When Olivia Longo or Hanna Pottinger perform an arabesque in dance class, a sense of accomplishment and pride can be seen on their faces, as well as their parents’ and instructors’ faces.
A group of dance students, who all have Down Syndrome, are learning ballet, jazz and even hip hop thanks to three teens who created the dance troupe The Huggables.
Carley Serena, Kelsie Chasten and Julia Malinowski, best friends for years and now seniors at Joliet Catholic Academy, started The Huggables this summer to give young girls with disabilities an opportunity they hadn’t had before.
“We tried soccer and other sports,” said Hanna’s dad, Kurt Pottinger. “This type of activity is perfect. They all get a chance to participate all the time. She wants me to watch, she loves it.”
The instructors’ desire to create the class stems from their love of dance, children and wanting to help others.
Helping others less fortunate is something all three come by naturally. The teens watched their mothers, who are also good friends, help those in need through the organization they created, Shorewood H.U.G.S. (Helping You Get Started).
Although H.U.G.S. runs out of Shorewood, the non-profit organization grants wishes to families in need all over the area. Serena and Malinowski live in Shorewood, while Chasten lives in Channahon.
The teens have been volunteering for H.U.G.S since the eighth grade, helping out at fundraisers and other events. It was through helping one family whose child has Down Syndrome that the teen dancers came up with the idea for The Huggables.
“We saw our parents grant wishes through H.U.G.S. and we asked how could we do something,” said Serena. “It evolved from that.”
The program was started this past summer with just a few dancers. Now it has grown to include eight young girls. Serena, Chasten and Malinowski have seen their students’ abilities grow by leaps and bounds.
“It’s amazing what they learned from the first day,” Malinowski said.
The instructors have a great rapport with their students. Once they put on their red tutus, the students are almost magically transformed, happily and ambitiously doing whatever is asked of them.
“The leaders are really great with them,” Pottinger said. “They are phenomenal with the girls.”
Autum Longo’s first day in class didn’t start out exactly as planned, said the teens.
At first Autum sat on the sidelines with her parents, keeping her head down. The instructors encouraged her to join in, but she kept refusing.
Suddenly Autum changed her mind and joined the class. Not only did she follow along perfectly, she had been watching and learning the steps the entire time. She knew exactly what to do. Now she loves coming to class every Sunday.
“Now she knows everything, she’s awesome,” said Chasten.
The dance class is held every Sunday at Nouveau Dance Company in Plainfield. Owner Lindy Wade was gracious enough to donate space in her studio for the program.
Christine Longo brings daughter Olivia all the way from Chicago Heights every week.
“She looks forward to it,” Longo said. “There’s not a lot of opportunities for her to be with her peers. It has helped her to develop friendships with kids with similar disabilities.”
All three of the instructors will be focusing on child-related studies when they go to college next fall.
Malinowski intends to be a pediatric nurse; Serena a speech pathologist; and Chasten an occupational therapist or dietician working with children.
But The Huggables dance program will continue even after they head to college, perhaps in the form of a dance camp or another format, they said.
For now the instructors are having a riot teaching their students to sway their hips and turn their heads to hip hop music or strut across the dance floor, wands in hand, pointing each toe as they attempt that perfect ballet position.
“We love it as much as they do,” said Malinowski. “I don’t know who has more fun.”