My Determined, Tiny Dancer

At just 8 months old, my daughter Jenna suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury after falling off of a bed at daycare. Her spinal cord swelled in a way that left significant damage to her C2 through C6 vertebrae. In the days following Jenna’s accident, I grieved for all of the special things I would no longer be able to do with my little girl.

JennaSickI sat in her hospital room—not knowing if my child would ever leave the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, let alone walk—contemplating a thousand scenarios that might no longer be in her future: summers at the swimming pool, dance recitals, piano lessons, walking down the aisle in a wedding gown.

JennaWheelchairThrough it all, Jenna proved to be a fighter. She survived those first few critical days, and we left the hospital with a determined yet fragile child who could only move her left arm. During the last four years, she’s fought through countless hours of physical and occupational therapy and continues to gain control of her body.

I’ve always told Jenna she can do anything.

As a parent, it’s my job to make her believe the sky is the limit. But I’ve seen her medical charts, and I know in my heart that many traditional milestones are a long shot with Jenna.

On a Monday night two years ago, my mom came home from one of Jenna’s physical therapy appointments waving her hand, clutching a paper and saying she’d found something just perfect for Jenna. Directly behind my mom was a 3-year-old Jenna chanting, “I’m going to dance!” My stomach turned, and I gave my mom my best you’ve- got-to-be-kidding-me glare.

JennaMomYoungI’d already heard about dance programs for children with special needs where the kids do little more than wiggle around. With my defenses up, Mom started to explain more about Children’s Rehab Dance Classes. I had to admit this sounded different. It was coordinated by licensed therapists from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and seemed to incorporate a whole lot more than just wiggling around.

Two days later, we made the hour-long drive down I-75 to her first dance class at Children’s at Sandy Plains. I’m not sure which one of us was more excited.

A family friend had given us a closet full of hand-me-down tutus and costumes, things I assumed Jenna would only ever use for playtime, not for actual dance. Her first class took place the week of the Fourth of July, and I’ll never forget watching my little girl waddle into class wearing a red, white and blue costume.

JennaTherapy copyDuring that first eight-week session, Jenna made lots of new friends. And so did I. Jenna has never thought of herself as disabled, and it’s clear the other kids in the class feel the same way. The dancers have a full range of developmental disabilities, such as autism and Down syndrome, and so far Jenna has been the only one with a spinal cord injury. The group setting helps the kids work through personal space issues. They’ve all been hit by a flying hand at some point, but they just go with it so they can keep up with the next move.

What Jenna’s doing in class reinforces what we’re working on at home, like taking side steps and just generally being more cautious of her body. Jenna can’t lift her hands up or skip, and she moves very slowly (unless she’s falling down, then she moves very quickly!). One of the first skills she conquered in class was the side step. She can’t do it as fast as the other kids in the class, but by golly she’s determined to keep up at her own pace.

As a mom, watching my little girl dance makes me so proud. As great of an experience as it’s been for Jenna, it’s been just as great for me. The parents chit-chat through class, planning joint Disney World vacations and swapping potty training stories. Week after week, we find ourselves saying “It’s over already? Really?”

Jenna and I both look forward to Wednesdays, and I see the positive side effects of the class throughout the year. Sometimes, I’ll be in the kitchen and she’ll come up to me and say, “Hold my hand, mama.” What she really wants is for me to help her move forward or backward. She may as well be asking me to do the Waltz … for Jenna, this is a really big deal!

When we left the hospital after Jenna’s accident, nobody really knew what to expect. We’re now two months shy of Jenna’s fifth birthday, and thanks to a robust routine of therapy and determination, she’s already surpassed just about every goal we had set for her. The sky truly is the limit for our tiny dancer!

Know a child who would like to join our Rehab Dance Classes? Contact Petra Correa at 404-785-8262 for more information. Out of pocket, each eight-week session costs $150.