Dancing with the stars: Students have a ball(room)

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Students go for a spin in the ballroom dancing class at the Cooke Center Academy on MacDougal St. Photos by Bob Krasner

BY BOB KRASNER | Ballroom dance is not easy to learn and it’s not easy to teach, so one has to admire both students and teachers of the art. When one walks into the weekly class at the Cooke Center Academy, at 60 MacDougal St., and sees teenagers with special needs dancing the Viennese waltz to a recording of “My Favorite Things,” admiration goes to a whole other level. The school, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating students with “diverse developmental disabilities and backgrounds,” offers yoga, music and creative arts, but did not offer the dance class a couple of years ago.

Laurel Rubin, a parent with two kids who attend Cooke, had been taking ballroom dance lessons with Alexey Gavrilov, who happened to mention that he had been teaching a special-needs teen in Seattle. Rubin proposed the idea of a weekly class to the South Village academy, and it wasn’t long before Gavrilov and his wife, Aki Kudo, had a bunch of high schoolers with significant intellectual disabilities learning to dance the salsa, merengue, cha-cha and tango.

Instructor Alexey Gavrilov shows how to dashingly ask for a dance.

Instructor Alexey Gavrilov shows how to dashingly ask for a dance.

“It’s a great social opportunity,” said Mary Clancy, Cooke’s division head. “Parents overwhelmingly love the program.”

“It’s a confidence builder,” added Rubin. “The kids just want to be treated like regular people, and Alexey and Aki are great role models. And they really enjoy teaching.”

The pair, who have taught the Argentine tango to the blind and choreographed for dancers in wheelchairs, love what they do and are enthusiastic about the challenge.

“There can be difficulty in communication,” Gavrilov acknowledged. “We have had to learn how to communicate in a different way.”

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Alexey Gavrilov gives a pointer to an eager young hoofer at the Cooke Center.

Concessions are sometimes necessary. For example, in lieu of doing the requested hip-hop, they sometimes end the class with some freestyle dance. Students I spoke with were unanimously positive, mentioning that, although it can be “tricky,” they love the class and even practice at home.

Gavrilov and Kudo, who are looking to expand the program to other schools, note that there is more going on in the class than “just dancing to the music.”

“It’s also about socialization skills,” Gavrilov said. “Ballroom dance creates a special bond between the individuals.”

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Instructor Aki Kudo happily looks on as two students connect during ballroom dancing. The art form also helps the teens build social skills.

“People don’t realize that children with special needs are capable of so much — they don’t know how much they can do,” Kudo added. “The kids surprise us all the time. They put their heart and soul into it.”

For more information about the Cooke Center Academy and Gavrilov and Kudo, see www.cookecenter.org and www.gavrilovdance.com

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