When she was little, Emily Teitelbaum’s parents couldn’t get her interested in anything on TV. She couldn’t care less about “Barney.” But ballet? One day her mother, Terri, caught her then two-year-old daughter standing in front of the set, eyes locked on the screen. “It was a production of the Royal Ballet that just happened to be on,” says Terri. “She stood there transfixed for an hour.”
Emily, now 17, started her first ballet lessons at three. Today, the junior and honor student at Moorestown High School in Moorestown, NJ spends roughly 20 hours a week on her toes, taking classes and practicing. This summer she’ll be training with the Joffrey Ballet in New York.
Declan Crowley was 6 when he had his dance epiphany. His parents had gone to see “Lord of the Dance” in New York and brought back the tape of the Michael Flatley show that turned Irish step dancing into a global craze. He played it over and over.
Crowley’s not sure why the dancing—a combination of quick foot movements like tap, with a straight, stiff upper body like a soldier marching—grabbed him. But, once he saw it he knew it was something he had to do. He had to dance. And someday, he had to perform in “Lord of the Dance.”
“It’s all I ever wanted to do,” says Crowley, 20, now a student at Holy Cross College in Holyoke, MA. Eventually, he was traveling twice a week from his home near Saratoga Springs, NY, to Westtown, NJ, to take lessons at the Broesler School of Irish Dance, founded by world champion Irish step dancer Kevin Broesler. Twice a silver medalist at the World Championships and a All-Ireland winner, Crowley last year achieved the last part of his dream: He was signed to the cast of Flatley’s latest blockbuster, “Feet of Flames,” and went on tour to Taiwan.
On Saturday, June 18, these two young dancers who have given their all to their passion and dreams will be on the same stage at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia for “Dance for Dreams,” a gala dance performance to benefit Hope Dances, a program that brings dance to special needs children.
Founded in 2010, it’s a melding of two things dear to the heart of founder Brian Mengini: dance—he’s a dance photographer—and Dominic, his 9-year-old son, who was diagnosed at the age of 4 with sensory processing disorder (SPD), a neurological condition that makes it difficult for him to take in and process sensory information about his environment and his body.
“One day it just hit me—dancing works on coordination, it’s exercise, it promotes body awareness, and there’s a social aspect to it too,” says Mengini. “This is perfect for special needs kids. It’s a safe place for kids to go and find their center, almost like meditation. “
He and his wife, Sandy, who are also the parents of six-year-old Micheala, talked it over and decided to do a small test-run, using a Wii dance program called “Just Dance Kids.” The Menginis invited kids from their network of special needs families and held a “Wii Dance Party,” which became a monthly event. At a launch program in January, Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Ian Hussey and Michael Patterson, a ballet teacher at the Barbara Sandonato School of Ballet in Philadelphia, along with some advanced students gave an introductory ballet workshop. (Patterson is one of Emily Teitelbaum’s teachers.)
The proceeds from the “Dance for Dreams” gala will go to fund a school at the Performance Garage in Northern Liberties in Philadelphia where Patterson will be one of the instructors for “Hope Dances.”
But the event is more than just a fundraiser—it’s a serious and entertaining look at all forms of dance featuring well-known dancers from around the East Coast, including Crowley (the only Irish stepdancer); Delaware County siblings Jeffrey and Lisa Cirio who are soloists for the Boston Ballet; Zachary Hench and Arantxa Ochoa, principal dancers with the Pennsylvania Ballet; Dylan G-Bowley and Chanel DaSilva of the Trey McIntyre Project, a company founded by one of the leading young dance choreographers in the country; Rennie Harris—Rhaw, a Philadelphia hip-hop choreographer, and Tap Team Two & Company, a street tap (hoofing) company.
Emily Teitlebaum expects the performances to “be incredible,” but she’s not nervous. “I’ve actually been in the Pennsylvania Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ so I know what a professional show is like,” she says.
Emily is actually living proof of Mengini’s belief that dance has the power to help children overcome obstacles. Like Dominic Mengini, Emily Teitlebaum also has SPD. In her case, it affects her body awareness. “I mainly had trouble with the feeling in my arms,” she says. “I worked really hard to gain strength in them.”
“Part of the problem is that Emily couldn’t feel exactly where her limbs were, which is very difficult for ballet,” says Terri Teitelbaum. “Of all the things to pick. We would towel off her arms and legs in the morning so she could feel them better. But her teachers at Barbara Sandonato School—Barbara and Michael, who were both with the Pennsylvania Ballet—were really helpful. They would instinctively position her arms and rub them, so her brain would have a memory of where she was putting her limbs.”
Eventually for Emily, ballet took the place of occupational and physical therapy, helping her, she says, to “grow out of” SPD, something that’s possible with early intervention.
Declan Crowley too credits his dancing for more than just killer legs and cardio fitness. “The discipline of dancing helps with so many things,” he says. “It worked like cross training for me when I played lacrosse in school. It gives you motivation. No one is very motivated to do homework, but if you have dance practice at 7 it has to be done, you have no choice.”
Ironically, says Mengini, his son Dominic hasn’t shown an interest in dance, even when it just involved Wii. “He’s pretty busy with horseback riding, swimming and soccer so he’s doing alright,” he laughs.
The “Dance for Dreams” Gala is slated for June 18 at 7:30 PM at the Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $25 each and can be ordered online.