Finding a way for children to express themselves and learn new skills is a challenge for parents, and for those who have children with physical or mental disabilities, the challenge can sometimes be overwhelming.
In March, graduate student and Tampa Bay Storm cheerleader Rachel Marrero got involved with a project that would help with this challenge.
Lourdes Quinones, a physical therapist and owner of TheraPeds, came up with an idea for an adaptive dance studio specifically designed for children with disabilities after seeing parents struggle in her own practice.
“As a physical therapist, I see children who really lose interest in traditional physical therapy. They think ‘Oh it’s just therapy again,’” Quinones said. “Therapy becomes more of a negative activity, but I find that children in groups are more willing to follow and imitate one another, be curious and be creative.”
In April, Quinones opened the TherAbilities Performing Arts Center (TPAC), which offers performance art, musical therapy and expressive art classes to typical children as well as students with physical, mental or emotional disabilities.
Quinones said the goal in creating the unique studio space was to allow children who typically find it hard to express themselves to find outlets for their creativity.
“Many children have speech disabilities, but a lot of people don’t know that speech works in a different part of the brain than music or singing, so we’ve had kids who have really been able to find their voice through music and the same goes for dance and the arts in general,” Quinones said.
Quinones bought the studio where TherAbilities is located in January. When she was designing the studio, she said she needed the touch of a dancer to make it complete. Marrero, who graduated in 2012 with an undergraduate degree from USF in physical therapy, shadowed Quinones and was a perfect fit.
“That’s when I started painting walls and getting the studio together,” Marrero said. “To put together a dance studio, you kind of have to have the right mindset for it. I was there just to clean it and fix it all up.”
Marrero always wanted to teach, but said physical therapy offered more financial opportunities.
When she received the Robert Royce STEM grant in August, she immediately took the opportunity to become the teacher she always wanted to be.
“Teaching is always something I was passionate about, but when I received the scholarship and got in to the program it made it much cheaper, so I jumped on the opportunity,” Marrero said.
Marrero’s passions also extended to dance.
In January, she auditioned for the Tampa Bay Storm cheerleaders and by March she was performing for her first season.
“My parents threw me into a dance studio when I was about three,” she said. “I’d like to think it was because they wanted me to know how to dance and develop skills and discipline.”
Combining both her passions, Marrero began teaching an adaptive ballet class for both typical and disabled students on Saturday mornings. She teaches both sets of students simultaneously, which she said adds to the experience of all the kids involved.
“Students are learning the same things at the same time,” she said. “Disabled students are looking at other girls and they think ‘Oh, so that’s how that looks. That looks so pretty,’ and other students are looking at the disabled children and thinking ‘Just because she’s in a wheelchair doesn’t make her much different.’ They are just hanging out on the same level and dancing with each other on the same level.”
Most of the students who attend classes at TPAC suffer from a number of diseases such as spina bifida, cerebral palsy and emotional and social disorders. In order for these students to do ballet and express themselves, Marrero said each child’s specific needs must be understood.
“It’s not easy,” she said. “On the night before, I’ll be up online trying to figure out what I’m going to teach the next day because I’m out of things to do. Teaching adaptive ballet is hard, but that’s where, as a teacher, I love it.”12