When Steven Isicoff, manager of the Mosaic Dance Project, saw kids with autism dancing during the nonprofit dance company's Meaningful Movement class last week, he “was almost crying,” he says. Isicoff is also an electronic music producer with a brother on the autism spectrum, and he's passionate about this new endeavor for the dance company. “I have always been acutely aware of music’s ability to unify, and that is laid bare in classes like these, where the music is playing and the instructor is doing the movement and some of the kids are mirroring the movement and some are just living," he says. "Music and dance transcend language, something kids with autism struggle with. [Through dance] they are able to express themselves without the constraints of language.”
At Gramps’ weekly LGBTQ dance party, Double Stubble, Isicoff will raise awareness about the benefits of teaching kids with autism how to dance. This new program relies solely on grants, and Isicoff is in fundraising mode for a program he very much wants to succeed.
Established in 2015 by dance vet and talent agent Amanda Tae, Mosaic was created to bridge the cultural and economic gaps in the dance community. Back then, it was a diverse, six-person dance company performing around Miami at places such as the Fillmore Miami Beach and the Little Haiti Cultural Complex to raise money to teach kids in underserved communities how to dance. When Isicoff became Tae's assistant, he pointed out that there were plenty of other companies in town and that Mosaic should try something new to make an impact. When he became manager at the end of last year, they took the project in a whole new direction with Meaningful Movement.
Isicoff saw that some children with autism already in Mosaic's classes were benefiting from dance. Most were high-functioning, but he wanted to create a class where kids across the spectrum could participate. “Many children with autism face challenges when participating in group activities because they may feel overstimulated or have difficulty keeping up with their classmates,” he says. After speaking with some of the parents and researching a ton, he launched Meaningful Movement this month. It's the only program of its kind in Miami, and one other is based out of Fort Lauderdale.
As far as tweaking classes for kids with autism, he says, “Anybody who understands that these kids may not respond in a 'usual' way, and can manage a classroom effectively, can work with kids with autism.” Meaningful Movement teacher Jeanine Sanchez of Focal Point Dance Studios also taught at the autism treatment center Lotus Behavioral Interventions. The class is run out of Beyond Expectations Academy for kids with special needs as a nine-week summer program for ages 5 and up.
“Dance kind of does its own work,” Isicoff says of the program. “The music activates the side of the brain that has to do with creativity, and the repetition and memorization activates the other side... This allows for new connections to be made. Kids with autism just input and output information differently. They're still kids. They still have fun and get scared. You just have to have a deeper level of understanding. They may not react the way you expect all the time; you just need to be ready to pivot.” He feels incredibly lucky to do this work and speaks about it with great enthusiasm.
“Children with autism often lack opportunities to participate in group activities. They go from home to school to therapy to home. They don’t have spaces to practice the social skills that we all take for granted.” He says that lack of social time eliminates types of learning, such as mirroring behaviors, sharing, and taking turns. They don’t get to practice being a growing kid, and that lack affects their social and fine and gross motor skills. “Dance classes are uniquely positioned to teach them to become more social and develop better motor skills. If they learn early, they can be integrated better into society as adults, and that will improve their lives.”
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Gramps’ event coordinator and Double Stubble DJ, Daniel Blair (AKA DJ Hottpants), says part of his night’s mission is to educate the partygoers about nonprofits in the area and to invite one almost weekly to set up a table and present their programs. “They can collect signatures, pass out contraceptives, sign up members, get donations, provide free HIV testing, promote their upcoming events," he explains. "Most important, they can let the queer community know what they do, why they do it, and why we should all be involved.”
As for why Double Stubble partnered with Mosaic Dance Project in particular, Blair says, "[It’s] a great local nonprofit that brings one of the foundations of Double Stubble — dancing, of course — to the community who might not otherwise be able to have access. Steven and I both have our separate histories of working with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities [IDD]. Through my [former] work with Best Buddies, I met a number of very talented people with IDD that were lucky enough to find outlets for their creativity. Having a local organization working specifically towards that objective drew me to having Mosaic Dance Project at Double Stubble.”
As for Isicoff, he says he’ll be there with a PowerPoint presentation and donation portal. “I’ll just be working it.” He'll do whatever it takes to keep this program he loves running — even twerking against the wall for a great cause.
Double Stubble. 8 p.m. Thursday, June, 28, at Gramps, 174 NW 24th St., Miami; 305-699-2669; gramps.com. Admission costs $8.