From the moment I saw the beautiful dancers on stage, all dressed in their angel costumes, I knew I had to tell their story. I could not help but be moved to tears during the performance of the Free 2 Be Me Dance troupe–a surprise before my daughter’s dance recital one day–made up entirely of children with Down Syndrome.
It was an incredibly powerful experience for me. Having been a dancer all my life, I could so easily empathize with the joy and pride that the children felt performing out there in front of the audience. But, although I related to them as dancers, I had no idea what life was like for them living with Down Syndrome. That day was the start of my journey making the short film, “Free 2 Be Me.”
My cinematographer Jeanne Vienne and I followed the Free 2 Be Me dancers during their Spring 2013 semester, joining them every week during their ballet and hip hop class. Before this project, I didn’t know anyone with Down Syndrome. Initially, I thought that I would get a bulk of the story from the dancers themselves through interviews and on-the-spot comments. However, in getting to know them better, I found that many of them were not verbal enough to make that a viable option.
As I learned during this project, there is a whole spectrum of abilities within this disability, just like there is in any population of people. A couple of the dancers were comfortable talking up a storm, others just a few words here and there, and then others, no words at all. So it was in the interviews with their parents and siblings that I found the central concept of this film: the importance of artistic self-expression through dance, and its effect on the whole family.
A particular scene always comes to my mind. One day while shooting, Daisy, a young lady in the program who struggled the most with movement and usually had to be helped by a volunteer, shuffled to the center of the studio for her end-of-class dance solo. This was always the most fun part of the class. Each dancer got to have the spotlight for a few minutes, to express themselves however they wanted. Daisy walked to the middle of the room, looked at herself in the mirror and suddenly started to pump her fist in the air to the beat of the music. That’s all she did, pumped her fist. But she did it with passion. And while she threw her arm up in the air, a little smile crept across her face, and you could see the happiness and the freedom she felt. This was the most physically active I had ever seen her be on her own during the filming process, and it was a profound moment of expression for someone who is predominately non verbal. Everyone in the room had tears in their eyes. It was an amazing thing to behold.
Documenting these dancers and their families was a true passion project for me. I was fortunate in that the director of the Free 2 Be Me Dance program, Colleen Perry, and the dancers’ families allowed me to follow their worlds so intimately. Every time I left a them after filming, I felt such a sense of purpose, both moral and creative.
In making this film, I became truly aware of just how beneficial dance is for all people. I always knew what it did for me personally. During the ups and downs of growing up, it was my emotional outlet. But to see these kids dance, when many of them cannot even really speak much, was enlightening. You could clearly tell how significantly the art of dance impacted their lives. It gave many of them a voice.
I hope my film will show the world how important it is to give all people the opportunity to express themselves and to hear the applause of an audience. Everyone deserves applause.
Make a donation to the Free 2 Be Me Dance program by visiting their website.