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Pictured above, Mattie Breault prepares for her dance performance for the DanceAbility program led by ECU professor Boni Boswell. (Photos and video by Cliff Hollis)
"It's a good feeling to know you're making a special difference in someone's life."

– Rachel Vernon,
ECU special education major

The tiny, blonde ball of energy peered out from the green drapes at her mother – who watched proudly from the bleachers – until her instructor, East Carolina University professor Boni Boswell, coaxed her back to the other waiting students.

"She loves it," Kim Breault said of her daughter's weekly dance lessons. "She dances all around the house. She knows her moves."

That's a more important benchmark for Mattie than many children, as she is living with Down syndrome. But she's not at all out of place at DanceAbility, an international program adopted by ECU four years ago to teach dance to children with cognitive or physical disabilities.

"One of the things we like to do is really provide an opportunity for each child to go beyond what might be expected of them," said Boswell, program director from the College of Health and Human Performance's Department of Kinesiology.

"We have two areas of goals. One is creative expression, to let them find their characteristic style. The other is we have some physical goals. We do some things that are based purely on helping them physically to develop."

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Fifteen students were enrolled in the program last fall, ranging in age from five to 12 and also ranging in ability.

Student volunteers from a variety of majors – including special education, recreation therapy and dance – help keep the program afloat. Juniors Amanda Bertram and Brianna Rinaldi led the young dancers patiently through rehearsals of "the pirate dance" and "Jingle Bells Ballet," which were featured along with several solo performances in a Dec. 5 recital for family and friends.


ECU faculty and students taught dance classes to 15 students ranging in age from five to 12 this fall at Eastern Elementary in Greenville. The students were enrolled in DanceAbility, an international program that offers dance for children with physical and cognitive disabilities. Pictured below, the children prepare for a recital to demonstrate their dancing skills.

"It's great just knowing they're having fun," Rinaldi said. "It gives them an opportunity to be like other kids – to have a dance class."

That feeling of belonging can be hard to come by for children with special needs, explained Blair Holloman, mother of 9-year-old Maggie.

"It feels like sometimes that these kids don't fit anywhere," she said. "Or they only fit for a while. "(Maggie) knows when she's not keeping up. But somewhere like this? She's in her peer group. And here, no one can stand well on one foot."

Greenville dance instructor Erica Brinson assists by leading one of the three classes offered between Tuesday and Thursday each week. Brinson said she most enjoys watching the children grow their abilities and confidence through dance.

"It's a good feeling to know you're making a special difference in someone's life," agreed Rachel Vernon, an ECU senior and special education major from Sanford. She took Boswell's adapted physical education course last fall and attended a couple DanceAbility classes.

"They (the children) teach me a lot, too," Vernon added, "about patience, and also most of my students are always happy and enjoying life."

Another young student clearly enjoying himself during the rehearsal was Kilian Muchoney, age 6, who was born extremely prematurely and had brain surgery to close a gap in his skull just two weeks after birth. He was the original male member of the local DanceAbility program, his mother boasted, though now there are a few others.

"He's come so far," said Melissa Muchoney. "To improve coordination and balance – that was my aim in bringing him here."

It's parents like Muchoney who keep Boswell committed to maintaining the DanceAbility program, which can be difficult in a time when many deserving organizations are competing for resources. Boswell and Brinson are currently seeking assistance with grant writing in hopes of securing state, federal or private funding for DanceAbility. They would like to open the program to more special needs children.

"When I get to see the parents watching (their child perform)…that's a happy moment," Boswell said, beaming. "I think what we all hope that happens is (the children) gain some confidence and gain some self esteem."

For more information about DanceAbility, contact Boni Boswell at or 252-328-0007.