The dancers at 2Dance2Dream stand in a circle in a Balance Dance Studios classroom. The music is thumping.
One by one they take turns entering the circle and showing off their dance moves, but then there’s a pause.
A dancer hesitates. Another dancer takes her hand and they move into the circle to dance together.
This is the vision of 2Dance2Dream: that all kids can dance; that all kids will want to dance, given the encouragement, the patience and maybe some assistance.
The organization is the brainchild of Austinite Julie Lyles Carr, 49, and her daughter McKenna Carr, 22. Since 2011, local dance studios have opened up their classrooms for 2Dance2Dream to bring dance instruction to kids with special needs including Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, chromosomal anomalies and undiagnosed differences.
“It has its own magic,” says Julie Lyles Carr, who serves in the women’s ministry at LifeAustin church and has written a parenting advice book, “Raising An Original.” “There’s nothing like seeing someone exceed what people think.”
2Dance2Dream has grown to serve about 100 students a year in five Austin-area dance studios and one in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
On Feb. 18, all of the 2Dance2Dream classes in Central Texas will perform in a recital at LifeAustin.
Getting on the dance floor
McKenna Carr has been dancing since she was 2 and found her second home in the dance studio. When she was 10, she convinced the studio in South Texas where she took dance lessons to let her reorganize its dance store. Soon she was tracking inventory, working the cash register and inputting the day’s totals into QuickBooks.
After her first year of performing at the dance studio’s recital, she showed up the next year with clipboard in hand to run the show from backstage.
“It built a lot of confidence in me,” McKenna Carr says of these experiences.
Julie Lyles Carr calls her daughter “an old soul.” “Part of it is being the second kid in a really big family,” Julie Lyles Carr says. Julie and Michael Carr have eight children. Two of McKenna’s sisters — 18-year-old Maesyn and 9-year-old Merci — were born with things that make them noticeably different than their peers. Maesyn has hearing loss and uses hearing aids. Merci had a stroke when she was born, which affects her mobility on one side of her body.
McKenna, her mom says, was always the kid to go with them to therapy and doctor appointments. She was always helping her sisters.
In 2011, a friend of Julie Lyles Carr’s came to her and asked her what she would do if she had access to funding. This friend had another friend, an anonymous donor, who wanted to give $100,000 to help someone start something that would impact the community. What was Julie Lyles Carr’s big dream?
Carr came up with a plan for three programs for children with special needs: 2Night2Dream, a date-night respite for their parents with a nurse; 2Learn2Dream, a tutoring program; and 2Dance2Dream, giving children access to dance classes. Carr called the umbrella organization Legacy of Hope. Later she added 2Ride2Dream, a horse riding program.
Carr knew that these had to be programs that were free to the family because she knew the expenses that families with special needs children face. Maesyn’s hearing aids cost $12,000, not covered by insurance, and the therapies and doctor’s appointments Merci goes to come with $30 to $40 copays.
Julie Lyles Carr thought the other two programs would be the ones that took off, but they weren’t. It was 2Dance2Dream. “That’s the one that stuck,” she says.
Dancing was McKenna Carr’s world, and although McKenna was only 17, she became the head of that division of Legacy of Hope.
That meant she had to start finding dance studios to house the program and dancers to be one-on-one assistants for the students, find the students and also learn how to teach people of different physical and intellectual abilities. She consulted with a friend of her mother’s who was a physical therapist for guidance.
Then she started approaching studios.
“In the moment, I felt that they took me seriously,” McKenna Carr says. Now, six years later and close to completing a degree in business management with an emphasis on nonprofit organizations, she realizes how unpolished she was.
“So many people are so involved, and have been, not because of me or the way I lead things,” McKenna Carr says. “They are here for the kids.”
The program started with one class at Premiere Dance Center and quickly expanded to Balance Dance Studios in South Austin, the Dance Spot in Round Rock, Dancers Workshop in North Austin, Alisa’s Dance Academy near Lakeway, Evolution Dance Center in Leander, and Dance Star in Murfreesboro, Tenn. 2Dance2Dream also expanded to include Camp in Motion summer camp sessions as well weekly dance classes.
“One by one people invited us into their dance homes,” Julie Lyles Carr says.
The power of dance
2Dance2Dream is time away from doctors’ offices and therapy sessions. “For a lot of kids, therapy and the special needs class is their whole world,” Julie Lyles Carr says. 2Dance2Dream lets kids be kids.
This is Evan Schumacher’s social outlet, says his mother, Pam Schumacher. The 14-year-old has Opitz syndrome, which comes with low IQ and low muscle tone and other physical difficulties. “He loves going,” Schumacher says. “There’s not a lot of choices for kids like Evan.”
Anna Theurer, whose daughter Ellie, 7, has Down syndrome, tried a regular gymnastics class with Ellie before finding 2Dance2Dream. “It did not go well,” Theurer says. With 2Dance2Dream, a volunteer is there to help Ellie, and the class goes at her pace. With a regular dance class, Theurer says, “I don’t think she’d be able to keep up.”
