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April 13th, 2019, we had our annual Red Carpet Extravaganza. However, this one was to be a little different. We had a very special addition to our showcase family…Mr. OJ McNeil!

OJ is a very special student within the IBDS family. He has autism, but that has not stopped him from learning about his love for dance! And with only been dancing for 6 months, the changes we have seen within him are night and day! He started out by just coming to the studio whenever his mom (Dawn) or sister (Alexis) would have a dance lesson.  As he got comfortable with certain people, he started talking little by little (mostly about food…) His instructor, Madelaine Kenner, slowly started working with him to gain his trust and finally got him up to dance the rumba at one of the social dance parties…from there, there was no stopping him!

OJ got his first taste of a showcase when he was a background prop handler in our most recent stage performance, “Dream Dance”. Then, we came up with a “bold” plan; what if he did his own showcase? We had no clue what to expect…but this guy was definitely ready for his spotlight debut. As his instructor looked at him to begin, he sat up straight, put on the biggest smile he could, and knocked the routine out of the park! We sat down and talked with Dawn, his mother, to get her perspective on what ballroom dancing has done for him:

  1. How has dancing helped OJ and his autism? “Dancing has helped OJ with his socialization skills. The word “autism” means one’s self. Individuals with this disorder often experience problems with communication with others and prefer to stay to themselves, particularly around a group of people. When OJ first came to the studio he sat in a chair with headphones and did not communicate much with others. Thanks to dancing, he makes eye contact, gives great hugs, and dances his heart out!!!!”
  2. Have you seen change with him outside the ballroom? “Yes, I have. OJ initiates more conversations and he has been using longer sentences to express himself. He makes more eye contact with others and he is overall more engaging. He participated in physical and occupational therapy for years and nothing has helped him develop as much as dancing had in the past 6 months.”
  3. how much does he enjoy dancing? “He LOVES it!!!! He speaks about dancing all the time and he talks about performing in the next Spring Showcase now! None of this would have been possible without the support of the International Ballroom staff, Lacey, and Andrey. Also, the encouragement of fellow dancers has been helpful. It is great to have people in our lives who believe in us despite our challenges. Most importantly, Maddy has displayed undying determination in allowing OJ to become the best person he can be through the art of dance.”