Kim Smith couldn’t find a place for her daughter to dance.
Reagan Smith, who was four years old at the time and had been twirling around the house since she was two, has autism. Hoping that dance would provide an outlet for Reagan’s endless supply of energy and an opportunity for her to make new friends, Kim began searching for local studios in their hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina that offered classes for children with special needs. But she kept coming up empty.
“It’s just heartbreaking when you look out and you see your child not fitting in or finding her place,” Smith recalled in an interview with Free Enterprise. “I never wanted Reagan to feel like she needed to change who she was to fit in with everyone else.”
So Smith took matters into her own hands. Partnering with a local studio called Miss Donna’s School of Dance, which provided the space, Smith launched A Chance to Dance in 2015 with a focus on inclusiveness and giving everyone that walked through the door an opportunity to dance.
A Chance to Dance started with seven special needs students and has since grown to 10 volunteers teaching 35 students. Smith even had to expand to a second studio, and as the program grew in popularity, A Chance to Dance had to divide into three separate classes. Even with an ever-expanding roster of students, Smith and her team of volunteers continue to work hard to accommodate every participant’s unique needs.
“I just want to give them the opportunity to let them shine,” Smith said. “I would like for people to see their faces, watch their videos, see them dance, and see the possibilities — not the disability.”
Smith was in an ideal position to start the program thanks to a long dance background and her experience raising a special needs child. Smith grew up dancing, and when the chance arose to start her own dance program for her daughter, everything seemed to click, she says. It turns out, many other parents in the area were looking for the same thing she had been seeking. Most of the kids in the program have a range of disabilities and require different amounts of attention and focus, Smith explained. Among her 35 students are children with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, prosthetic limbs, sensory processing disorder, and spina bifida, among other special needs.
“It is challenging sometimes to get them all to focus during class and develop choreography that they can all do well,” Smith said. “All of my students have something unique about them, but up on stage or in dance class, they all come together and work together and it’s just beautiful.”
Today, 10 of Smith’s students travel on a competitive dance team to face off against other dance squads. In fact, the team received a ticket to the World Dance Competition in New Jersey in August. The A Chance to Dance team will be the first special needs group to compete at the highly touted competition.
It’s a milestone that Smith hopes will encourage others to help expand dance opportunities for children of all needs and abilities in other towns across the country.
“It is so important for people to realize the talent and potential of these special kids,” Smith stated. “They learn differently but nevertheless they learn and will execute with a little time and patience.” With the dance community becoming more open and inclusive to special needs kids, the opportunities will grow for A Chance to Dance to continue to compete and do well.”
Reagan and Kim Smith
Ultimately, for Smith, it’s about inspiring more children like her daughter and supporting the families that love them. She recalls a recent story from a student’s mother, who told Smith that she went to tuck her daughter into bed one night only to find the child prancing around the room in her ballet costume.
When the mom asked what her child was doing, the girl replied: “I’m practicing to be Ms. Kim.”
“That,” Smith said, “is why I do what I do.”