Emily Aiello, 13, of Plymouth Meeting, who has cerebral palsy, was thrilled on Friday, May 31, when she got to dance with Drexel University student Mary Elizabeth Stickney at Drexel’s Mandell Theater in a performance entitled, “Dancing Between The Lines: You and Me.”

by Rachel Ezekiel-Fishbein

Eleven students from HMS (Her Merciful Saviour) School for Children with Cerebral Palsy shared the stage of Drexel University’s Mandell Theater on Friday, May 31, with 11 Drexel dancers in a performance entitled, “Dancing Between The Lines: You and Me.” Front and center was 13-year-old HMS student Emily Aiello from Plymouth Meeting, who danced with Drexel partner Mary Elizabeth Stickney.

The dance piece was shown as part of Drexel’s Youth Performance Exchange and HMS’s Dance Collaborative Program. The students have been working together since October to develop and choreograph each piece, based on the Japanese Haiku, “Leaf,” and the Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes, “Little Miss Muffett” and “Pancake Day.”

The annual collaboration challenges traditional definitions of dance, as the students from HMS are all wheelchair users. It is just one element of a curriculum intent upon providing HMS’s students with the same experiences as their able-bodied peers.

“Performing is very empowering,” enthused HMS dance/movement therapist Rachel Federman-Morales. “The students get to experience those same feelings everyone does when they perform on a stage: the adrenalin rush, the nerves, the pride. Like any student in a school show, they’re sharing and showing what they can do, that they can be a part of something, and they can hear and feel the music, move through space to it, be creative and choreograph. For a child whose life is spent in a wheelchair, that is an amazing accomplishment and one that defies the boundaries which society places around them.”

The program creates an opportunity for both groups of students — who are teens and young adults of similar ages — to participate in an activity with students who have very different school and life experiences, and form a relationship based upon their shared love of dance. The long-term collaboration celebrates these connections and the joy all of the students experience from dancing.

“Through their work with the HMS students, our students more fully develop their understanding of dance, particularly dance as a healing art,” explained Miriam Giguere, director of Drexel University’s dance program. “They know their partners are dancing, but it looks different from what they are used to.”

HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy, a Pennsylvania Department of Education non-profit approved private school located in the University City area of the city, serves school-age children and young adults through age 21 who have complex, multiple disabilities, usually resulting from cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury or other neurological impairment in day and residential programs.

HMS’s special education and therapy programs maximize each child’s abilities and help prepare them for a full, active life engaged in their community. HMS specializes in state-of-the-art assistive technology that expands students’ access to the world, harnessing every form of assistive device to maximize independence.

For more information about HMS, visit www.hmsschool.org.