Volume 74, Number 22 | September 29 - October 5 , 2004

Helping special-needs kids enjoy the magic of dance

By Melanie Wallis

Dancer Maher Benham is revolutionizing the art of dance as we know it, by opening a dance school that will enable children with special needs to perform dance pieces.

The children will learn moves to a choreographed piece of dance, rehearsing throughout the term, building up to an end-of-semester performance. “We hope to do two performances a year,” Benham said.

The school, called The Hummingbirds, will run classes catering to children in the tri-state area with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, autism, Down’s syndrome, learning disabilities and all other special needs.

The nonprofit school, located on 495 Broadway, between Broome and Spring Sts., intends to run a variety of classes, including yoga, music, dance and art, which will be taught by teachers who have experience with special needs.

To aid the teaching process, the school will be equipped with apparatus designed for children in wheelchairs. “Sitting in a wheelchair can put a huge strain on the body. Our school will have special rope apparatus to enable children to hang from the ceiling, taking the pressure off their legs. You may walk in one day and see 10 children hanging from the ceiling,” Benham said. Benham added that the hanging technique is already used in yoga for fully-able people to relieve stress, but is a new frontier to allow special-needs children the opportunity.

The Hummingbirds School will not only offer practical advantages. Benham hopes to incorporate therapeutic teaching techniques, which she believes is the key to improving people with special needs. “I have taught someone how to walk using creative imagery. Creative imagery moves past the mind,” she said.

Benham, a Thompson St. resident, has created an aesthetically pleasing environment to carry out her project. The 10,000-sq.-ft. premises, taking up the entire floor, of a building is luxurious. With floor-to-ceiling windows and mirrored walls, the space is bright and stunning to the eye.

“I want to create a temple of beauty. I’m conscious of glamour. Dance is glamorous. There is a population of people who never get exposure to this. I want to let people of special needs have a high-profile studio,” Benham said.

Benham is the founder and instigator of The Hummingbirds School. For a slight woman, Benham has huge presence and happy demeanor, filling the room with her energy and confidence. It’s hard not to be inspired by her philosophical outlook on life. She exudes a sense of warmth and caring. “Some of my major influences in life have been people like Mother Theresa, Gandhi and Martha Graham, people who do things for a purpose,” she said.

It was partly due to her personal beliefs combined with her own good fortune that Benham was inspired to start The Hummingbirds School. “I’ve held a vision my entire life to create a temple of sacred art, where people of all abilities can share art,” she said. “I’ve been so blessed in my life and had the best teachers. The greatest masters of dance and art taught me. I want to pass it on and give it back or there’s no point,” Benham continued.

Benham, who for 10 years has owned a dance school called Coyote Dancers, was also inspired by her nephew, 21, who has cerebral palsy. Benham does yoga with her nephew in his home in Connecticut and is convinced the yoga has improved his quality of life. “The doctors said he would never walk and he should be forgotten about and left in the corner. He now walks with a walker,” Benham said. “Dance is a form of healing and yoga is, too,” Benham said.

Benham is eager for her vision to come to fruition but the school is battling with funding problems, leaving it $300,000 short of completion. “If we had all the money we needed, it would take five weeks to complete everything in order to open,” Benham said.

Despite The Hummingbirds School being incomplete, Benham is already envisioning her future projects. “I’d like to see Hummingbirds studios all over the world. I’d also like to have a spa for people with special needs, where the wheelchair can go in the water,” she said. In the near future, however, Benham hopes to expand her current project to helping teens and adults with special needs.

Benham hopes her new school will help change the public’s perception of people with special needs. “Many people do not understand special needs, as they are not around them so much. I want to bring people of special needs into the public consciousness,” she said.

For more information on The Hummingsbirds School, visit www.hummingbirdsschool.org, or call 212-505-2525

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