Some participants have been able to take some dance when they were younger, but often the opportunities start to go away as kids get older.
“Regular dance classes don’t take kids with Down syndrome,” says parent Susan Prior, whose daughter, Brenna, is at 2Dance2Dream. “They’re looking for the perfect dancer, and our girls are not the perfect dancer. Some are really good, some barely participate. The point is to have fun.”
Often kids who have been struggling to do some things in physical therapy are able to do things in dance class. Theurer has seen it with Ellie, too. She’s able to follow directions better, and Theurer has seen an improvement in Ellie’s gross motor skills.
Julie Lyles Carr has seen it with her own daughter, Merci, who has been part of 2Dance2Dream since she was 3. “We’re not trying to be therapy,” Julie Lyles Carr says. “It does yield some amazing results.”
McKenna Carr remembers a camper who was happy to participate whom she later found out as the camp was ending usually liked to be secluded and quiet.
“Dance for some people creates an environment where they feel safe, feel accepted,” she says.
Sometimes, the kids who attend have an uncertain life expectancy or are medically fragile. Three of the dancers have died since the program began, and the Carrs and their classmates have attended their funerals. 2Dance2Dream gives them joy while they are here.
“We see the way they choose to live,” McKenna Carr says. “It puts that in perspective.”
It’s not just the dance that is powerful. It’s also the community 2Dance2Dream is building, the Carrs say. Julie Lyles Carr sees parents in the lobby talking and laughing.
The dance studios help create that community. “They not only offered space, but they gave us access to their friends,” McKenna Carr says. She’s able to recruit volunteers from students at those studios. The classes use multiple volunteers, sometimes on a one-to-one or one-to-two ratio.
“A big part of my focus goes to working with young volunteers,” McKenna Carr says. “They’re earning leadership skills and sensitivity to kids with special needs.”
One volunteer, Azula Hunter, 12, says simply, “It’s just really sweet and fun to be part of something so great. It makes me feel good.”
The experience has made some volunteers want to go into professions like physical therapy, special education and medicine. Some of the original dancers have returned and are now volunteers.
“It warms my heart” that the volunteers want to be here, Schumacher says. “It’s amazing for my kid, but it’s so good that (McKenna Carr)’s raising another generation that share their passion with kids that have different abilities.”
A chance to shine
Pilar Rivera’s face lights up when she’s dancing. She’s takes perfecting the dance routines rather seriously, building a health competition with other girls in her class. “I like McKenna teaching me,” says the 15-year-old, who has Down syndrome. “I love the dance moves we’re doing.”
McKenna Carr hopes to one day add student-led choreography for girls like Pilar who take an interest in it.
The recital, Julie Lyles Carr says, is essential to the success of the program. “It gives them an annual family event where they can celebrate the life of the child,” Julie Lyles Carr says.
Bethany Nutt, 14, who has Down syndrome, says the recital is like a party because you get to put on makeup and wear a dress. “I’m happy when we go on stage.”
Dancing has always been Brenna Prior’s passion. At 25, she’s the oldest in the class, but she just loves it, especially when she dances to “Call Me Maybe.” Her mom, Susan Prior, says the recital builds her daughter’s self-esteem. “The crowd is clapping and letting her know how well she’s doing. It’s given her more courage.”
Many of the dance studios and the volunteers have donated trophies and costumes for the recital. The trophies, Julie Lyles Carr says, help give the dancers something in common with their “neurotypical” friends, but often they mean more. Students have been known to sleep with the trophies.
2Dance2Dream gets inquiries on a regular basis about bringing the program to studios outside Austin. The studio in Tennessee came about after the owner was persistent. Only after meeting her in person and realizing it was a good fit did the Carrs agree to bring the program there.
McKenna Carr would love to expand it to other schools, but she’s cautious about not letting it get too big too fast.
“I don’t want to do that at the cost of my family and the current clients,” McKenna Carr says.
The hope is that more dance studios will have classes like 2Dance2Dream or be more inclusive in their classes. Merci started taking a regular dance class at Balance Dance Studios and is entering competitions as well.
“In a neurotypical dance class, I’m more hesitant and there’s more kids,” she says. “I’m supposed to be concentrating on dance. 2Dance2Dream is more fun. We take pauses, we play games.”
When people ask her about her differences, she just tells them: “This is how I was made. I don’t care how I dance. I care if it’s fun.”
Her mother, of course, worries what a competition will look like and how her daughter might be judged, but she wanted Merci to get the opportunity to try it.
“I salute any dance company willing to open up their heart to a fuller definition of what it means to be a dancer,” Julie Lyles Carr says.
When: 3 p.m. Feb. 18
Where: LifeAustin, 8901 W. Texas 71
Tickets: $15 online or at the door
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