'm in awe," she said.
"I think it's taught not only me, but my daughter, as well. She doesn't look at children with disabilities as different. Everyone is the same to her. I love the whole outcome of that. It's really saying, 'no matter what disability you have, it doesn't matter.' "
Ranging in age from 3 to 8, some of the children already have had more challenges to overcome in their short life spans than many adults.
They've had surgeries, gone to countless therapy sessions and learned big medical words they say as casually as their favorite colors.
Among the classmates are those with Down's syndrome, cerebellar hypoplasia, cerebral palsy, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and sensory issues, along with spina bifida.
Lea has a rare eye condition called coloboma that affects her depth perception and makes balance and coordination difficult.
Born with a couple of heart defects, she had surgery at 6 months old and has been in physical therapy ever since.
Her therapist, Beth Saip at Midwest Center for Children's Development based in Crystal Lake, where Lea rides horses, suggested she take the class.
It was Saip who originally came to Dancepiration Owner Chrissy Rossi with the idea for special needs dance classes a couple of years ago. She wanted the children to be part of a community activity, part of something those without disabilities often take for granted.
With the help of Saip facilitating and volunteer dancers to assist the students, Rossi teaches two of the classes a week, drawing a total of 13 students. Along with the Saturday class of eight, a Tuesday night class draws five of Saip's students from Kids Therapy Ltd. in Lake Barrington.
Just like other kids, they learn the basics of dance.
Yet, it's more than the steps to them.
Saip thought of one student in particular, who like Saida, has spina bifida. "I brought her here and her face lit up," she said.
The girl later went to her sister's soccer game, asked her mother, "When do I get to play soccer?"
"It provides these kids with the confidence and belief that they can do anything," Saip said. "It gives them a sense of ownership. These kids, they struggle with doing things their peers can do. This is giving them something they can do, something they're good at."
Plans are to start a summer class for even younger children with special needs. And they'd like to keep expanding the classes, attracting more children.
"I would actually love to have a whole day of classes that are just for special needs kids or a whole block of time," Rossi said.
Like those in other classes at Dancepiration, the children take part in recitals and parades and recently put on their first show at Spring Hill Mall.
They're not the only ones impacted by the classes, Rossi said. Older dancers willingly give up their time to help out.
"It's been phenomenal to have the other dancers at the studio around it," Rossi said. "They realize they should be so grateful that they have the ability to do what they do."
On a recent Saturday, the older dancers sat on the floor, holding their proteges in their laps or nearby, as all warmed up.
They baked imaginary pizzas, stretched their legs and arms as they pushed the pizzas in the oven. Noses to knees. Big spins. Butterflies flapping.
"Where do you want to fly, Saida?" asked one of the dancers as they all flapped their arms. Having had surgery on her legs, Saida hasn't been walking with a brace for long, her mother said. Yet, she'll quickly tell you that she's already pretty good at it.
"I want to fly anywhere," she said with a smile.By JAMI KUNZER - email@example.com