Celebrating Differences over Disabilities

Members of the Darby’s Dancers program dance on stage at the Miss Jefferson County pageant.

MARTINSBURG — In a world that stigmatizes individuals that are different, Darby’s Dancers of Inspirations Dance Studio celebrates them. The nationwide program offers a dance education to children with disabilities, providing them with a sense of inclusion and expression.

Darby’s Dancers began in Huntsville, Alabama, in memory of Darby Emma Jones, a child who passed in 2013. Darby was born with Down syndrome, a heart defect and leukemia but found joy in life through dance and music.

During her treatment, tiara-topped Darby danced at Huntsville’s Merrimack Hall Performing Arts Center in a class designed for children with special needs. With the belief that Darby’s greatest desire was to inspire other children like her to dance, Darby’s parents founded Darby’s Dancers to continue her legacy across the country.

There are currently 60 Darby’s Dancers locations in donated studio spaces across 26 states. There is only one location in West Virginia — Darby’s Dancers of Inspirations Dance Studio, located on Winchester Avenue in Martinsburg.

Kayla Frankenberry, owner and dance instructor, introduced Darby’s Dancers to her studio last year.

Since the studio was opened seven years ago, Frankenberry has worked with special-needs individuals. A group called Daily Companions mainly focused on adult rehabilitation, but Frankenberry’s passion has always been for children.

“We went to a conference and found out that there was a program that offered this for kids that didn’t just throw everyone into a room and say, ‘Good luck,’” Frankenberry said. “It gave us guidelines to follow and training with particular experiences that help with different sorts of disabilities. That’s what sold me on the program. We weren’t just going into it blindly; we were trained to do what was best for each specific child, and that’s what’s important to me.”

Inspirations prides itself on maintaining a 1:1 ratio with students and volunteers. Each child is paired with a teenage buddy throughout their time at the studio.

“They have a buddy in the class, and both sides gain from that,” Frankenberry said. “It gives them an opportunity to express themselves in a way that they can’t normally do. It allows freedom of the art. They can come in and express if they’ve had a good or bad day in a way that’s different than how they’d express it to mom and dad. We also do some of their physical therapy so that they not only get to come in and have an art, but also get to work on the strengthening that they need, too.”

The “buddy system” not only helps the dancers, but also helps the young volunteers and everyone involved in the program realize that the children are more than their disability.

“Lots of our teens don’t necessarily get that experience on a day-to-day basis, and they get to learn about someone else who is different than them,” Frankenberry said. “What it gives to us is a wonderful opportunity to work with kids that do learn differently but are very capable of learning everything that everyone else can. Sometimes that can get overlooked, so it’s a very fulfilling experience on both ends.”

Understanding that families with children with disabilities face unimaginable medical costs and commitments, Darby’s Dancers is entirely free of charge.

Instead, the organization relies entirely on donations and fundraising efforts.

“Community involvement is absolutely key, and I think it’s important for our community involved, because there is such a lack of not just funding, but experiences for kids that are different,” Frankenberry said. “I think it’s important for us to continue to grow in what we offer for all kinds of children. It’s okay to open to different situations, learning styles and learning environments in everything we do — whether it be dance, gymnastics, show choirs, bands or anything else.”

On Saturday, Inspirations Dance Studio hosted an open dance clinic from 10 a.m. — 10:30 a.m. for families to attend if they are interested in participating in the program. Inspirations will host monthly clinics until its final enrollment in August.

Although the group recently concluded its popular popcorn fundraiser, t-shirts can still be purchased on its Facebook page. Of the accumulated proceeds, 50% will directly benefit Darby’s Dancers.